The dbx 160 was standard equipment in any studio worth its salt when I started in the business. Not for the faint-hearted, I always suspected that this half-rack, 2U machine was compressing far more than the meter indicated.
If you really wanted savage compression then this black box was the one to do the business. Other variations with more features such as the 165A came along, and these were popular but less common than the standard 160 with its fixed auto attack and release settings. In the early eighties came the 160X, a 1U, LED-packed box, still black and still fairly brutal, but a little bit smoother sounding than its predecessor. And even smoother in "OverEasy(R)" mode, which is the registered dbx name for soft knee compression. There must be thousands of these superb units in studios and live racks around the world, and a budget version (the 160XT) built in Hong Kong has continued to sell well.
Now in the late 1990s dbx has felt the heat from such upstarts as Focusrite. To reclaim the high-ground in the signal processing market they have introduced the Blue range. The centrepiece is this very imposing unit, named the 160S to denote its heritage.. This is truly a "Rolls Royce" model: everything about the build of it is completely uncompromised: the beautifully finished blue metallic front panel is 1/4" thick. The wonderfully smooth solid aluminium knobs are hand-crafted, and look remarkably similar to those used by Focusrite on their Red series. They are larger and more damped than the Focusrite ones, making small adjustments easier.
Pushbuttons are also aluminium and have a positive feel when pushed, unlike the flimsy plastic Focusrite illuminating type which sometimes give up the ghost and stop latching. The front panel looks slightly cluttered compared to the competition, and is truly feature-packed. The brightly backlit VU level meters are custom made, with unusually the Gain Reduction mode using a different scale, with linear rather than VU characteristics. All the LEDs have smart chrome surrounds, and are in a variety of colours. On the back, gold-plated Neutrik XLR connectors are used for inputs, outputs and sidechain connections for both channels.
There are a large assortment of unbalancing and grounding buttons and connections, so you are not going to have any hum problems with this unit. There is a panel where an optional digital in/out board can be fitted. The box weighs over a stone and is rugged, yet beautifully finished. You really get what you pay for here, for although expensive, the 160S really looks like it will take any knocks and last a lifetime.
It does beg the question, who needs build strength like this? I cannot see many situations where you would take a machine as expensive as this on tour - perhaps a few elite rock stars' live engineers might use a couple, but it is a difficult to justify such extravagance for most people.
In a studio situation it's true that cheap knobs break or wear out, but I don't remember ever having a problem with a front panel not being thick enough. It seems that they are just trying to keep up with the Jones's, i.e. Focusrite!
PeakStop(R) and PeakStopPlus(TM) are both offered. These are two different types of limiting, the former based on that introduced on the 165A, and the latest version which monitors the input to predict what it needs to do to keep the level below the threshold set with the Stop knob.
Each channel has a button and LED for external sidechain insertion, and Stereo Couple links the two channels, killing all controls on channel 2.
The first signal I plugged in was a bass guitar, always great with a 160X and good with the old 160 if you were careful not to overdo it. If you did, you ended up with a farty overloaded noise. In Auto mode the 160S sounded closer to a 160 than a 160X, with a similar tendency to fart. However in Manual mode it was easy to set appropriate Attack and Release times and immediately had a wonderful punchy compressed bass. Switch into OverEasy(R) mode and the compression is very smooth, doing everything you want. On drum ambience, it worked a treat. As with the old 160, 2:1 compression seems much more savage than you would expect, even in soft knee OverEasy(R) mode. This is a machine for people who like a lot of compression. I found myself setting the ratio to 2:1 or 1.5:1 in many situations. (Wimp! I hear you say!) The audio specification is quite astonishing and boasts a VCA with a dynamic range of 127dB.
The ring-binder manual is great, explaining all the principles and operation thoroughly. It really does sound as good as it looks: there is little that dbx haven't thought of with this model. I loved it.
Reproduced with kind permission from www.georgeshilling.com. Copyright ©1997