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Empirical Labs Distressor Review (My Favorite Compressor?)

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This is a review of the Empirical Labs Distressor. Specifically, I’ll be reviewing the EL8-X (British Mod) iteration of this compressor. To put it simply, the Emperical Labs Distressor is an absolute joy to use, and it’s a super musical, very colorful compressor with tons of options.

Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Audio Compressor
  • Classic knee sound - With modern noise specs and improved performance. Really grabs.
  • Programmable analog distortion/warmth - helpful in the pristine but unforgiving digital world. Three audio modes providing user programmable, warm harmonic distortion. Emphasized tube-like, 2nd harmonic in clean and Distort 2 mode. In Distort 3 mode, the distortion becomes dominated by 3rd harmonic, more similar to tape.

What makes the Empirical Labs Distressor so good?

The Distressor is a seriously versatile piece of hardware. If you like flexibility in a piece of outboard gear, this is a great choice. The reason the Distressor is so flexible is because it’s chock full of modes and settings to flip through.

There are eight compression curves, from 1:1 (nice, subtle compression) all the way to “nuke” (an option which crushes your audio to the extreme).

The 1:1, 2:1, and 3:1 settings are a great way to get some consistency in a vocal, level out the peaks and valleys of an acoustic guitar recording, or just add a touch of color to your source. The 10:1 setting (Opto) is an emulation of optical activated limiters like the LA-2A, which is a great choice for taming transients on bass guitars and vocals. The Nuke setting is great for drums, especially if you use a wurst mic on the shells. You can really crush that signal and get some exciting tones out of your drums. The British Mode simulates the “all buttons in” setting on an 1176.

The three distortion modes add distinct color to your source, even if you’re not applying compression. That means you can use the Distressor to add some saturation to something like a snare or vocal without making big changes to the dynamics. This is a great way to add some interesting texture to an element that you want to stand out.

Build Quality

The Empirical Labs Distressor is a solid piece of gear. With its massive white knobs and LED meters, the Distressor stands out in a rack. The knobs turn fluidly and offer just enough resistance to make tweaks in just the right increments. The switches feel solid and tight. Overall, the build quality of this piece is to a high standard. You won’t find cheap pots and switches in an Empirical Labs unit, which is great news, considering the high end price tag.

When you need “that sound”…

…it’s probably time to add the Distressor. One of the best things about the Empirical Labs Distressor is the ability to make big, sweeping changes quicky. When you switch between the modes and settings, you hear big changes. This isn’t a “you gotta really listen for subtle changes” piece of hardware. If your tracks just need a little more sauce, this is the way to go.

Who is the Distressor for?

I would recommend the Empirical Labs Distressor for any recording engineer working with bands, or someone who wants to create an awesome vocal chain. It’s a hyper-versatile, super high quality compressor with great build quality. Ultimately, if you were wanting to just own one hardware compressor, this would be my pick.

Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Audio Compressor
  • Classic knee sound - With modern noise specs and improved performance. Really grabs.
  • Programmable analog distortion/warmth - helpful in the pristine but unforgiving digital world. Three audio modes providing user programmable, warm harmonic distortion. Emphasized tube-like, 2nd harmonic in clean and Distort 2 mode. In Distort 3 mode, the distortion becomes dominated by 3rd harmonic, more similar to tape.

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About the Author: Kyle Hoffer

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Kyle Hoffer is an audio engineer and professor from Orlando, Florida! With over a decade of recording experience under his belt, Kyle has made a name for himself in the indie/post hardcore scene as an engineer, producer, and mixer.

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