The LA-2A and LA-3A optical compressors may very well be the most ubiquitous pieces of outboard gear one can find in major studios, and have been used on countless hit records since they hit the market in the late 1960’s. The original units, which were manufactured by Teletronix, used a revolutionary T4A optical cell (originally developed for military purposes) to apply smooth, program-dependent gain reduction with a variable release on incoming audio signals. Combined with a pristine analog signal path from input to output transformers, the units became the go-to processors for adding smooth compression and analog warmth to vocals, drums, synths, and even full mixes.
Black Rooster Audio, a relatively new plugin developer which has already acquired a stellar reputation for analog-modeled plugins, has released their own take on the LA-2A and LA-3A sound with their VLA-2A and VLA-3A plugins. In this review, we’ll put both through their paces to see how they perform, as well as offer some comparisons to other plugin versions of these famed processors by Waves, IK Multimedia, and other plugin manufacturers.
Setup & First Impressions
Setup is simple - just grab the Black Rooster Audio plugin installer, choose the plugins you’d like to install, and authorize them with a simple online (or offline) activation system the next time you fire up your DAW.
Although the 2A and 3A units are similar in many aspects, each has a different sound so we’ll cover each separately before moving on to our general opinion of both.
The VLA-2A is among the very best emulations of a real LA-2A that I’ve heard in the software realm, and it shines on almost any type of source material. Although I haven’t had the privilege of using an original Teletronix unit, I have used hardware clones, and the VLA-2A plugin captures a surprising amount of what makes these units so loved by engineers. The 2A has become the go to leveler and smooth compressor in almost every studio worldwide, and can add pleasing analog tone to any signal due to its internal tube circuitry. To my surprise, the VLA-2A does a stellar job of emulating the tone of the 2A unit; simply passing audio through the plugin adds a warm, smooth tone to the signal, which can be really handy for smoothing out digital harshness. Just as with a real analog device, driving a hotter signal into the VLA plugins produces increasing levels of saturation, which remains very pleasing to the ear even as you really hit the plugins hard - there’s a surprising amount of headroom available here, allowing you to dial in a wide range of saturation flavors just by adjusting input gain.
The compression behavior of the VLA-2A is also very similar to what I’d expect from a analog 2A unit - smooth attack, almost invisible leveling, and a program-dependent release that is especially well suited to vocals, guitars, and other traditionally hard to tame sound sources. Unless you’re driving a 2A to produce heaps of gain reduction, the compression is so smooth and seamless it can almost feel invisible, something the VLA-2A manages to accomplish extremely well. Rather than sounding overtly ‘compressed’, the signal simply sounds smoother and more even in tone and dynamics. Just as with a real 2A compressor, the VLA-2A is an excellent choice for smoothing out and gluing busses, making everything sound like a more organic and cohesive whole.
The LA-3A is traditionally used less often than the 2A in most studios, but I personally prefer the sound of a real 3A unit on most sources, as it has a slightly more aggressive attack phase due to its solid state signal path (as opposed to the tube path of the 2A). While both units can be used on just about anything, the 3A in general is a more aggressive compressor/limiter which can be pushed a bit harder to produce stronger, more limiter-like compression tones. Black Rooster has absolutely nailed much of what makes the 3A my favorite compressor (in series with a UREI 1176) for vocals - there’s simply no other processor that does such an incredible job of smoothing and controlling vocals in a natural sounding way. The VLA-3A’s snappy attack also makes it very usable on drums, guitars, bass, and any sound source in need of some transparent control.
Conclusion / Recommended For
Overall, both plugins are outstanding emulations of these beloved hardware processors. In comparison to other emulations, on the whole, I found Black Rooster’s plugins to be substantially more transparent than similar models by Waves, Softube, and IK Multimedia. Applying identical amounts (~7dB) of gain reduction, the VLA-2A sounded absolutely pristine and transparent whereas other models sounded a bit ‘stressed’ - especially when dialing up the input gain.
The only downside I see to the VLA plugins is the lack of a R37 knob control on the 2A unit - this was a knob which could be found on the original Teletronix unit which allowed fine-tuning of the frequency dependent behavior of the compressor, allowing an engineer to dial in more or less aggressive high frequency compression. While I much prefer the sound of the VLA-2A to some of my other LA-2A plugins, it would be nice to have this control as it does come in handy for smoothing out harshness at times. With that being said, these compressors sound so outstanding otherwise that this is a small concern - I’d still highly recommend their purchase.
- Outstanding tone - loads of headroom to drive signals into increasing (and extremely pleasing) saturation.
- Phenomenal compression curves. Retains transparency even at high gain reduction settings.
- Easy to use interface with big knobs - very easy to dial in precise values, unlike some other 2A/3A plugins.
- Great value.
- Lack of R37 control knob on the VLA-2A.