The approach to input compression is much the same as the gain stage. For a mono chain, the vintage blackface 1176 can do it all. It provides sonically pleasing compression, very fast or slow attack/release and a high or low ratio for all types of sources. However, investing in this unit will not only be more expensive (up to $4,000), but also likely require repair and maintenance.
One stereo option for input compression is the Summit TLA-100. It is a hybrid solid state/tube and warms up the front end of a signal quite nicely. There are clickable fast, moderate and slow attack/release times that aren’t found on many compressors that feature tube technology (another favorite of mine, the LA-IIA, has program dependent attack and release). The mono Summit unit is priced around $2,000, so the purchase of two units for stereo sources is equivalent to one mono, vintage blackface 1176. I’ve used the vintage blackface 1176 on countless high-budget tracking and mixing sessions, but the TLA-100 was in my chain for the session that directly contributed to my Grammy nomination for Album of the Year in 2012 (Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE).
A final element to consider for a project studio input chain is a DI box. Many of the sources we record are instrument level, which varies in each and every guitar and keyboard as there is no standard for instrument-level signal. This can throw a wrench into the gain staging process and create noisy or distorted recordings.
For example, if an instrument-level signal is connected to a line-level input, there will not be enough gain to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio (this especially applies to +4 line level inputs). Attempting to record an instrument in this fashion will most certainly result in a noisy recording.
Be careful: the easy solution is not to send the instrument-level signal into a mic pre. Instrument-level signals have less voltage than line level, but more juice than a mic pre can handle. While it’s possible to patch a guitar or keyboard directly into a mic pre, the signal generally runs too hot and can easily distort, adding an undesirable crunch to the recording. Signal that exits a DI is always balanced and mic level, allowing us to properly gain stage an instrument-level signal by knocking it down to mic-level, then adding gain and harmonics using our carefully selected, great sounding mic pres.
Project studios that focus on mono input should strongly consider the Demeter VTDB-2 tube DI, which is a professional studio standard. The Demeter is a mono unit priced between $400 - $635 and includes a thick, warm-sounding tube and Jensen components. Guitars and mono synths are recorded with a clean, direct sound and shine in the mix.
An option for the stereo input project studio is the purchase of two Countryman Type 10 DI’s. This direct input box delivers quality performance and clarity at a $200 price point (about half the cost of the Demeter).
An American Strat or a Moog through the Demeter, then to the 1073 and into the blackface 1176 will capture the essence of countless professional recordings spanning multiple decades.
Carefully identifying and selecting gear for the input chain of a project studio, then applying it in an appropriate and efficient fashion is the first step in achieving professional sound in your project studio.