Warm Audio WA76

Can Warm Audio’s compressor match up to the legendary status of the classic 1176? Stephen Bennett finds out.

Walk into any professional or semi-professional studio facility and you’re likely to see one (or more) Urei 1176 Limiting Amplifiers. These have long been the compressor of choice for generations of musicians and, even if a vintage unit or the modern recreation from Universal Audio (UA) can’t be found, it’s likely that one of the many clones that have appeared over the years will be nestling somewhere in the equipment rack. However, if you wander into the typical project studio, processing hardware is likely to be almost completely absent, superseded by virtual recreations of classic equipment with some of the most popular options being various flavours of the 1176, which just goes to show how popular this compressor still is.

The reason for the device’s desirability among engineers is, of course, the positive way it affects any audio passing through it, which is why studios are prepared to shell out significant amounts of moolah for a vintage 1176 and why project studios owners are keen to have virtual versions.

As you might expect, the original 1176 has undergone many revisions over the years and each has its advocates. One of the most popular is the ‘Revision D’ model and this is the iteration that Warm Audio has chosen to recreate as its latest hardware audio processor, the WA76 Discrete Compressor.

The specs

Warm Audio has developed a formidable reputation for building high-quality audio processors for reasonable prices, and devices such as the TB12 Tone Shaping Microphone Preamp and WA12 Microphone Preamp have found admirers and a place alongside more expensive equipment in many studios. Unlike some boutique manufacturers, Warm Audio’s products are aimed at those who might normally use plug-ins – in fact, the WA76 costs around the same as some virtual compressors. However, it appears that Warm Audio hasn’t cut any important corners when manufacturing the WA76, as it employs fully discrete circuitry and Cinemag input and output transformers – the latter company being the owner of Reichenbach Engineering, producer of the transformers for the original Urei designs.

Popping open the WA76 reveals a well-constructed and neat layout. The most significant difference between the WA76 and the original unit is the latter is shipped with a chunky in-line external 24V AC power supply.

This choice must have had a significant impact on the build price of the unit as it significantly simplifies the circuit and enclosure design required and, as the WA76 is probably going to be used in a static studio-type situation, I think most potential purchasers will be happy with this particular compromise.

Externally, the WA76 looks like (surprise, surprise) an 1176! A significant reason for the original unit’s popularity is its simplicity in use, and the WA76 recreates this exactly. The large and friendly backlit meter can be set to display the amount of Gain Reduction, has two settings that change the value of the 0dB indicator to display +4dBm or +8dBm levels, and a physical off switch for the unit.

The Attack knob allows the user to set the compressor’s attack time between 200 and 800 microseconds, while the release knob ranges between 50 milliseconds and 1.1 seconds. The Input knob controls both the signal level entering the unit and the threshold setting – there’s no separate threshold control, the level at which compression occurs being set in conjunction with the ratio controls, which offers gain reduction ratios of 4:1, 8:1, 12:1, and 20:1 – the last effectively turning the WA76 into a limiter.

Aficionados of the original 1176 will be pleased to hear that the ‘all ratio buttons in’ and ‘all buttons out’ modes also work on the WA76, so the full gamut of creative compression options are offered. The Output knob provides gain makeup and the Class A output amplifier provides a signal perfectly capable of producing low-noise results with modern audio interfaces and mixers.

The rear panel is even more spartan – a socket for the power supply, a -23dB input pad button (that’s useful if you have high-output preamps or want to overload the input), and, usefully, simultaneously available balanced inputs and outputs on both XLR and TRS sockets. There’s no stereo link option (though a mod is available) but I can’t see that really being an issue on this unit, as it’s more likely to be mostly used on mono sources when tracking, rather than on a stereo bus when mixing.

In use

I compared the Warm Audio WA76 to both a vintage Revision D LN (Low Noise) 1176 and a Universal Audio 1176 revision D plug-in – which has become my ‘go to’ software compressor. The WA76 immediately sounds impressive. Patched in to the inserts on my Metric Halo ULN-2 and fed by my 80s Neumann U87, I was presented with ‘that sound’ that I’m familiar with from hundreds of records and dozens of recording sessions. I can get somewhat close to the same feel with the virtual 1176, but the presence of physical transformers and components always seems to add a certain subtle something missing from the software models.

Strangely, the difference in sound between the WA76 and the UA model appeared less than the difference between the Warm Audio unit and the vintage Urei, the latter sounding more ‘closed in’ to these ears spoiled by this modern world of digital clarity. However, the WA76 definitely sounds like a real 1176 and the controls behave in the expected and predictable manner – I can’t give it higher praise than that. At the price, I can’t really fault the WA76 – apart from Warm Audio’s logo, perhaps!

The reviewer

Stephen Bennett has been involved in music production for over 30 years. Based in Norwich he splits his time between writing books and articles on music technology, recording and touring, and lecturing at the University of East Anglia.