Photoelectric-or photo-optical-compressors have always held a certain mystique. They've worked aural magic on some of the most legendary tracks. The best of the vintage units, as well as their modern equivalents, are renowned for their transparent sound, low noise, low overall distortion (even when compressing at extreme levels), and a certain musical unpredictability when handling transient peaks.
Having heard such vintage wizardry applied in the studio, I was eager to try the new Joemeek C2 photo- optical stereo compressor. The C2 is a half-rackspace unit that employs the same photo-electric sensing device that is used in its bigger siblings, the SC2 and SC2.2, but with several new design twists. At first glance, the unit's small size and the simplicity of its front-panel controls suggest "personal studio" rather than "fully professional." Looks, however, can be deceiving: this little emerald glistens on many applications. And it is small, so you can easily transport it from studio to gig and back without fuss.
PHOTO FINISHWith its green front panel and solitary red button, the C2 bears the unmistakable marks of its Joemeek lineage. It has two LED meters-one for gain reduction and one for input levels-and five knobs. From left to right, the knobs control input gain, compression (in Spinal Tap tradition, it goes all the way to 11), attack time (from 1 to 11 ms), release time (from 250 ms to 3 seconds), and output volume. The red button toggles the compression effect on and off. (There is no on/off switch-just a 12 VAC wall-wart power supply for plug-and-play simplicity.)
So, you might be asking, where is the ratio control? Well, behind the C2's Spartan facade beats an interactive heart. One of the design innovations on this product is that the compression ratio (which ranges from 2:1 to 14:1) is controlled by the input gain. There's no way to know the exact ratio; instead, you just have to experiment with the relationship between the Input and Compression knobs, listen to the results, and find what works best for the source material. Adjusting the amount of compression, attack and release times, and output volume has an audible effect, of course, but I found that altering the relationship between the Input and Compression knobs produced the most dramatic results in getting the C2 to put its photoelectric spin on my tracks.
The C2 also differs from other Joemeek compressors in that, at extreme input-gain levels, the unit acts as a limiter (typically, this happens as the ratio exceeds 10:1). However, as a limiter it exhibits a soft touch on transients: peaks still sometimes get their foot in the C2's door, even at the most extreme settings.
The C2's rear panel is about as simple as they come. It provides balanced, line-level stereo inputs and outputs on 11/44-inch TRS jacks, as well as a separate jack for the power adapter.
The compressor's user manual made for an undaunting (even entertaining) read, grammatical anomalies notwithstanding. The guide is very informative for the personal-studio novice, while managing to include some helpful suggestions for the more experienced hand, as well.
GUITARIFFIC!The C2 really sparkled on electric guitar tracks, both during recording and at mixdown. Initially, I used it on a session for which I had to overdub a series of electric guitars playing twangy, country-western-style licks. The C2 did a wonderful job of warming up the overdubs and evening out the bottom end without the characteristic flatness that comes from using VCA compression. I also liked the stomp-box flavor that it imparted to the guitar-only without the stomp-box noise. The C2 was very quiet in this application.
Next, with the C2 patched into the insert on a mixer channel, I recorded several passes of a loud, raspy, distorted guitar solo using an amp cranked up in another room. Listening to the playback, I was impressed by how the C2 let the spikes of the pick attack come through, even when I had shortened the attack time to the lowest setting of 1 millisecond (the unit has no zero setting). Although the transients didn't slip by totally unscathed-I noticed a subtle damping-the tracks retained the aggressiveness of the original performance. Meanwhile, the C2 brought up the rear, so to speak: the lower and middle frequencies leveled out behind the frontal pick attack. This served the guitar solo well.
In mixdown applications, I found the C2 handy both for heating up individual tracks and for compressing doubled parts in stereo. The unit is a bit cantankerous, though, when used as two separate mono compressors. Though this is something the manual expressly says not to attempt, I tried it anyway, processing two different-style guitar performances side by side. (Specifically, one guitar part played on the upbeats, and a second doubled the part but played with added percussive "chunks" on the downbeats.) The solution in this case lay in backing off the C2's input and shortening the release time. When applied in this manner (despite the user guide's warning), the diminutive box was able to wed the two disparate musical performances seamlessly.
