Technology

Field Test: Studio Electronics C2s Compressor

Studio Electronics started rackmounting Minimoogs and retrofitting them with MIDI in 1988. 2/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern

Studio Electronics started rackmounting Minimoogs and retrofittingthem with MIDI in 1988. Soon after, the California-based company beganto manufacture its own version of the Minimoog, which was based on BobMoog's original analog circuits along with digital control, such asMIDI capability and user-memory locations. Now best known for itssynthesizer products, Studio Electronics manufactures three completelydiscrete analog synthesizers: the SE1X, the ATCX and the polyphonicOmega Series synths. If you have ever heard a record with a smooth,single-voice synth sound (affectionately called a “worm”)or an incredibly fat synth bass sound, then chances are you have heardsome of these instruments.

A STRONG LINEAGE


Studio Electronics bases its products on analog circuit designs thatare both popular and proven by years of use. In 2002, the companyreleased the C2s Dual Compressor, its first release in a series ofhigh-quality, analog-based recording products that include mic preampsand will later include equalizers.

The C2s is based on the UREI 1176's design. Fans of the 1176 knowthat its design evolved from the Universal Audio 175 and 176 vacuumtube limiters designed by audio innovator and inventor Bill Putnam. In1967, Putnam eliminated the tubes and began using Field EffectTransistors (FETs) as a voltage-controlled variable resistor toaccomplish gain reduction. There were at least nine revisions (Athrough H) before the unit went out of production. Improvementsincluded lower noise, circuit board revisions, and amplifier andtransformer replacements. In 1999, UREI started manufacturing again andits current “re-issue” 1176LN model is based on the D and Erevisions. Studio Electronics decided to make an“1176-type” compressor based on these same revisions, butwith some interesting modifications.

On the outside, the C2s has the same input, output, attack, releaseand ratio controls as the 1176, making it instantly familiar in termsof use. The attack range is less than 20 microseconds to 800microseconds, and the release range is 50 milliseconds to 1.1 seconds.It has the same ratio selections as the 1176, but instead ofpush-buttons, the C2s uses a six-position selector with Off, 4:1, 8:1,12:1, 20:1 and Squash. The Off position allows you to run a signalthrough the C2s to add gain or a stage of analog “warming”by going through the transformers and amplifiers. The Squash positionexactly duplicates the highly secretive practice of depressing all fourof the 1176's ratio buttons at the same time. This is one of thoseengineering secrets that engineers and producers yearn to learn andStudio Electronics unabashedly gives it to us on Squash — anappropriate name in our current audio environment of “compressthe snot out of everything.”

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES


On the inside, SE has made some changes. The original 1176 used aUTC input transformer and a custom-designed output transformer; the C2suses a Jensen transformer on the input. In addition, Studio Electronicsputs the input attenuator on the secondary, rather than the primary, ofthe input transformer. The company claims that moving the attenuatorreduces distortion and noise. Another change is the use of a Neve1272-type Class-A output stage followed by a Sowter (made in England)transformer. The Sowter transformer is part of the vintage replacementseries and was designed to work with the Neve 1272. There aresubstantial differences in the power supply design, as well.

Instead of using VU meters like the original 1176, the C2s uses LEDmeters with PPM ballistics. Each channel has output and gain-reductionmeters that operate simultaneously. On the back, there are switches forinput grounding and output termination. There is also a true relaybypass that allows signal to pass even if the unit is off. Finally, theC2s is a dual-mono compressor and there is a switch on the front tolink the two channels.

TAKING THE C2S FOR A SPIN


Most of the alterations Studio Electronics made to the original 1176design are more like substitutions than changes—analogous tousing brown sugar instead of white sugar in a cookie recipe. Bothrecipes make good cookies, but they definitely taste different. I putthe C2s through its paces and found that I liked it on almosteverything except when I tried to use it as stereo masteringcompressor. While the C2s is a “linked dual-monocompressor,” it does not seem to be designed for subtle input andoutput adjustments. Both the input and output adjustments are quitesensitive, and I found it difficult to set up in stereo, especiallywhen trying to align inputs and outputs to tenths of a dB. This was nota problem when I used it on stereo sources and stuck my head betweenthe speakers to adjust the stereo balance.

I found the meters on the C2s to be both useful and annoying. Iloved having both output and gain reduction displayed simultaneously.However, the PPM ballistics are so sensitive that I often thought I wasworking the unit too hard, not because of the sound but because themeters were so accurately tracking the signal. If you are an engineerwho needs to know just how much gain reduction is going on, then youwon't like the fact that there is no value shown for each LED. (SE saysoutput and gain reduction values have been added to the front panel innew production models.) The gain reduction meters use an exponentialscale and go from 0 to 40 dB of reduction. The LEDs show 0, -2, -4, -6,-8, -12, -16, -20, -26 and -40. In what I would consider“normal” compression settings, the gain reduction wasdifficult to hear, which is normally a good thing! So after awhile, Ididn't pay much attention to the meters. When I made the C2s pump andbark, the meters really went nuts, but then again, who pays attentionto the meters when you crank it? And speaking of crankin' it, I thinkit is fair to say that the C2s really shines in this area. When it isworking hard, this compressor sounds great. It gives you thecompression you need with some attitude, and yet it still soundsclean.

One interesting feature of the C2s is mentioned in its very minimalmanual. Because the C2s uses a Neve 1272 output amplifier, the manualstates: “The C2s' output stage ‘symmetry’ pot can beadjusted to deliberately clip asymmetrically — a well-known 1272trick, adding additional second harmonic distortion, which some usersfind quite pleasing.” This is a very cool feature, but inreality, how many people will go to the trouble to pull the unit out ofits rack, remove the top and dive in with a screwdriver? Too bad theydidn't implement this adjustment with a “color” or“asymmetry” knob on the front of the unit.

REPRODUCTION DONE WELL


The C2s is the sum of proven parts that, when combined, providessomething old and new. Because UREI already made a very goodreproduction of the original 1176, Studio Electronics wanted to dosomething different that sounds as good, or better than, the original.I think they have. The C2s, which retails for $2,495, would be awelcome addition to any family of outboard toys.

Studio Electronics, 310/640-3546, www.studioelectronics.com.


Erik Zobler grew up in New York, partied in Boulder, Colo.,demonstrated in San Francisco and eventually migrated to Los Angeles.You can meditate with him ezobler@socal.rr.com.

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