REVIEW: Waves Abbey Road RS124 Compressor

Sound Engineer and lecturer, Jon Burton, casts an expert eye over Waves Abbey Road RS124 Compressor…

What is it?
The latest collaboration between software designers Waves and Abbey Road Studios is another emulation of a hardware unit inextricably linked with the legendary studios and, of course, their most famous client. The RS124 valve compressor, they boldly announce, has been “central to a vast array of legendary recordings, having been used on every Beatles track ever recorded at Abbey Road Studios”. 

What’s great?
A thoughtful emulation of not just one, but several, of these rare and iconic compressors, that provides a distinctive and classy sound with a few modern twists.

What’s not?
This will not be to everyone’s taste but will find many converts to its unique sound.

The bottom line:
Another ‘character’ compressor with a top-notch pedigree. If you like your plug-ins to have a personality and a bit of history, then this will be well worth trying. 

The verdict:
We are all fairly used to the concept now of emulations of classic gear but Waves new collaboration, with Abbey Road studios, offers a plug-in version of a compressor that most of us have heard, but only a very small number have ever used. This is a recreation of the EMI  RS124 valve compressor, heralded for being “central to a vast array of legendary recordings” and having been used “on every Beatles track ever recorded at Abbey Road Studios”. 

It is interesting in the promotional video to hear Mirek Stiles, the head of Abbey Roads Studios Audio Products, talk with such passion and enthusiasm not just for the original units, but also this plug-in, that has been developed to capture their styles. 

Now you may wonder why I have dropped into the plural. Well, this is a unit that was purchased by EMI for their studios, but so heavily modified by them that the original makers, Altec, would probably not recognise the result, apart from the distinctive VU meter. The RS124 comes from a time when studios would test equipment and decide if it was up to their ‘house’ standard. The Altec’s were adapted, more controls added and eventually allowed into the workplace at their Abbey Road studio, where they soon found work in the various EMI studios for tracking, and also in the cutting rooms. 

Different versions, apparently dependant on their attack characteristics, were favoured in different applications and the plugin reflects the characteristics of the two most popular versions, offering ‘cutter’ or ‘studio’ models, switchable on the GUI. The two models provide distinctive flavours of the original Abbey Road RS124s. 

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With all plug-ins that emulate older gear, it helps to understand why they were popular, what they were predominantly used for. The two models offered by Waves reflect those different roles. ‘Cutter’ has slower attack and release times, these models would be found not just in the cutting rooms, sitting on the track, but in the studio for track bounces, where they would help smooth out transients. The ‘Studio’ version, with faster attack times, was a favourite of engineers like Geoff Emerick on track busses, but also instruments, especially the bass guitar. It is worth contextualising this as well, because we are talking about the mid-sixties, at the infancy of multitrack recording. Studios were not using as many channels as we do now, and any hardware was expected to perform to a very high standard and have multiple uses. It is a tribute to the RA124 that is still held in such high regard today, although until now you probably had to rent Abbey Road studios to get to use one!

A good deal of care has gone into the design of the plug-in. The interface has the usual high-quality ‘vintage’ look we expect from software designers these days. Any extras have either been incorporated into the front panel discretely or provided with the ‘expand’ switch. This opens below the plug-in and provides useful options not available in the original, such as a dry/compressed mix control and sidechain and linking options. These are all useful additions. The other major departures from the originals are the ‘super fuse’ and ‘auto-hold’ options available from the front panel. By clicking on what on the hardware version would be the fuse holder, the release and attack are matched giving a ‘supercharged’ compression. I must admit to having tried this almost immediately and was suitably impressed, it giving that instantly gratifying smashed-up sound on my drum bus. 

It was actually in ‘cutter’ mode that I gave the RA124 it’s first workout. Across some old mixes I was re-mastering it helped bring a bit of body, and punch, which was helpful. Using the mix control, I could dial in enough of the compressed sound to aid, rather than dominate, my mix. 

Moving to studio mode it worked great on bass, as I hoped, preserving the front-end attack but helping the track sit in the mix. I found that the fastest attack sounds were the most practical for the applications I tried, but with all these things experimentation is the key.

So, does it match the hype? Is this the ‘holy grail’ of compressors? I don’t believe there is such a thing as the ‘ultimate’ compressor and the hyperbole may put some off. ‘The most unique and important compressor in the history of recorded music and Waves have just nailed the sound’ claims Mirek Stiles. Maybe, it is certainly one that most of us have heard in use, but counterclaims can be made. However, the rhetoric shouldn’t detract from the fact that this is an important and distinctive unit. In the two ‘flavours’ offered by Waves, alongside the updated features, you get a workmanlike compressor with bags of character. I found it a joy to use, and on the right thing, in the right place, it sounded superb and achieved results I would struggle to accomplish with other single plug-ins. 

Will I buy it? Yes, I think I may well do. It has enough adaptability to fulfil several roles in a unique characterful way, and I think it has grown on me enough for me to miss it, and I can see it only becoming ever more useful.

Available now – RRP: $199 (currently subject to discount pricing at $39.99 that pricing may change on an ongoing basis due to sales and specials).

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