SKnote C165a Review
If you're a fan of the revered DBX VCA compressor/limiter sound, then the C165a by SKnote is an absolute must-have! As though it were the starring role, featured in a box office opening prelogue, the C165a dramatically impresses us with its with its stylish, visual finesse and sonic supremacy. Higher-priced compression nemeses could be well justified to keep a wary eye on C165a's forward advance into present-day production environments.
SKnote C165a offers at a glance:
1. Built-in side-chain filtering with three bands of internal EQ control.
2. 4x oversampling for pristine audio quality.
3. "Sample aligned" internal Parallel Compression.
4. Impressively accurate modelling of an actual DBX 165a compressor/limiter.
5. Elegant photo-realistic 3D GUI.
I'm an ardent admirer of SKnote plugins. Each and every one of them that I have reviewed has become an integral part of my personal favorite and most-used production toolset; the SKnote C165a included. As a company, SKnote is well-respected and is fast becoming a common name within the home production and semi-professional recording community. For good reason! Excellent quality plugins at extremely affordable prices. Personalized water-marked plugins. No dongles. No Call/Challange Response protection mechanisms. Easy-to-use plugins wrapped in functional, attractive graphical interfaces.
Many full-scale studios enlist only the highest-ticket softwares and tend to overlook less expensive offerings from small developers such as SKnote. Fortunately, we home producers and small studio owners can aquire excellent quality plugins for very affordable rates. Case in point: C165a only costs $29(USD).
Let's charge up some shiny, silver virtual knobs and prepare for the best.
SKnote have deviated from their typical interface design with the C165a. This plugin comes to us in a polished, professional-looking photo-realistic motif. Previous plugins from SKnote certainly weren't unattractive, but the new photo-realistic 3D "dark" line of plugins are visually stimulating. The "gun-metal black" C165a has a classy, expensive presence about it.
The silver "knobs" remind me of those found on high-end Pioneer stereo amps from the early ninties. All labels are clearly seen in crisp, anti-aliased, white text. Each graphical element is comfortably spaced. Collectively, the array of knobs and buttons maintains a neatly-arranged symmetry. The C165a definitely has an alluring 'cool' factor; just looking at it entices you to use it. This plugin 'looks' like a high-end piece of studio equipment. C165a doesn't look like some old piece of basement gear; it's a bedazzling class A component.
The controls, as on the original hardware, are arranged intuitively. Familiar audio compression parameters are easily adjusted with smooth-response mouse movements. The moderately-sized, classic, VU-style metering is smooth, fast and accurate. Virtual 'push button' selectors allow the user to switch the metering between in/out/GR modes. Bright LED indicators clearly dispaly real-time peak, threshold, and stereo/mono status. Whenever a control is clicked on, the present value of that parameter is clearly displayed in moderately-sized white font against a black background, in the lower left corner of the interface. Immediate visual reference - no 'guesstimating' is required.
Rather than making the GUI in a static "rack mount" design, SKnote uniquely crafted this plugin to appear as though it were set on a console desktop in a wooden studio room. This GUI layout diverges from the norm; however, it does add a distinctive visual character. This gallant piece of art is comfortably sized in screen dimensions measuring 1200px wide x 400px high.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the C165a scores an 11.
This sterling model is an unassuming, stealthy performer. If you need saturated 'color', you can certainly drive this compressor into a sweet-sounding "crush" mode. However, the degree of rich, focused, clean compression that it provides is immense. Used judiciously, this compressor massages your auditory senses into a relaxed state of sonic elysium. C165a indulges you with deep, dimensional, dynamics control that befits the very elite of compression plugins; irrespective of associated cost.
SKnote's high-calibre implementation of 4x oversampling produces truly high-fidelity audio processing. Unless you purposely push this compressor into a saturated mode of operation, the C165a delivers clear, sharp, unaliased sound.