Again ignoring the manual's stipulation, I tested the C2 on acoustic guitar. I laid down a strummed steel- string rhythm part to one track, overdubbed a solo line on another, and then applied the stereo C2 on playback to the two separate performances simultaneously. Again, it took a lot of time and effort to obtain usable results for the two disparate tracks without squashing the music, but I was able to pull it off quite satisfactorily using the C2.
LOWDOWN ON THE BASSBass guitar can be a tricky animal to tame: too little compression and the track will exhibit inconsistent levels, peaking out from behind the bass drum occasionally and unpredictably; too much compression and the resultant sound is flat and unassertive. I was already in the middle of remixing some electric bass tracks, so I used the opportunity to audition the C2 in this difficult application.
I found out something interesting: the amount of discernible compression on the bass was directly proportional to the brightness of the bass sound. On a rather soulful, Motown-esque bass track, for example, the net effect was subtle to the point of being unnoticeable. Only at the most extreme settings could I hear the C2 damping the signal. At that point, the results were not entirely pleasant. However, by backing off the input gain and adjusting the output volume to avoid distorting the signal, I was able to get a better result.
On the other hand, the C2 shone like a star when applied to a brighter track that included a Danelectro Longhorn bass. The compressor fattened up the bottom and middle frequencies without sacrificing the pick attack on each note-and it did it all in a perfectly transparent manner.
Next I auditioned the C2 as a direct box of sorts, recording various bass guitars through it and listening to the playback. The unit held up well, improving the sound of everything from an old fretless Fender Jazz Bass to a more modern graphite-neck model with active electronics. Again, though, there was a definite relationship between the high-frequency content of the original signal and the C2's effectiveness in improving the signal: the unit provided more immediate gratification on bright bass sounds, but it required extra tweaking to achieve good results from darker and more muted Motown-type timbres. Because of this tendency, I recommend that bass players strap on a new set of strings before recording through the C2.
I SING OF ICINGVocals and compression go together like Sonny and Cher: it's a complex and difficult relationship with a long history, but the two are inextricably linked. Compression can smooth out an uneven vocal performance and tighten up background parts-or, in the wrong hands, it can rob a great vocal take of its dynamics. Of course, vocal compression is a matter of taste as well as of musical style, whether it's applied to triple-forte rock 'n' roll or a smoky torch song performed by a piano trio. So it was with some trepidation that I tried the C2 on this critical application.
Again, I found it easier to use the C2 to spruce up tracks after they were recorded, rather than using the unit to track with. I began by cutting my own glorious (read: erratic) voice onto an ADAT track with the C2 inserted into the path. I was curious to hear how well the unit functioned as a limiter, because one of the challenges in cutting vocals with a digital recorder is getting reasonable levels without clipping and without squashing the signal to an unusable degree.
In this case, the C2 required a lot of tweaking. I found myself wishing for a more predictable compressor- one with hard/soft-knee options and maybe even up-against-the-wall limiting. But to its credit, the C2 got the job done after I fussed with it for a while (and once I got accustomed to the way it colored the sound during the performance). Tracking with the unit requires a little patience; the C2's crankiness in this respect is a potential problem if you're trying to capture a performance quickly. But if time is not an issue, persistence combined with patience can yield gold.
For the second part of my vocal test, I ran some existing tracks (both lead and background vocals) through the C2. The tracks had already undergone some mild compression when they were cut, and the quality of the performances ranged from dynamic to uninspired. Here the C2 did amazing things. I was able to coax more life out of the performances, particularly on lead vocals that had plenty of attitude. Even on a more mannered vocal (or a voice-over, for that matter), the C2 was the icing that saved the cake.
KEYS TO SUCCESSOn keyboards in general, and acoustic piano in particular, I encountered some troubles with the C2. Most of the difficulty arose when I used it up front to compress or limit an acoustic piano while recording. I employed a pair of Shure SM81 microphones and recorded the output to DAT with the C2 patched into the insert points of a small mixer. My goal was to tamp down the peaks mildly and warm up the overall sound as it went to tape, but I had a difficult time finding a setting that I could dial up and leave alone. I had to keep my eye on the C2's meters as I played and needed to stop constantly and review what I'd done. Even then, what went to tape sounded either over- or undercompressed.
