Dangerous Compressor Review

I make no secret for my love of all things analogue, but at the same time I really appreciate that digital has opened the doors to realms in days of old, reserved only for the chosen few. Musicians now have the ability to nurture their recordings from conception through the birthing stage all the way to masterable product.

It’s also great that there are emulations out there for every conceivable piece of analogue equipment you ever wanted, and many are so good – unless you’re of a more mature time of life or you’re a bit of an analogue boffin, or you own a successful studio, you would never know the difference. However there is always a difference – however slight – and there’s something very tactile about a piece of analogue equipment: something beautiful about dialling in a little of this and a little more of that. Something about sliding that fader, turning that dial!

Well, we’re on Dangerous ground here! Dangerous Music, to be precise. The company was founded nearly 20 years ago with the launch of the 2 Bus Summing Amplifier, a product which ironically brings that analogue digital debate full circle and takes digital instruments and buses out of the box and mixes them together again in the analogue domain.

In fact, nearly every pro studio you walk into these days has one! So who are Dangerous Music? In their own words, they are a team of musicians, studio owners, producers and engineers who conceive, design and build the products they want to use; and it was this recognition that the hybrid studio was here to stay and that there will always be a place and a need for both analogue and digital to work together side by side.

And a quote from their Philosophy & Goals section on their website states: “From the inception, building to a price point was ignored in favour of audio quality first; sonic integrity is non-negotiable.” Cofounder, Bob Muller, originally opened Dangerous Music Recording Studio in 1992 in New York.

In the mid ‘90s, Chris Muth turned up to produce and engineer a band, and the pair became good friends. Muth’s time had been spent almost exclusively designing custom equipment for many of the world's preeminent mastering engineers and facilities - world class facilities like The Hit Factory, Masterdisk, and Absolute Music. In 1990, Muth went to work for Sterling Sound.

Working with famed Sterling mastering engineers Ted Jenson, George Marino and Greg Calbi, Muth modified existing mastering gear, which led to designing new equipment to meet the challenge of the ever increasing levels and dynamic range of digital consumer playback devices.

Working with some of the best ears in the business, Muth was able to design gear up to the rigors of hybrid analogue/digital mastering. So with that brief history of the company’s co-founders and their mission to build products that are both transparent and musical, when it comes to mastering, transparency and musicality are a must have in order to correctly do your job.

As a live sound engineer who moved from rock and roll - where you were often creating or re-creating a band sound - into theatre, I was aware that if the audience could ‘hear’ the PA system then I wasn’t doing my job properly. I wanted the audience lost in the music, captivated by the dialogue. In other words, I wanted the audio as transparent as possible. With that said, it brings us nicely to a fairly recent addition to the Dangerous range: the Dangerous Compressor.

This is no ordinary compressor, and it is not just a high end, seriously good mastering tool either.

A Soundscape Evolution

The first thing you notice when you look at the unit is the VUs with their amazing retro styling - and just to the right of these, the large ratio controls, one for each channel - with a ratio from 1:1 up to 20:1. Immediately, I can’t wait to hear how 20:1 sounds! More about this later.

Let's start at the far left next to the Dangerous logo. It’s great to see the in/out button called something different: ‘engage’ - this always reminds me of Star Trek Next Generation and Picard as they’re about to go into Warp Drive. I wonder if this was deliberate?

Next to this, we find a four-button side chain section; two of these options I don’t ever remember seeing on a side-chain circuit before. The first is a ‘Bass Cut’ which as a side-chain circuit doesn’t affect the audio in the signal path tonally, but tells the compressor not to react to the low end part of the original audio. Immediately I’m thinking you could wind this up without getting that over pumping effect that you get from a loud kick drum when what you really need is a smoother, gentler limiting style compression across the whole mix.

Likewise the ‘Sibilance Boost’ tells the compressor to react more on those frequencies within that range of the audio to be compressed. I can already think of some cases where this comp might have replaced two or more units or plugins.

Some comps without this feature are just not usable on a bright vocal for the simple reason they create more problems than they solve. The third button control sends your audio to an ‘external sidechain’, again extremely useful for contouring the audio that triggers the way the compressor reacts to the source audio. And fourth, the ‘sidechain monitor’ allows you to listen to the audio content of your side-chain in isolation.

I would go so far as to say this is the only device you will need after your summing amp. Rick Dickerson

Next, we have the contour section. If none of the three contour buttons are lit, the compressor works in a dynamic way setting its own attack and release times automatically with regard to the audio passing the threshold.

The top button of the three is the ‘Smart Dyn’ control which is described by Dangerous as a dual slope detector circuit which tells the compressor to look at average as well as the audio exceeding the threshold and react accordingly. Dangerous claims that this contour control button gives a much smoother and transparent response from the compressor.

