Self-recordists prize them for their amazing value (at only $300 street) while some persnickety golden-ears praise them for their musicality and smooth optical compression: the ART Pro VLA can be found in varied equipment racks these days. In its latest incarnation, ART’s big seller provides more of the gentle “poor man’s LA2A” leveling that made it initially popular, plus notable improvements in its operational range.
Both ART’s original VLA and the modern VLA II are transformerless, VCA-less, Vactrol-based electro-optical leveling amplifiers with a tube-driven output stage: a 12AX7 or lower output 12AT7 in the VLA, or a 12AT7 in the VLA II). Both units have respectable (and nearly identical) noise and frequency response specs.
The VLA and VLA II primarily differ from an operational standpoint. Not only does the VLA II add continuously variable attack and release controls — the VLA had only slow/fast attack — but the VLA II can now attack at a faster .25ms or a slower 50ms while release control now ranges from a faster 150ms to a max of three seconds. However, the VLA II only offers ratios from 2:1 to 20:1 (as compared to infinity:1 max on the VLA).
Over a period of months, I tried tracking and mixing with the VLA II, while having my old American-manufactured VLA (not the later Chinese-built units which honestly sound a little bit cleaner) nearby and ready for insertion. As you would imagine, the VLA and VLA II sound very similar, but I believe they are tonally different enough to garner different recommendations.
If I may make a purposefully broad observation, the original Pro VLA seems to favor tracking as well as insertion on individual tracks and subgroups, more so than mix-bus compressor applications. Engineers frequently cite lead and backup vocal, electric guitar, bass guitar and synth applications to be well suited for the VLA, so here are my direct comparisons:
I never really liked bass guitar through the VLA; it always seemed a little “clacky,” generally thin and in need of attack adjustment. I liked bass with the VLA II more; with it, the low-mids seem to bloom in comparison, while bright peaks had more body. Even at a gentle 2:1 for only -4 dB max, I heard more likable low-mid growl.
In my own studio, I have an eight-bus console. When mixing, I typically set up busses 7 and 8 as a stereo pair for parallel compression of lead and stereo backing vocals, with the VLA adding only a little slow leveling to the group plus a nice, silky imprint of character. In this application, the VLA II just didn’t do it for me; it seemed to lose that crisp sheen and gain some thickness that I didn’t prefer. However, the compression itself was as smooth and musically “el-op’y” as the VLA, helpful with sibilance and quite to my liking.
Electric guitars of the distorted variety are very nicely handled by the VLA II, with excellent density, consistency and a full, round tone — far nicer than the VLA in comparison. Sure enough, I still preferred the VLA for clean and glassy electric guitars (especially when in stereo) with its spiffy top end and less-cluttered low-mids.
One thing both models do very well is politely contain synths while subtly enhancing their frequency content. For your listening pleasure, webclip #1 [heard via the link at the end of this review — Ed.] is a drum loop with a bubbly synth bass-line, no compression. Webclip #2 is that same loop through the VLA at a 2:1 ratio, fast attack (for some grab), auto release and about -4 or -5 dB max attenuation. Webclip #3 is the VLA II at 2:1, same max attenuation with an attack of about one millisecond and a .3 second release. Notice the musical density of the VLA in Webclip #2, the aptly tamed snare/claps and the slightly brightened treble sheen. In Webclip #3, notice the same dynamic containment, but with the increased forwardness of the fast kick notes and the “more natural” high end.
I’m not usually one to use either high ratios or fast attack, but I tried the VLA II at 20:1, about 10 dB+ of gain reduction with a six ms attack and a .25 sec release. It’s not exactly the VLA II’s forte (and usually a recipe for some nasty pumping) but check out Webclip #4: is it just me or does that sound pretty cool?
If you like the build quality, affordable price and the velvety el-op qualities of the original VLA, you will like those same qualities in the VLA II. The new attack and release controls are must-have features for painting sonic detail and were much needed improvements, in my opinion. The new VLA II has slightly darker voicing, too; don’t be surprised if you find yourself using it for a whole different set of tasks. The VLA II can do “subtlety,” but if you crave some heavy-handed stuff and you like that warm/gooey optical compression signature, then it is also must have for your rack — especially right alongside an original VLA for variety.
Price: $379 list
Contact: ART Pro Audio | artproaudio.com
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Charlotte, NC’s Catalyst Recording.