A stone-cold classic clamp box lives again
Review by Paul Vnuk Jr.
Based in Daytona, Florida, AudioScape Engineering handcrafts a line of analog audio processors that leans heavily on classic designs of the past and, in a few cases, resurrects classic units that have yet to be tackled. Such is the case with our inaugural AudioScape review as we look at the AudioScape 260VU Compressor/Limiter.
A Comp with a VU
The target inspiration for the 260VU is the dbx 160 VU released in 1976—one of the very first VCA compressor designs.
The original 160 VU featured a straightforward signal path (op-amp-based balanced input, David Blackmer designed VCA gain circuit, current-to-voltage converter and an unbalanced op-amp output).
The three-dial control set was minimal, featuring Threshold, Compression (ratio) and Output Gain (makeup). Like many other early compressor designs, the attack and release are program dependent with a hard-knee compression curve.
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The dbx 160 VU was a 2U tall half-rack box with a large backlit VU meter.
The dbx 162 (a fixed stereo version), and the 165 and 165A followed in 1978. These 2U 19″ designs offered “improvements” to the internal circuitry, added attack and release controls on the 165, and a Peak Stop hard limiter on the 165A.
The 1980s gave birth to the essentially similar dbx 160X, 60XT and 160A, single 19″ rack versions that swapped the VU meter for dual LED-based metering. These returned to the fixed attack and release times but added the dbx-famous Over Easy (soft knee) option. Around this time, dbx also added the option of an output transformer.
In the early 2000s came the 160SL and 162SL, returning to a 2U 19″ format with VU meters. The 160SL featured better components and was the closest the company had come to the original 160 VU gain cell in twenty years. Each unit offered every feature across the 160 timelines—attack, release, Over Easy, Gain Stop and more.
Today dbx offers the 560A, essentially a 500 series version of the 160A.
Return to the 160
Why am I highlighting the history of the dbx 160 VU? Mainly to point out two things. First, despite the improvements and innovations across its almost 40-year history, none of the successive 160 offerings sounded or, more importantly, reacted precisely like an original dbx 160 VU.
Second, while quite a few companies today offer inspirations and variations on almost every other classic compressor, no one has tackled the 160 VU—until now.
Meet the 260VU
The AudioScape 260VU is a two-channel, 2U 19″ rack mount device with two independent matching compressors side-by-side. You can sum the threshold detection of each channel together for stereo use.
Visually the 260VU is designed so close to the original 160VU that it could easily be mistaken for a vintage original—beyond the fact that dbx never made a dual mono unit. The build quality is exceptional, and the unit’s feel and function foster the illusion that you have stumbled upon a 30-year-old new old stock device.
Features and Controls
Each matching channel offers three simple knobs: Threshold, Ratio (1:1 to Infinity:1) and Output Gain (-20 to +20dB). Metering is handled by the super-snappy backlit VU meter, and just like the original, a pair of yellow and red “dancing” LED lights let you see when the signal is hitting above or below the selected threshold setting.
Below each VU meter, push buttons select between input, output and gain reduction. A remaining push button on the right is for power, while a matching left button engages the RMS timing link switch mentioned earlier.
All I/O on the rear is balanced XLR, and there is an IEC mains input for the internal AnTek International Series Toroidal Power Transformer.
On the Inside
AudioScape has gone to great lengths to bring this classic back to life. This includes sourcing vintage NOS components, and the company has recreated the original CA3083 and Silver Can LM301 RMS detector circuit, resulting in a VCA with the exact same response and THD as the classic. They have also used an electronically balanced discrete/transistor +4dBu circuit.
Smack, Punch and Suck
Over the years, I have owned a dbx 117 (a consumer 160 variant), multiple 160A units, and a boutique 160SL. I am familiar with dbx compression, yet I never had a true dbx 160 VU in my studio. Despite being a Teletronix LA-2A, UA 1176LN, SSL THE BUS+, Chandler RS124 and Manley Vari-Mu owner, this is the one compression style my studio lacks.
While the above suspects can get super fast and aggressive, or slow round and thick depending on the unit, none do the 160-thing. This difference is how it grabs transients and also the way it holds and releases sustained material. Many describe it as a smack, punch and suck.
On bass, it highlights pick and finger attacks in a very aggressive way. It does a similar thing to the beater attack of a kick drum. Used on a snare drum, a mono drum mic or a stereo drum bus, it tames the transient while pulling (sucking) the room and the space around the instrument forward for a brief moment—it’s magical for this alone. On sources like acoustic and electric guitars, synths and pianos, it helps exaggerate forward momentum in a similar fashion.
The 260VU adds animated movement and excitement to (especially rhythmic) sources in a mix—even an attractive pumping when needed. Yet somehow when set just right, it maintains the illusion that the source is not being slammed with compression.
The only place I did not find a use for the 260VU (despite being a stereo unit) was on the two-bus; it’s a heck of a stereo drum and guitar bus comp, though.
So does the AudioScape 260VU compare to the real deal? As you’ve read, I have used nearly every 160-based unit throughout the years, except for the “real deal.” I did compare the 260VU to two popular 160 plugins. Based on that, I would say that AudioScape nailed the reaction times, and as it is with most hardware/software comparisons, the hardware was much more forgiving, easier to set, and sonically was a touch more open.
The plugin comparisons highlighted two features I wish the hardware had: a wet-dry blend knob for parallel compression and a bypass switch for quick compressed/non-compressed audio comparisons. AudioScape can add an optional hard bypass for a fee.
In my opinion, in a sea of other compressor styles (clones and otherwise), the AudioScape 260VU is a very special piece that returns a long-loved style of compression to studio racks everywhere. It is built with impressive attention to detail at an equally impressive price point.
While I am not hurting for outboard compression, I am pretty sure I need the AudioScape 260VU in my arsenal.
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