My interest in Revive Audio was renewed when I reviewed its MSL-Mk2 stereo VCA bus compressor last year and noticed the company’s palette of modifications for popular gear. Revive offers mods on no fewer than 72 different pieces of audio gear ranging from compressors and interfaces to mic pre’s and more—and the prices were surprisingly affordable. When I saw they offered a mod of the popular ART VLA compressor, which is surprisingly good-sounding for its low price (although I could tell that there was room for improvement), I knew I had to give it a try, particularly since it had a base price of only $350.
I had experimented before with swapping out tubes in my unit, which are used as output stage drivers only, as the actual compression is via optical vactrol ELOP sensors. I had achieved slightly sweeter tone with various tubes, my favorites being some old Telefunkens I had salvaged, but the improvement was only moderate. Revive offers “standard” tube replacement (NOS vintage GE tubes), or premium Genalex Gold Lion tubes for an additional $40. I chose standard tubes for my custom mod.
The VLA is a transformerless model, and considering my usual fondness for transformers, I knew I just had to add them at $200 for either Carnhills or Cinemags. Both makes sound great in my experience, but there’s something about that Carnhill tone that really pushes my buttons for euphonic reasons that words can’t quite explain, so I chose them … even though Revive owner Jason Lambson advised me toward the Cinemags.
Lambson says the mods collectively “increase headroom, widen the frequency response, lower the noise floor and increase detail of the three-dimensional imaging, and increase the speed of attack and release time.” This is done by switching to Burr Brown op amps at both input and output stages, some Panasonic parts, a new vactrol sensor on each channel, increasing tube plate voltage and upgrading the aforementioned tubes and transformers.
The mod only took about a week and my unit was returned to me with a Revive sticker on the front panel, indicating it was hot-rodded, and stickers on the removable side panels indicating that opening the unit would void the one-year warranty. Of course, I was very disappointed to see the latter stickers, as I wanted nothing more than to open the box up and peer at the changes, but my need for a warranty squelched my curiosity.
The stock VLA is known for being especially useful on bass guitar, vocals, synthesizers and all manner of parallel compression (especially with subgroups), and I’ve been using my rejuvenated VLA on all those applications with excellent results. In many ways, it’s still the same sonic signature—warm, forgiving, rich in bottom end and tastefully congealing—but now it does all those things better. It’s warmer, deeper, richer and more euphonic, and all with that unmistakable Carnhill tone: abundant in low-mids, with a larger soundstage and a feeling of more substance and solidity. The unit also seems capable of being faster-acting, sweeter in the top end, and a little cleaner (less distortion) overall when working hard. The gain structure has changed, though, seeming to require higher thresholds, more eagerness to compress and overall hotter output levels. Higher ratios, which aren’t typically my thing, are more useful now with more musicality and less pumping.
Frankly, I never did favor my old VLA on mix buses (where I prefer cleaner, less apparent compression, via VCA-type compressors) and I’m afraid that hasn’t changed. It seems to make my mixes a little too warm, a little too weighty in the low-mids and a touch too soft. Maybe I should have gone with the Cinemags as Lambson suggested. But I’m not sweating it, as I have VCA comps for that and this modded VLA does unique and useful things when tracking, overdubbing and massaging subgroups that my VCAs can’t touch.
There are a number of companies offering intriguing mods to familiar gear these days, and users are recommending them for the most part. If you’re interested in upping your game with the familiarity of your favorite gear without the risk of trying something completely new and different, let me recommend Revive Audio. The turnaround time is excellent, the expertise is commendable, prices are quite competitive and the results are familiar, yet dramatically improved on your stock favorites.
Revive Audio • www.reviveaudio.com