EAR 660 Tube Compressor / Limiter
When I was in the first, mad flush of recording, I came across an EAR compressor for a few hundred pounds. It soon became plumbed into my vocal chain along with an old AKG C12 microphone (or occasionally a Milab DC96) and a Neve 33118 mic pre/eq (with the eq switched out). The resulting vocal sound was at one and the same time massive and smooth – honey to my ears.
Regarded by many as an eccentric genius, Tim Di Paravicini has been hand-crafting exceptional compressors and equalisers since the early 1970’s, in between building custom tube electronics for mastering suites and recording studios and heavyweight valve amplifiers and turntables for well-healed hifi aficionados around the world.
The EAR 660 is without doubt my favourite compressor for vocal tracking and bass guitar. It is neither a copy nor a child of the retro boom, but rather an original design from one of a handful of truly great British audio electronics designer.
What makes the 660 so special? Well, from a construction standpoint, Tim commissions massive bespoke handwound output transformers. The tubes are all carefully matched and wiring is point-to-point – handwired, in other words. And the sound? Thick and creamy but with the kind of clarity that allows a vocal to project from the mix without having to push the fader and crowd out the backing track.
I recall an experiment we conducted back in the hazy, crazy days of Liverpool Road, over a decade ago. We had a whole bunch of Fairchilds, including three 660’s and Dave, our vintage and tube gear wizard, retubed the best and carefully lined it up. We then conducted a blindfold test for a dozen experienced engineers in which the Fairchild 660 and the EAR were compared on a whole bundle of different tracks and signals. The result? Eight of the engineers were unable to distinguish between the two compressors. The other four were split down the middle, two preferring the Fairchild and the others opting for the EAR. If anything, the EAR was slightly more positive at the bottom end, with the Fairchild being softer or even ‘woollier’ on bass. When the curtains were drawn back, all were amazed without exception – they assumed that they’d been listening to two Fairchild 660’s.
EAR gear is not cheap. Indeed, a pair of 660’s would cost as much as an entire rack of sexy US reissues. But they would make your mix purr, make your bass thump and give your vocals the gloss you’ve always dreamed of. This is handmade equipment from the workshop of a true master, and the price ticket (and often the waiting time) reflects this. But this particularly choosy and cynical audio pro is a believer, and I’ve spread the word to some of the leading recording and mix engineers in the business. If you wonder at the secret of their sound, then look no further than the EAR 660. It’s a work of genius, and that’s a word I don’t use lightly. ~ Eccentric
What the manufacturers say
The EAR 660 Fairchild-type valve limiter/compressor is designed to limit or compress the signal with the barest minimum of interference below threshold, and the most subjectively satisfying operation on high level signals. The choice of attack and release times is similar to other limiter/compressors, but it is the characteristics of this unit around the “knee” of the attack/decay envelope that contribute to its excellent performance. The audio circuit conforms to the EAR principles of simplicity and subjective “transparency”, with low distortion at all normal signal levels. The onset of limiting is sufficiently gentle not to call attention to itself, although in fact the unit will react very rapidly to overload conditions when required.