Bettermaker’s new Bus Compressor treads a now familiar path for the Polish hardware manufacturer. They have built a reputation for digitally controlled, recallable, high quality analogue hardware since the EQ230P Pultec-style EQ. This smart new 1U box includes front panel control of all functions, either directly or indirectly. At first glance, the neatly recessed black front panel includes just six smart looking encoder knobs (which click round lightly) and a tiny Engage button for bypass. But on closer inspection, the large black area to the left hides a large red LED matrix display which defaults to metering, showing either bold level display bar graphs, with small gain reduction in-between, or large and bold gain reduction only. However, as soon as any adjustments are made, the display switches to clear labels and numerical values for the control in use. This couldn’t be clearer; visible from 30 paces in any lighting scenario – apart, perhaps, from blinding sunshine! This doesn’t have the resolution of the colour displays of the Mastering Compressor or the Mastering EQ but this saves costs and works very well.
During parameter display, a mini gain reduction indication is snuck in between the letters and numbers, so you still have a visual clue as to what is happening. Full metering resumes about a second after moving any knob. When using the front panel knobs, the first (light) click when a knob is turned doesn’t actually change the setting, but instead wakes up the display to show the existing value. Then you can tweak. But of course, this unit is also very much about software control. As such, you install plug-in software – there are AAX, AU, VST and VST3 versions. Of course, the plug-in has no sonic effect on the channel it is inserted on, but simply transmits and receives data from the unit via USB. The rear of the unit sports a USB B-type socket, XLRs for main audio connections; there are also TRS connectors for left and right sidechain send and return – you can monitor the insert – while power is supplied via a small inline 12V DC PSU.
The knobs control Threshold, Attack, Release and make up Gain, plus a user assignable knob for anything else you might want like Ratio or other functions. A Set knob controls this assignment, and all other settings, including switchable functions, display options and system setup. The ranges and settings of the compressor controls are only instantly visible in the plug-in window where you get knob pointers and eight knobs. The window also includes a mirror of the front panel matrix display. Seeing the available values of the settings brings a realisation that there is some similarity with the famous SSL bus compressor. Bettermaker admits that they started off with the SSL as inspiration. But they added features, and made the controls wider ranging and offered finer tuning for compression settings. However, beta testers wanted the fixed values of the SSL. So there are two modes you can choose from the Set button (but not from the plug-in) and select either extremely fine continuous control (Free), or the familiar Fixed settings of the SSL. However, these only affect Attack and Release settings. Ratio is always fixed at labelled values, but in Free mode a further two values appear: 1.5:1 and 6:1. Free mode also extends some of the ranges, for example you get Release of 10 to 2000ms instead of only 100, 300, 600 and 1200ms (and Auto).
For preset saving, the plug-in relies on the host, but also includes a useful A and B register for comparisons. So responsive and seamless is the integration that you can mistakenly lull yourself into thinking that the plug-in itself is passing audio, then wonder why host Bypass has no effect! To bypass the unit you must of course click the Engage button.
A number of ‘extras’ are provided. A Mix control enables parallel compression, and a HPF Sidechain is continuously variable from 20 to 370Hz; you can even monitor the Sidechain signal or the Insert Sidechain. A huge advantage here is the option to change from Peak to RMS, the latter being much smoother and more invisible than the traditional Peak mode, especially when compressing more heavily. It sounds fabulous, glues the mix beautifully instead of pumping unnaturally. Further warmth and goo is provided with the VCA THD knob which lets you drive the THATS VCA into harmonic distortion. This is pretty subtle and never ugly, even at 100%, and I absolutely loved it for making everything sound that bit more groovy.
The Bettermaker Bus Compressor is far more than an SSL clone, with great additional features and wonderful variable character, precision construction, and that great matrix display. Control from the front panel or via the plug-in is instantaneous and seamless and the sonics are exceptional.
Pros: Elegant and seamless plug-in or front panel control of a fabulous sounding SSL style compressor, RMS or Peak mode, variable THD, Sidechain insert and filter.
Cons: SSL aficionados might miss the familiar black meter.