Overview of the Empirical Labs Distressor
Today, I’m going to give you a brief overview of Empirical Labs’ Distressor, and specifically show you how I like to use it on vocals.
So now that digital technology has become the staple in the recording industry, it has left music sounding a little bit cold and harsh, because digital technology does nothing to soften the harsh sounds, nor emphasize the bass frequencies in music sources.
The Distressor is such a great piece of gear, because it offers a warm, vintage sound by it’s custom designed gain control circuit that really helps music sources being captured by a digital medium.
A large part of the Distressor’s personality and power derive from three modes that color the signal, even without compression.
In addition to the basic distortion mode, distortion 2 produces Class A type warmth. Producing mostly second harmonics when compression. Tube distortion is known for it’s second harmonic.
And distortion 3 adds third, along with the second harmonic. Second and third order harmonics form the octave, and the octave and the fifth to the fundamental musical tones.
Distortion 3 can look and sound very similar to tape distortion, because it gradually flattens out the top and the bottom of the waveform.
The type of distortion the Distressor produces isn’t supposed to be heavy guitar amp distortion, but closer to old tube and Class A transistor distortion, often described as having bite or urgency to it.
The two high pass filters, one in the audio path and one in the detector path, have also been made available to filter out low frequencies that can cause pumping and breathing in your mix.
All eight of the Distressor’s curves are unique and distinctive. From the 1:1 mode that simple warms up a signal with low order harmonics, to the Nuke setting, a brick wall that shines on drum room mics.
Even though there are 384 possible settings, it’s pretty much impossible to get a bad sound.
Keep all knobs on 5 or 6, around the middle, with ratio at 6:1, and you can’t go wrong. A good general rule of thumb is this: If you want a digital signal to sound like tape, use 2:1, distortion 3, and compress one to three dB.
Using higher ratios and having more than 3-5 dB of reduction will begin to sound more like compression, and less like tape.
So now let’s look at using the Distressor on a lead vocal.
Engaging the high-pass filter in both the detector and audio paths for lead vocal is an excellent use for this filter. It will roll off sub frequencies below 80Hz.
Engaging the band emphasis function inserts an EQ into the circuit that makes a circuit much more sensitive to those harsh mid-band frequencies, a function that also works well with guitars.
Set the ratio at 6:1 or less, remembering that ratios higher than this begin to sound more like compression, and less like tape. Attack and release both set to 5 is a good starting point.
Adjust the input and output to taste, keeping in mind that 3-10 dB of compression will be optimal for this use.
Distortion 2 will add that warm edge to a vocal take, especially if it is being recorded into a digital platform.
So here’s the example of a female lead vocal, with the Distressor not engaged.
So now, let’s listen to the lead vocal going through the Distressor.
[vocals with Distressor]
So you can really hear the Distressor working, albeit very subtly. The second time she says, “Phoenix,” it just helps to soften that harsh sound that the digital medium captured, and it just adds a little bit of that second order harmonic that really makes it fit really well, and sound nice in the mix.
My personal favorite setting on the Distressor is the Opto mode, which is designed to emulate classic compressors, such as the LA2A.
Set the ratio to 10:1 or Opto mode, with attack on ten, and release one zero. This setting is guaranteed to give a classic compression curve and a great sound.
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