In the line of focusing on one of the emulations of hardware compressors modelled for Universal Audio by Brainworx we’ll look at the Shadow Hills mastering compressor plug-in. The plug-in combines two compressors in series being an optical and a VCA compressor in stereo or dual mono mode.
Universal Audio Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
The optical compressor is a classic in the sense that it has an input and output knob. The VCA compressor has the basic threshold, ratio, gain, attack, decay and side chaining at 90Hz options. In addition its has some extra sound coloring options as well you can use to switch to Nickel, Iron and Steel mode if you want clean, subtle distortion or most distortion. You can activate both compressors independently or completely bypass them.
In the past I’ve spend two instances working with the original hardware for a relative short period of time. During that time I’ve tried to find out the sonic qualities of the hardware but to be honest it simply was too short to really to be able to dig into the machine and find it’s sonically G-spots. In that sense it’s a really specific piece of equipment that requires all your knowledge and attention to get the most out of it. With that in mind I approached the plug-in and started to spend time with it.
What better way to find out how the plug-in sounds, during your daily routine, is there? So I’ve used some time to find out during some mastering sessions. Trying it out how it may fit in a mastering chain and try to substitute it for various other plug-ins or hardware units. For me it sits best in the back of the chain just before the end limiter.
It took me some time to find out the best way to use it and for a change, the presets were helpful to me. In general to me it seems that subtle compression of both or either one compression type will work on a lot of mixes. The coloring of the sound is extensive if you use both compressors. But if you use the VCA in Nickel mode its fairly neutral.
In a case of a in the box mix of a metal song that bordered to distortion it turned out to be a lifesaver in order to get a loud master with hardly noticeable distortion. Another example would be a folk song where this compressor helped with the vocals blending into the mix.
As a mixing compressor it can be useful on some tracks but there are a lot of other interesting plug-ins that may fit that role better as your mileage varies. As to mild or medium compression the sound stays fairly neutral albeit less louder. With high to extreme compression the sound caves in which is to be expected with these compression types.
For a plug-in the GUI doesn’t have that instant recognition of know-how to operate, because the layout is exactly the same as the hardware. To me it seems to be more esthetical than ergonomically on a screen.
Hardware vs Software
As to comparing the hardware with the plug-in I in general think that is somewhat pointless. I prefer to judge the unit on its own merits. To this extend I must say that the plug-in can be a valuable tool in your mastering chain. Especially if you want to add some specific coloring to the sound. That coloring seems fairly subtle until you start comparing it with the bypass mode. It resembles analog coloring a lot to that extend and can be used to cure ‘digitis’ to more acceptable levels. A big part of the coloring also is that the mid levels seem to get more detailed.
To that extend Brainworx could have cheated a bit and should have added a wet/dry function as well as a parallel mode for both compressors so you can be even more in control of the coloring which is the main feature of this plug-in IMHO. This also means that if you are interested you at least should check out for a longer period if the coloring of this compressor is of your taste.