Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Opto Compressor
By Barry Rudolph
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Mix Magazine "Compression And Compressors"
|Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Opto Compressor|
|Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Opto Compressor Inside|
Under control of a single control knob, a leveling amplifier is a compressor with a medium attack time, a medium to slow release time and a high compression ratio. For program broadcast audio sources, a leveling amp's threshold is set low enough so that it is in a constant state of varying amounts of gain reduction.
The WA-2A copies the Teletronix LA-2A with the same attack time of 10ms and a release time of 60ms for the first 50 percent of recovery and then, depending on the depth of compression, 500ms to 5 seconds or longer for complete recovery back to unity gain. Total release time depends heavily on the duration of compression and level of the incoming signal.
Like the LA-2A, the "engine" for controlling gain in the WA-2A is an optical attenuator. Warm Audio has chosen the Kenetek T4B module that's capable of up to 40dB of gain reduction. The T4B module plugs into an octal tube socket and is a pin-for-pin direct replacement for the original LA-2A's module.
The nonlinear release timing and gentle, almost lazy operation of the WA-2A are caused by the "memory effect" of the photocells inside the T4B. It takes time for them to recover depending how bright the panel glows and for how long it has glowed.
Simple Front and Back Panels
The WA-2A is built on one main circuit board and package in an all steel 2U cabinet with built-in 120/240-volt power supply that uses a large toroidal power transformer in a shielded enclosure. It features a regulated B+ power supply and uses DC on the filaments--two things the LA-2A never had.
The front panel has a center-mounted lighted VU meter and large toggle switches for power and Limit or Compress--different compression ratios. There are both Output Gain and Peak Reduction controls and a VU meter switch for reading +4 or +10dB output levels and gain reduction. I liked the +10dB scale for measuring the unit's hot output levels and for calibrating it.
The back panel has controls for Stereo Link calibration for two WA-2As via a short TRS cable, VU meter zero-adjust, and a variable Pre-Emphasis control for boosting high frequencies in the sidechain signal.
Pre-emphasis dates back to the LA-2A's use as a limiter at broadcast stations. For noise reduction purposes, FM broadcast audio uses a 75-microsecond pre-emphasis curve--a +6dB/octave boost starting at 1.5kHz and reaching up to +17dB or more by 15kHz. FM home receivers reverse this curve or de-emphasized it. However if not well controlled with a limiter, this huge high frequency boost may over-modulate the transmitter causing side-band "splatter" interference to adjacent radio channels.
The WA-2A's Pre-Emphasis control, at full clockwise, offers a flat side-chain response; turning it CCW starts to compress more in the high frequencies.
However with the WA-2A installed in my outboard rack, meter zeroing, adjusting stereo linking, and using pre-emphasis for creative purposes are impossible to do easily. I plan to move all three of these controls to the front panel on both of my WA-2As.
Leveling With The WA-2A
I used the hardware inserts in Pro Tools for each of my two WA-2As. I wanted to set them differently for the verse and chorus lead vocals on separate tracks. Inserted after a touch of gentle midrange EQ from a plug-in, the WA-2As provided a finishing touch with a hard-to-describe presence and color only a quality tube opto-compressor gives to vocals. Both WA-2As were set to no more than 3 to 5dB of indicated gain reduction and both were Limit mode. I found these well-recorded vocals to sit in the track perfectly always heard but never too loud.
Next I inserted the WA-2A on the song's fretless bass guitar track whose lyrical and solo-like up/down octave playing style required major leveling out to work in this Pop track. Using a single WA-2A, I compressed heavily with gain reductions of over 10dB. I did not pickup any additional distortion and I noticed and liked the loud attacks at re-entry moments after long note sustains finished and when the bass came back in on downbeats. I had to edit out a few fret pops and other noises that became much more audible but it was worth it for the cool, organically smooth and musical bass sound.
Using pre-emphasis fully CCW on two WA-2As on a parallel stereo drum bus (without the kick drum) opened up the overall drum sound by compressing less on the snare hits and toms fills. Compressing all of the top kit tracks usually brings out the cymbals excessively but using maximum Pre-Emphasis caused the cymbals to level out causing the snare and toms to come forward.
When setting stereo-linked compression, I used 1kHz tones and Pink noise to set the Stereo Adjust control for matching and calibration. Once fully warmed up, I found little drift in this set up throughout the session--something I cannot say for some of the LA-2As I've used in the past.
I often found using the Pre-Emphasis control a great way refine the leveling action--particularly on bright sounds or bass heavy sources. Like the LA-2A, the WA-2A is an archaic electronic design that uses tubes and optical attenuators that both age and change over time. So while the WA-2A is a vast improvement in reliability and stable operation over the LA-2A, you won't find the super precision, exactitude and repeatability of modern processors or DAW plug-ins.
What I found was a lovely, organic and smooth color that sounded awesome on vocals, bass, and stereo drum overheads. There is nothing in my outboard rack or plug-in folder like this. I own two and I highly recommend getting one or two of them!
YouTube Video at the 2017 TEC Awards
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