Focusrite has long been known for its top-drawer (and top-dollar) studio and mastering gear. Over the past few years, the company's affordably priced Green and Platinum products have brought world-class sounds within the budget of the personal studio. Although the Platinum VoiceMaster and ToneFactory were only politely received by personal-studio pundits, Focusrite's newest contender, the Platinum ComPounder, will likely get a hero's welcome-not only in the personal studio but also in pro facilities and from live-sound engineers and DJs.
Starting with the familiar configuration of a 2-channel gate/compressor/limiter, the ComPounder adds a ground-breaking low-boosting EQ to the package and offers supercharged sonics with Class A circuitry for maximum warmth and fidelity throughout the signal path.
FRONT AND CENTERWith the exception of the power switch on the far right, the ComPounder's dense front panel is laid out symmetrically. With 25 buttons and 18 knobs in one rack unit of space, there is not much room to spare. The signal path is the same for both channels; the noise gate is followed by the compressor, bass expander, and limiter. However, Focusrite placed the gate controls for the right channel after the compressor on the front panel, resulting in a slightly confusing layout.
The compressor and limiter sections have separate stereo-link switches located in the center of the front panel. These, along with all In and Out buttons, are lit with a small red LED when engaged. When linked, the controls on the left side of the unit govern both sides of the stereo signal, overriding the settings on the right half of the panel.
The noise gates use optical sensors instead of voltage-controlled amplifiers and have only two continuously adjustable controls. However, the gates, which cannot be linked for stereo operation, are enhanced significantly by the addition of four push-button switches: Fast Attack includes settings for signals with slow initial transients (such as trumpet) or rapid ones (such as drums); Full Range selects either -20 or -80 dB of gating attenuation; Expand toggles between a classic noise-gate mode with a rapid cutoff and an expander/gate function (with a 2:1 ratio) that fades the signal with a tapered decay (adjustable between 100 milliseconds and 4 seconds using the Release/Hold knob); and Hold can be adjusted (also using the Release/Hold knob) to keep the gate open for as long as 4 seconds. Although this last option is useful for keeping sustained sounds from "flickering" as they approach the threshold, it also has potential as a creative effect.
A key-gating switch (which allows the gate to be triggered by an external audio signal), a bypass switch, and a four-position attenuation meter in green LEDs fill out the gate section.
Except for the bass expander, which distinguishes the ComPounder from other dynamics processors on the market, the VCA compressor controls are straightforward. Multicolored LED arrays provide useful metering for input level and gain reduction, with input peak (at +20 dB, 2 dB before clipping), compression overload levels, and limiting status indicated by red LEDs. Push-button switches include the compressor bypass, soft or hard knee settings, autorelease (a program-adaptive circuit designed to vary release times automatically), the bass expander's Huge function, and a bypass for the limiter.
Rotary pots govern a full complement of conventional compressor settings: Threshold (from -24 to +12 dB), Ratio (1.3:1 to "overcompression"), Attack (100 microseconds to 100 milliseconds), and Release (100 milliseconds to 4 seconds). Continuing to the right, the bass expander knob is next, followed by the make-up gain knob.
The limiter is the final circuit in the compressor section. Like the noise gate, the limiter is optical rather than VCA, which keeps coloration and distortion to a minimum. The limiter's appearance in the circuit after the make-up gain guarantees foolproof operation, but this arrangement could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you prefer to employ output limiting.
The ComPounder's rear-panel inputs include line-level XLR (pin 2 hot) and 11/44-inch jacks, with selectable levels (-10 dBV or +4 dBu) on each channel using a rear-panel button (see Fig. 1). The XLR input is automatically disconnected when the 11/44-inch input is used. The key-gating input accepts a balanced or unbalanced 11/44-inch plug. The line output levels are +4 dBu at the XLR jack and -10 dBV at the 11/44-inch unbalanced jack. Both outputs can be accessed simultaneously, a real boon in semipro and personal studios.
One thing to keep in mind is that the rear-panel and side vents are definitely not just for show. To protect the internal Class A components, the ComPounder needs to be well ventilated in an equipment rack, as it runs hotter than some tube gear.
Another important feature is the ComPounder's manual. It provides an informative and comprehensive breakdown of each control function, along with diagrams and common practical settings that go a long way toward unraveling the mysteries of compression.
