The Universal Audio 1176LN Compressor/Limiter
The Classic Compressor That Defined Popular Music
The 1176 is perhaps the most recognizable piece of outboard gear in the history of recording popular music since its introduction in 1967. Photos courtesy of Universal Audio.
It is perhaps the most recognizable piece of outboard gear that can be found in any major recording studio facility. Today, it may also be the most useful software plug-in that a modern recording studio engineer has in the arsenal of their digital audio workstation. If there is a piece of outboard gear or equipment that has been used on more hit songs than any other throughout the history of the production of popular music— it is the first, UREI (United Recording Electronics Industries), and now, of course, Universal Audio 1176LN compressor/limiter.
The 1176 is perhaps not just the most recognizable piece of outboard gear that can be found in the rack of any recording studio facility, but it is also one of the most versatile. Much like a great microphone that can be used on a wide variety of sources, the 1176 is a compressor/limiter that sounds great on almost any source that you run through it for processing. I have worked with Grammy-Award winning engineers who have used it on electric guitar, drum, steel guitar, bass, and even vocal tracks— in other words, on almost everything! I have used the 1176 myself and love how it sounds on a wide variety of sources. It is an easy compressor/limiter to use for any engineer at any level of production, or with any level of experience in the studio. Introduced in 1967, the 1176 has been used on songs from such acts as AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Faith Hill, Santana and Michael Jackson. In fact, it is probably difficult to find a song that has not benefited from the use of an 1176 at some point or another during its production. The 1176 sounds smooth and well-defined— no matter the level of compression that is being applied to the signal.
The 1176 was produced from 1967 to 1985, and then the production of the famed unit was suspended as the company was sold by the original owner, Bill Putnam. In 1999, his sons, Jim and Bill Putnam Jr. re-established the company that their father had created, and in 2000, re-issued a new version of the 1176, the 1176LN, as the first product of their new company, Universal Audio. Today, you can purchase the fabulous outboard unit that is produced by Universal Audio, or the company also offers a software plug-in emulation that sounds just like an original outboard unit— either of which will make an excellent addition to any recording studio facility.
The 1176 compressor/limiter has been through a number of stages and revisions throughout its lifespan as a product. In fact, the origin of the 1176 can be traced back to a tube compressor/limiter unit that had been developed by Bill Putnam, in the early 1960s, with the creation of first, the 175 and then later, the 176, tube-based compressor/limiter. These units provided the basis for the creation of the legendary 1176. The 175 and 176 units both functioned much like the 1176 does today— even so far as having similar controls, similar cosmetics and even the ability to be applied to many of the same sound sources as the 1176 with great success in the recording studio environment.
The 1176 went through a number of revisions until it became the unit that we are familiar with today-- the 1176LN in 1970. Photos courtesy of Universal Audio.
The 1176 was first developed in 1967 by Bill Putnam after his experimentation with FET technologies which allowed for the new unit to have a different sound with a unique character. However, the unit went through a number of revisions from the original design in 1967 to the blackface unit that actually first appeared in 1970, that most of us in the engineering world are familiar with and have come to revere. The 1970 unit had new additional circuit designs that came from another great engineering mind, Brad Plunkitt, who was actually a member of the team that had assisted Bill Putnam with the original design of the first 1176 unit in 1967. In 1969, Brad Plunkitt, would be famous for his design of the LA-3A compressor/limiter, which was a solid-state version of the famed LA-2A. His contribution to the 1970 blackface design was a low-noise circuit— hence the designation of LN to the blackface 1176 models, a trend which continues with the current production of the 1176, or as it is commonly referred to— the 1176LN. It is actually this design which made the unit the recording studio legend that it has become. From this point forward in this article, I am going to refer to the 1176LN, as just simply the 1176.
The 1176 is perhaps not only the most recognizable piece of outboard gear in any recording studio facility rack, but it might also be one of the easiest to use. As a compressor/limiter the 1176 is designed to take program material and smoothen it— but, for those of you who are not engineers— what compression is as a process and how engineers use it must be understood before we progress any further with this article. Understanding how compression works requires understanding how we define the process. Understanding how the 1176 enables an engineer to be able to use the process of compression requires a knowledge of how to use the unit.
First, the process of compression works by taking a loud signal and making it softer, and conversely, it also takes softer signals and makes them louder— hence, the name of the process— compression. It is an amplitude processor, in other words, it deals with the volume of a signal. Using compression can allow an engineer to unpack more volume out of a particular track into a mix and in the process of doing so, can also make that track less dynamic, or smoother by taking away the loud peaks. A compressor that is properly used can— because it smoothens the loud peaks of a signal and you can control the release of the signal from the process of compression— also allow a note to sustain slightly longer, which can result in a signal or a track that has a thicker sound. In other words, compression can be used either as a tool or as an effect. With the 1176, the beauty of the unit is that you can use it either as a masterful tool, or you can also use it to create an effect. Limiting is setting a volume threshold by which a signal cannot pass above— in other words, limiting can be used to protect your equipment from excessive volumes. In order to use compression properly, with an 1176 or any other outboard processor, you should first understand both the principles of compression and how to apply them with the processor that you are using. The 1176 is an easy processor to use to explain this process and how it can work for an engineer, or for anyone who loves great music.
