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Field Test: Universal Audio LA-3A Audio Leveler


Universal Audio has a wonderful habit of reissuing some of the most beloved vintage processors known to gear mavens worldwide. Now, the company has re-created the classic UREI LA-3A Audio Leveler, which is essentially a smaller, solid-state version of the all-tube LA-2A. Both models use the T4 opto cell, which is responsible for the unique and highly transparent compression curve for which these vintage compressors are cherished.

Universal Audio maintains that, aside from three small exceptions, the new LA-3A is an exact replica of the original model from the late 1960s. XLR I/Os were added, while the vintage unit’s barrier strip connections were also retained in the reissue to maintain compatibility with existing installations. An IEC power connector was added for UL compliance. Universal Audio also implemented a popular gain mod — which many engineers retrofitted on vintage units’ PCBs — so that it can be conveniently activated via a rear panel switch. The gain mod improves the LA-3A’s signal-to-noise ratio and lowers the threshold.

In addition to the all-important T4 opto cell, the new LA-3A uses virtually the same input and output transformers, electronic components (including NOS transistors), PCB layout, cable, chassis parts and front panel as the original LA-3A.

The LA-3A’s front panel control layout is simply laid out. Turning a continuously variable rotary control labeled Peak Reduction clockwise increases gain in the sidechain circuit, effectively lowering the threshold and increasing compression. Another continuously variable rotary control adjusts makeup gain. The fairly large VU meter can be switched to show either gain reduction or output level (the latter mode referencing 0 VU to +4 dBm). A power switch is also on the front. However, a Bypass switch is not provided. There are also no attack and release controls, as the LA-3A’s time constants are inherently program-dependent.

All I/Os are on the unit’s rear panel and are served by both XLR and barrier strip connections. Also on the rear panel are three switches: One toggles the unit between compression and limiting modes (which sound virtually indistinguishable unless very heavy compression is used); another pads the input 20 dB to prevent high-output devices from clipping the unit’s input transformer; and the third switch kicks in the previously mentioned gain mod.

A rear panel pot increases the sidechain’s sensitivity to very high frequencies and is intended for use in broadcasting applications. Another pot balances the unit’s gain-reduction amount when it is stereo-linked to a second unit via the above-mentioned barrier strip. The 2U, half-rack — sized LA-3A ships with a rackmount kit.

My first test of the LA-3A was an A/B comparison to my Universal Audio LA-2A, recording male vocals with an AKG TLII mic and Millennia Twin Direct Recording Channel. Compared to my LA-2A, the LA-3A produced more extended highs and lows and exhibited greater depth. Despite the LA-3A’s higher fidelity, however, I didn’t automatically favor it over the LA-2A. Both units sound awesome in different ways. The LA-3A has a very rich sound that belies its solid-state circuitry, but I also love the creamy, slightly band-limited sound of my LA-2A.

The compression curves of the LA-3A and -2A sound virtually the same and incredibly natural. You can squeeze vocals really hard so they don’t pop out of or dip below the music bed; still, the nuances and perceived dynamics of the performance come shining through.

This transparency was also evident when recording electric guitar on a country ballad using a Royer R-121 ribbon mic patched through a Neve 5012 Duo Mic Pre and the LA-3A. Dialing in 5 dB of gain reduction, the track exhibited awesome depth and a golden, analog tone to die for. The guitar solo sat perfectly in the mix, yet I could hear no obvious compression artifacts.

Next up was a Taylor XXX-MS acoustic guitar playing arpeggios and miked with a pair of B&K 4011 condensers patched through my Millennia HV-3D preamp. With the LA-3A’s meter showing 5 to 6 dB of gain reduction, loud bottom-string peaks were leveled without pumping. There was a noticeable decrease in depth and high-frequency sparkle with this much compression, but no more than what I’ve heard using other high-end, wide-band analog compressors on acoustic guitar with as much processing.

The LA-3A enhanced the attack of both electric bass and kick drum tracks. It also tightened up the kick drum’s decay to the point where it sounded like an extra blanket had been stuffed in the shell.

The LA-3A is $1,499 for a single unit or $2,899 for two (including a rackmount kit). Though that’s not inexpensive, it’s a small price to pay for the incomparable sound of a vintage, T4-based opto compressor. That’s the sound heard on countless hit records. Long live the LA-3A!

Universal Audio, 866/UAD-1176,

Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording, located in Sisters, Ore.