Softube Icons: Compressor Collection review: Three classic compressors faithfully modernised
Softube’s component-level modelling of classic analogue circuits has graced many a plugin, and things don’t get more classic than the compressors in this suite.
⊕ Peerless component-level circuit modelling
⊕ Well-judged new features increase the flexibility of the processors
⊕ Look as good as they sound
⊖ Method of routing external sidechains not supported in all host DAWs
⊖ No way to monitor the sidechain signal
⊖ Modern Extended Features of plugin window not accessible from all host DAWs
There are a few different ways in which compression hardware detects and modifies the dynamics of a sound, but the most widely used are FET (field-effect transistor), optical and VCA (voltage controlled amplifier).
In the hardware world, these are famously exemplified by the Urei 1176, the Teletronix LA-2A and the DBX 160, respectively. Each is iconic in its own right, which is no doubt why Softube has used them as the basis for its new software in Icons: The Compressor Collection.
A Dynamic Trio
The three plugins in the collection are FET Compressor Mark II, OPTO Compressor and VCA Compressor. Each is built around a detailed component-level model of the circuitry found in the vintage hardware, and so delivers an authentic reproduction of that hardware’s particular sonic character.
However, in true Softube style, these are not slavish copies of the originals: the GUIs are crisper and less dusty-looking than your average model of a classic, and don’t stick to the layout and labelling of the originals. More interestingly, Softube has retro-fitted the compressors with new features that broaden their usefulness without compromising their sonic credentials.
Let’s take a tour of the plugins, starting with FET Compressor Mark II.
As with the Urei 1176, the strength of compression is controlled using the input level dial, with the resulting gain reduction balanced using the output level dial. The plugin has the expected set of four compression ratio buttons, running from 4:1 up to 20:1, but Softube has added a Low Ratio Mode switch that reduces the ratios to a range of 1:1 to 3:1 (a ratio of 1:1 being useful for colouring a sound without affecting its dynamics). The plugin also has a “British Mode” button that mimics the classic hack of pressing down all of the ratio buttons at once to give an intense, ultra-crushed hard-limiting effect.
OPTO Compressor bears the closest visual resemblance to its source hardware, with a single dial that progressively increases the compression amount, and another dial for setting the output gain. Softube has swapped the positions of these two dials, which is a good thing – the original Teletronix hardware has its output gain dial on the left of the unit, which always feels back-to-front!
Optical compressors have comparatively slow response times, which makes them good for smoothing out short-term dynamic changes whilst preserving transients. Finding the “window” where this response is nicely balanced against the amount of gain reduction can take practice, but OPTO Compressor’s addition of a Time dial, which further slows down the response time, makes this window much wider and easier to find.
A similar addition can be found on VCA Compressor. The DBX 160 has a fixed attack and release time, but Softube has added attack and release controls to VCA Compressor. These operate as multipliers of the hardware’s response time, from x0.25 up to x4, and, as with OPTO Compressor, this expands the flexibility of the processor no end.
Softube has added a set of common features across all three Icons compressors. First and foremost of these is a transformer overdrive stage, giving a subtle warming effect that rarely pushes as far as outright distortion. FET Compressor takes things a step further with an option to also engage a convincingly dirty and mashy FET-based distortion.
Compressors can take a bit of a bite out of the brightness and presence of a sound – thought of another way, they add warmth and depth – but this isn’t always desirable. To this end, Softube has added a High Filter Make-Up switch to the Icons compressors, and this engages a post-compression high-frequency boost that compensates for the loss of top-end detail. The strength of the boost varies with the amount of compression, so this isn’t just a lazy on/off EQ curve.
Being modern plugins, the Icons compressors are happily running as stereo processors. By default, when processing a stereo track the gain reduction is calculated and applied equally across both channels, thereby preserving the integrity of the stereo image. There are circumstances where this isn’t what you’ll want, such as during detailed mastering work, and so Softube’s addition of a Dual Mono mode is very welcome. This ensures each channel is processed independently, albeit using the same settings across both channels.
Bit on the side(chain)
Softube has also added some features to the Icons compressors’ sidechain signal path. Sidechain Punch introduces a low cut and high boost to the sidechain signal, making the compressor less sensitive to lower frequencies that would otherwise dominate its responsiveness, and more sensitive to upper-mid and high frequencies. Overall this makes for a tighter, punchier, compression effect. Similarly useful is the sidechain’s high-pass filter, with frequency cutoff sweepable from 20Hz to 2kHz, ideal for controlling the “pumping” effect that can be triggered by kick drums and other low frequencies.
The plugins also have a dial dedicated to controlling the level of an external sidechain input. Different DAWs manage external sidechain routing in different ways though and, unfortunately, Softube’s external sidechaining has never worked with some mainstream DAWs such as Cubase, and this remains the case with the Icons compressors. Also, with no way to solo or monitor it, working with the sidechain – internal or external – is more tricky than it otherwise would be.
Whilst all of the plugins use needle-style VU meters, with a few LED meters here and there, the plugin windows utilise Softube’s Extended Features GUI panels. This gives peak and RMS metering of input and output, as well as in-to-out gain difference metering. It also allows the processor’s headroom to be adjusted, and provides a high pass filter and phase inverter. Unfortunately, as with the external sidechaining, these Extended Features aren’t accessible in all DAWs.
The Icons plugins can be purchased individually but they make a lot more sense as a suite of plugins, giving you the perfect three tools for handling just about any instrument or source in a musically sympathetic way. They can also work brilliantly when combined – OPTO Compressor followed by FET Compressor is a formidable pairing for mastering, for example. It’s disappointing that Softube is yet to address the incompatibilities between its plugins and Steinberg’s DAWs, but that said, with modelling this good, you will never be disappointed with the results, no matter what host you are using.
- Compressor plugin collection for AAX, AU, VST and VST3 host software
- Includes three plugins: FET Compressor Mark II, OPTO Compressor and VCA Compressor
- Modelled from classic compressors and retro-fitted with modern features
- Compatible with Softube Console 1 hardware controller
- €299 (€99 per plugin if purchased individually)
- Contact Softube
- Buy: Plugin Boutique, Softube
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