The 1176 is perhaps the most recognizable piece of outboard gear that can be found in almost every major recording studio facility around the world. Photos courtesy of Universal Audio.
The 1176 is easy to use to apply the process of compression. Below, I will provide you with an explanation for the function of each of the control knobs on the unit. When you sit in front of an 1176, you will see the following control knobs from left to right. The input knob on the left side of the unit controls the amount of a signal that is coming into the unit to be processed. The output knob that is next to it, controls the amount of the signal leaving the compressor that has been processed— for you to be able to monitor. To the right of the two large knobs for the input and output of the unit are two smaller knobs which are labeled attack and release. The attack knob determines how quickly or slowly the process of compression is applied to a signal. The release determines how quickly or slowly the process of compression stops being applied to a signal. On the right side of the unit, is a VU meter and surrounding it are buttons that you depress that determine the level of compression for the unit and also, what you are able to monitor on the meter for the unit. On the left side of the VU meter, are the buttons that determine the level of compression that is applied to the signal that is coming through the unit and are labeled with the following fixed ratio formulations: (from bottom to top) 4, 8, 12, and 20 (which stands for the ratios of 4 to 1; 8 to 1; 12 to 1 and, or 20 to 1). The amount of signal that is reduced is made up by how much you raise the gain with the output knob. On the right side of the VU meter is a set of buttons which allow you to be able to select how you wish to monitor the processing that is being accomplished by the unit.
Perhaps no compressor/limiter unit has been used more than the 1176 in the process of creating popular music. I have seen Grammy-Award winning engineers use an 1176 on the following sources: electric guitars, steel guitar, drums, bass and vocals— so, it is incredibly versatile. I have never seen an engineer use it in the so-called “British mode,” which is where all of the ratio buttons are depressed. In fact, I rarely saw an engineer while mixing use it beyond the 4 to 1 ratio for both gentle and smooth compression. There are fabulous engineers that have used it to tame a very dynamic vocal performance or to enhance the bite and punch of a snare drum. In fact, I have seen engineers commonly use all four of the 1176 units that we had at Curb Recording Studios on a variety of sources while both mixing and tracking.
If you want to hear an 1176 in action on a popular song that has become a timeless classic, there is one great example that is easy to find. On the song “Smooth,” from the 1999 Carlos Santana album, Supernatural, featuring Rob Thomas— the legendary and Grammy-Award winning, recording studio engineer, David Thoener, used the 1176 on the fabulous and iconic electric guitar tracks. If you listen to the sounds of the electric guitar played by the legendary Carlos Santana in the song— it will give you the perfect idea of what an 1176 can sound like on a superb electric guitar track— literally— smooth.
The 1176 can be used while tracking, mixing or in almost any recording situation. Each of the 1176 units I have used or have any experience with have always given the tracks that they were applied to a signature quality of smoothness. Simply put, an 1176 does not sound like any other processor that you can put into a signal chain. However, its sibling, the LA-3A does share some similar characteristics in both sound and function with the 1176. The 1176 does bring color, or character to a signal, but this is exactly why great engineers have turned to using it time and time again in their work.
While the 1176 is an iconic piece of recording studio hardware, Universal Audio still makes fantastic units just like the 1176N that engineers have come to revere. There are competitive companies which make clones of the 1176— but Universal Audio makes the legendary unit that is the standard by which all others are to be compared. With the revolution of the digital audio workstation changing the nature of the process of recording, the 1176 has now also become available from Universal Audio in software plug-in form. The new units from Universal Audio and the software plug-in from the company both sound like the 1176 of old— iconic and worth every penny. The sound of popular music would not be the same without the 1176, it is an essential piece of hardware for every major recording studio facility and it continues to play a major role in developing great music.
For more information about the 1176LN, or the software plug-in which emulates it, please visit www.uaudio.com.
If you wish to listen to a Universal Audio 1176LN Compressor/Limiter in action, click the button to watch the video on YouTube. This link is external and not affiliated with this website.
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Special Thanks and Acknowledgement
I would like to take a moment to thank the following individuals for their time, energy and important contributions to the development of the article about the 1176LN Compressor/Limiter in the Recording Session Vault educational website project.
Ms. Amanda Pancho of Universal Audio and Mr. Shawn Whitfield of Universal Audio