Again, this is a feature I personally have not seen on another comp - and I’m keen to hear just how it differs in operation.

The second button down selects the ‘Soft Knee’, which again gives you a gentler slope of attack; and by its very nature is generally more transparent in operation. And lastly the ‘Manual Att/Rel’ which engages the attack and release rotaries. The meter section has the choice of VU/Comp which switches between level and gain reduction (alight). When in level (unlit), the second meter button switches from input to output level.

The third button is to attenuate hot signals. In operation, the VU meters are quite slow and seem to hover at their average - I kind of found myself looking at the little green LEDs that light up every time the threshold is breached. They were very helpful in understanding exactly what was going on.

2 Bus Or Not 2 Bus? That Is The Question

The compressor is a two-channel comp and is highlighted as such by Dangerous - and as long as you don’t select any of the special buttons or the soft knee, it really is. You could use the side chain insert to affect different characteristics independently as you have full XLR side-chain in and outs for each channel.

You could also use one channel on kick, for example, and the other on a vocal. With the stereo button in, only the top row (Left) Channel Gain and Threshold are active for the stereo bus, but the ability to set independent ratios for each channel seems like the ultimate control freak’s tool. However, as a mastering tool I’m aware that the higher up the quality chain you go, control is your buzzword.

Should you have the attack and release active, these also remain independent for each channel. In stereo, as a bus compressor, it is really smooth and transparent. In fact, when I first started listening to mixes through it, it was only when I bypassed it for the first time that I realised how utterly transparent this comp really is.

In reality, I struggled to hear what was actually happening; it wasn’t until I noticed how those tiny drops in the level of some instruments in a mix would just come back into focus and then drop away again when I disengaged.

I can’t remember listening to a device that caused me to doubt my ability to spot the difference so much. I lost count of the times I punched it in and out! Oh, and remember that ratio that goes all the way up to 20:1? Well, it still sounds like a truly gentle transparent compressor, even though we’re now in the realms of serious limiting.

So this was where I formulated a cunning plan to create a short demo video stereo of a recent songwriting project at Headliner HQ - a simple, two acoustic guitars and vocal arrangement left lots of scope for an example of use across the mix or mastering bus at a ratio of 2:1, engaging the Dangerous Music Compressor while the audio is running through it.

That way it’s clear to hear what the compressor is doing without running multiple demo files off with before and afters. In stereo use, I didn’t come across a single incidence where I felt I needed to reach for the manual attack and release button.

I deliberately picked a very dynamic recording, mixed to retain many of the dynamics of the guitars and as much warmth and depth as possible. It shows how significantly the audio is affected at a ratio of 2:1 which is enough to bring this great track into focus while all the time maintaining a transparency and musicality all on its own.

The Dangerous Compressor worked flawlessly on many different genres of music, and yes I still found myself switching that engage button out and then back in again just to satisfy myself that it really is that transparent. So undoubtedly it’s to be expected, with a thoroughbred pedigree and a design ethos in mastering that it’s a seriously good ‘mastering tool’ but a truly great compressor can do it all, right?

Drum And Bass

Sometimes you want to use your compressor to get things noticed, to create those artifacts in the sound that sets something apart in your mix: those first strikes of the snare that blast through, then squashing down and producing that big snare sound of a drummer possessed.

Just disengage the side chain mods, smart dyn, soft knee and stereo buttons and punch in your att/rel - and now you’re calling the shots. Again, it’s hugely impressive that you can create compression effects but without any of the colouration you would normally expect from this comp or that comp.

It’s very nice indeed to have a tool that maintains that snare sound you worked so hard on in the studio before stepping back this side of the glass. Now you’re able to achieve the desired compression effect of making it sound louder while making it quieter. I’ll just bypass it again just to check I actually am correct in that rather bizarre statement I just made. [pauses...]

Yep, that's correct! I also noticed that while I had the left channel inserted across a pre-recorded snare, I could not hear a sound from the right channel, which means that crosstalk is not an issue when using each channel as a mono compressor.

So this really is a great compressor. It’s a mastering quality flexible tool which I like a whole lot more the more I use it. It embraces a couple of new ideas which are no gimmicks, but well thought out, user-friendly additions to a really open, clean and musical product.

I think if analogue outboard is your passion then you have to have this in your studio because it’s so much more than a mastering tool. And even if it isn’t, I can see this inserted across a mic pre or two as a serious addition to that vocal, acoustic or bass guitar take for additional control and presence.

It’s the compressor that glues your mix together – and so much more transparent at higher ratios than anything I ever remember using. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is the only device you will need after your summing amp.