THANK THE INDUCTORThe ComPounder's bass expander feature might be dismissed by some as a trendy gimmick, except that it works great and sounds amazing. Based on an old-fashioned wire-wound inductor-a component found in classic Rupert Neve designs-the bass expander gives you as much clean, transparent low end as you could want. In fact, the dial ranges from Flat to Fat! The Fat setting (fully clockwise) adds 7 dB of boosting below 50 Hz, and with Huge engaged, a similar boost occurs with a corner frequency of 100 Hz.
Of course, any equalizer can add bass. But the way the ComPounder's inductor generates deep, musical lows without sacrificing clarity must be heard to be appreciated. I found that it added substantially to electric bass and kick drum, increasing the fundamental power of isolated tracks as well as mixes, without ever getting muddy or taxing my woofers.
DYNAMIC TESTSThe ComPounder's expander/gate worked well on rack toms, but only after a bewildering initial workout involving almost every possible switch and knob combination. I didn't like it as well as the gate I usually use for toms, although the ComPounder's sensitivity and fast release time should be ideal for taming tracks where noise or bleed is a problem. And once I got the hang of it, I realized that this gate is versatile and precise enough for almost any task.
The ComPounder's compressor worked like a charm on kick drum; with a 3:1 ratio, and attack and release settings at 10 o'clock, it provided up to 6 dB of gain reduction without distortion or pumping. This particular track didn't need any low-end help, but dialing in a little bass expander does wonders for any thin-sounding kick-drum tracks. As a single-channel compressor, the unit also handled muted trumpet, voice, harmonica, and sax effortlessly and musically, once I learned to start with slower settings.
Using the compressor on bass, I noted some distortion on fast attack and release settings, as happens with many such units. The manual is matter-of-fact on this point, noting that "distortion during gain reduction is determined by the attack and release times set." Electric bass is often the ultimate test of a compressor/limiter, and not even the best designs are foolproof in preventing distortion. But an adjustment toward slower settings sidestepped this problem and worked to tame an unruly direct-bass part. In this application, and with a number of other sources, I found that setting the attack and release midway (at around 11 to 1 o'clock) yielded adequate, conservative compression withou t undue side effects.
ON THE BUSWith the ComPounder stereo-linked as a +4 dBu insert on the mix bus, I tested the unit for coloration and gain changes on a full mix. With the compression circuit engaged and the threshold fully clockwise to +12, I noted a very slight increase in gain, as well as a mild but noticeable bass boost, which sounded like a residual effect of the bass expander. More listening revealed a very slight increase of high-end edginess, but the lack of coloration was still commendable-and a rarity-for a compressor costing less than $1,000. When used as a channel insert at -10 dBV, the ComPounder did cause a drop in level; I easily compensated for this by applying a small amount of make-up gain, with no noi se or signal degradation being added.
As with most fast VCA compressors, the ComPounder did exhibit pumping on kick-drum beats in a stereo mix (hard knee setting) unless very conservative threshold, attack, and release settings were used. Switching to a soft knee made the results more palatable, and setting a 2:1 ratio with moderate attack and release times allowed me to use between 3 and 6 dB of compression without much audible pumping on low-frequency information.
For this mastering-style application, tweaking the bass expander and make-up gain produced a dramatic augmentation of the entire mix, although I still wasn't happy with how it squeezed the otherwise uncompressed rock-style kick drum. Lest we forget, this is not a $4,000 mastering compressor. Yet with some careful listening and adjustment it has the potential to be an acceptable stereo-bus compressor for a variety of styles. And the bass expander was a lifesaver in this case, artfully compensating for the momentary low-end ducking that occurred when the ComPounder clamped down on a full mix.
In addition, I'm happy to report that the limiter worked with uncommon smoothness on mono tracks and stereo mixes, especially when used in moderation. The autorelease option is also handy for fast-transient sources like drums, percussion, and acoustic guitar.
TWO THUMBS UP!So what's not to like? Other than the wobbly and cheap-feeling plastic buttons (which remind me of loose teeth), the look, sound, and performance of the ComPounder is surprisingly close to that of its classy, high-priced siblings. With the exception of the powerful (and addictive) bass expander, there is nothing new about this kind of stereo gate/compressor/limiter. But when a company like Focusrite takes such a project-studio staple to a professional level-with a pristine signal path and fully functional processing blocks-that's a major event.
Myles Boisen is a guitarist, producer, composer, and head engineer/instructor at Guerrilla Recording and the Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.