Empirical Labs Arouser

Compressor plugin

Empirical Labs Arouser

Review by George Shilling

Dave Derr introduced his first hardware unit the Distressor in the mid-1990s and scored remarkable success with what was perceived to be a modern advance on classic knee compressor designs like the 1176 and LA-2A. It was a hit, with at least a pair quickly finding a space in many high-end studios’ toy-racks. Fast-forward a few years, and as with other classic hardware there have been many attempts at a plug-in version. The closest software recreation is probably the recently introduced component-modelled UAD version, which adds a few small enhancements compared to the hardware: variable headroom and a Wet/Dry knob. But for Derr’s ‘own-brand’ plug-in version he was not content to merely recreate the Distressor.

The Arouser is perhaps a more progressive version, with some extra bells and whistles, paying special attention to the advantages and disadvantages of analogue emulation in digital audio software, and applying knowledge gained in the last 20 years. As ever with Derr, the manual is enlightening and reveals an endearing enthusiasm for the details of design and use.

In a square window the main four knobs are recreated at the top – In, Attack, Release, Out, all pretty huge onscreen (although not quite as ludicrously large as the UAD Distressor). But while they recreate the physical Distressor knobs, these have the bonus of a central numerical readout that changes as you move them, or by double-clicking lets you enter a value. These don’t correspond to the 0 to 10 legending around the knobs but instead give you a real-world readout, so it’s dB for the levels and mS for the Attack and Release. Groovy. All the other controls are different from the hardware or are completely new features. For the Ratio section there are a couple of extra in-between settings, and according to the manual, the existing ones don’t exactly match the real unit, being a little more benign, so it is suggested to use the next one up to match Distressor settings. Furthermore, one of the new settings is a 1.5:1 Ratio, nice and gentle for mix buss use. It makes the Arouser an excellent candidate for making a mix sound like a finished record. Rather than ‘Nuke’, the brick-wall setting is named ‘Rivet’ but essentially does the same thing.

The Detector side-chain filtering gets an upgrade with a variable HP cut-off knob that goes up to 1kHz, and a separate three-knob parametric EQ band. This ranges from 40Hz to 10kHz and can be used to impart de-essing, or accentuate or reduce certain elements.

Soft clipping is now fine-tuneable with a variable Saturation knob and four LEDs showing the percentage of THD. This is a subtle and pleasant warm distortion.

Attack Modification

A new feature called Attack Modification (or AtMod) has a knob from 0 to 10 and three indicative LEDs. This slows the initial attack slope, especially on transients. It’s interesting to play with and adds a bit more of a punchy yet squidgy analogue saturating kind of sound at high settings. Although you can usually achieve what you need with the main Attack knob, this opens up a lot of possibilities for more characterful compression. On a kick drum, you can set the Attack to add punch and then often find a bit more joy by bringing up the AtMod knob from its default 2.00 setting.

As with many newer plug-ins there is a Dry/Comp blend knob but here there is also a useful hidden feature. When you click the E button, another knob is revealed: a Dry Level Trim with a +/-20dB range – extremely helpful when you’re setting up parallel processing; it saves you having to mess with overall automation trim when balancing things up. If you move this from 0dB the button turns red when the knob is hidden to indicate the change. The Blend mixer is (unusually) before the Output knob, so once you have your desired mix you can change the overall output level without messing things up.

The excellent gain reduction LEDs are similar to the Distressor but there is also a Clip LED, also labelled ‘BAD!’

Knobs have little blue marks to indicate default settings that reflect the Distressor – or a suggested starting point. A range of presets is provided with some useful suggestions. In Pro Tools this uses the standard preset menu, but in the hidden Help quick-start page is a Copy/Paste function for swapping between DAW formats. Derr has an eye on the future and promises further enhancements in future versions – thankfully with backward compatibility. I reviewed v2.1 which I believe happily loads v1.0 settings. Recent improvements include AAX-DSP support and the Dry Level Trim. I look forward to further updates, (for example, an Opto mode is planned) but this is already a useful and fantastic sounding tool – whether you want instant gratification or fancy doing a bit of tweaking. The AtMod and Saturation controls add wonderful punch, character, excitement and ‘juice’ in perhaps a similar way to the Kush UBK-1, albeit in a perhaps subtler manner; it may be a cliché but it is pretty hard to make things sound bad with this plug-in. But it can be aggressive, and is certainly flexible – I’d happily mix using the Arouser as my only plug-in compressor.

PROS: Replicates the Distressor’s sound but adds more, with the unique AtMod control, powerful Side-chain EQ and great sounding variable Saturation, zero latency

CONS: Having more parameters to tweak can slow your work rate down!