The C2 was easiest to set up and sounded best when I used it to add detail to a continuous, Fats Domino- style rock part; it was less effective and harder to set for a two-part Bach invention. Still, by playing with the unit's Compression and Input knobs, I was able to dial up settings that were transparent yet yielded increased detail in both cases.
When I cranked the Compression knob to 11 and turned the input gain up fairly high, the C2 began to reveal its edgy character. At such extreme settings, it pumps and wheezes in a decidedly unfriendly manner, and the results are rarely usable. Nevertheless, I like the fact that the C2 can bare its teeth. You never know when such edginess might be just what a track needs.
On playback of a previously recorded piano part (on which I had used a high-end compressor sparingly while laying down the tracks), I found the going much easier. The C2 worked its magic, and I had a lot more fun tweaking the knobs. Finding settings that worked with the track was quick and easy, and I enjoyed auditioning them from the subtle to the extreme.
With synth patches, the results depended entirely on the patch itself. I treated a pizzicato string sample with some success: the C2 flattened and flattered the signal at the same time. The unit also worked well with the more percussive, Wurlitzer-type electric piano patches, brightening up the sound without making it seem forced or harsh. On patches with more sustain, however, such as a lush string sample or a Hammond organ with percussion, the C2 proved superfluous. I surmised that the rule to follow in this case is to compress only what is not already smooth in the first place.
BANG THE DRUMI love what the C2 does for drums and percussion. It behaved admirably for such a small box, producing sounds that rivaled those of far more expensive compressors, especially in the context of rock music.
When I applied the C2 to a stereo subgroup of drums and percussion pounding out a straight-ahead, four- on-the-floor rock beat, it performed some neat tricks. I especially liked how it handled the wash of the ride cymbals from a pair of left and right overhead drum tracks. The cymbal attack was compressed but not strangled, while the ensuing wash bloomed. This ability is not new, of course-compression has been applied to elicit this effect on myriad recordings-but the C2 did the job very well, especially considering its reasonable price.
The C2 responded nicely with the rest of the drum kit, too, and I was able to dial in a range of sounds that worked, from the snare on down to the kick drum. I did notice that the sound of the kit seemed to thin out if I overcompressed the tracks, but by backing off the amount of compression and adjusting the release time I was able to recover the heart of the beat.
I also recorded a few dumbek, tambourine, and bongo tracks. Again, good results took longer to attain when I cut tracks with the C2, but using it on playback was a total breeze. Most pleasing was the way it allowed me to bring up midrange detail without stealing the attack from each hit.
WHOLE ENCHILADAApplying compression to a completed stereo mix can be a slippery slope even when you're working with the best of mixes and compressors. I found that the C2's effectiveness in this department depended on the type of music being compressed. When dealing with a "wall of sound" of guitars, bass, and drums pounding out a rock anthem, the C2 did remarkably well-I've spent more time tweaking much pricier compressors just to achieve the same result-but on sparser, jazzier arrangements with a bigger dynamic range, the unit was less effective (a more "tweakable" compressor would probably be called for in such performances). In either case, though, the C2 yielded improved stereo mixes.
THE VERDICTThe Joemeek C2 stereo compressor offers the smoothness, transparency, and seductiveness of photo-optical compression in a sturdy and portable package at a good price. In a world of computer plug-ins, complex multi-effects units, and user manuals the size of phone directories, it's nice to be able to sit down in near- total ignorance of a product and twiddle a few knobs to dramatic effect.
If you have some patience, the C2 can be coaxed to produce usable, often stellar, results in a wide range of musical applications. Overall, I found it more adept at processing individual tracks and stereo submix groups than final stereo mixes, and it is generally easier to use during mixdown than during tracking.
For the musician who is just getting started in the personal-studio biz, the C2 provides an excellent introduction to the world of vintage-style audio compression. Even if you already own a stack of high-end compressors, this little green box will prove itself a valuable and versatile asset to your audio arsenal. Likewise, for those with less-than-upscale studio budgets, the unit is a worthy and very affordable choice. And if you happen to fall into the guitarists-who-record-themselves-at-home category, I recommend putting the C2 at the top of your gear wish list.
John Ferenzik plays keyboards and guitar with Todd Rundgren. When not on tour, he drinks a lot of coffee and records loud stuff in his basement.