A very important point of interest concerning this compressor, is the *EXCEPTIONAL* quality of its "auto" mode. When engaged, the auto mode automatically adjusts its 'attack' and 'threshold' parameters as determined by program material dynamics; keeping the processed material very punchy and clean sounding. I've enjoyed - and I do mean 'enjoyed' - the results that 'auto' mode has produced on a recent, hard-driving Rickenbacker bass track I'd recorded. The transients remained strong, yet the bass's dynamic range became wonderfully controlled and focused. In this particular scenario, the C165a delivered and maintained better results than any other compressor that I have. This includes some that had a retail list price of $100.
For those times when an engineer/producer needs some serious compression saturation, C165aundauntedly redeems the mix. The dry/wet mix control amply supplies the user with easily dialed-in parallel compression. Go ahead! Crush the tar out of that drum bus and bleed some unprocessed signal back in; Motown all the way, baby! The C165a is capable of achieving some very fast attack and release timings. You can make a snare fairly shi-zizz-le if you want to. Keep the threshold high so that the compression remains engaged, set a slow attack in combination with a fast release, and you can parallel compress your way to Manhattan in big Apple style. Just because many compressors currently in the marketplace promise saturation; don't be fooled. There's a world of difference between grainy "digital" distortion and true, harmonically rich, analogue-like saturation. This black-tie studio agent of international proportions has saturation charisma and then some.
Percussive sounds remain solid. High-end sheen is not lost. Low frequencies retain their impact. This compressor is well suited to most nearly any compression task. It's capable of smoothly controlling a sub mix, the stereo bus, a bass track, dynamic piano/keyboards, acoustic guitars, individual drums or the entire drums bus. C165a literally is high performance, finely-tuned compression plugin with generous portions of headroom. I don't intend to cliche' my own expressions, but this compressor 'sounds' expensive.
Have you ever anticipated great results from a newly acquired plugin, only to be disappointed with the plugin's range of control? One teensy-weensy slip of the mouse and the sound flies out the window and takes out the innocent, unsuspecting red-breasted robin haply bop, bop boppin' along . . .
Well, not so with this precision ITB appliance. Each of C165a's carefully programmed controls smoothly and accurately affect the signal processing as one would expect. No jumps. No surprises. Threshold, compression, attack and release values are all smoothly dialed in with uncompromising accuracy. The threshold range is variable between a compactor-like squashing -50dB up to 0. The larger compression dial sweeps smoothly from 1:1 to 20:1 (and infinity) in evenly 'notched' increments.
Depressing the Power button on the compressor side, disengages the compressor and utilizes the limiting functionality alone. In like manner, depressing the Bypass button on the limiter side, releases the limiter from operation. Huge snap and thunderous thump can be achieved on drums with the limiter disengaged. Auto mode is astoundingly capable in this configuration. Only the most adept mix engineers will be able to manually tweak the compressor's settings to achieve an equivalent degree of compression clarity. If you are intent on driving the compression hard, the limiter will prevent 0dBs clipping, but the sound will distort.
The ingenious addition of SKnote's built-in sidechaining in this exquisitely modelled compressor is nothing short of spectacular. The engineer is facilitated with ridiculous measure of control over dynamics by discrimintly adjusting internal side-chaining. The side-chaining EQ controls ably divert frequency energy from being compression detected. For example, if you had already compressed invidual drum components to your liking, and wanted to introduce drum bus compression, you can prevent C165a from "recompressing" the sub bass frequencies. This eliminates unwanted saturation and distorted audio artifacts. On the other end of the tonal spectrum, applying the same methodology to the high frequencies, ensures that the high hats and cymbals will 'cut through' the mix. Guitar tracks may benefit from having mildly reduced amounts of midrange compression.
C165a's limiter functionality is smooth and well-managed. It operates just how we would expect the original hardware to work. It retains good, clean sound quality unless pushed too hard. The limiter works synergistically with the compression and allows for very smooth, even leveling. These two functioning in tandem are particularly well-suited for vocal applications. The DBX 165a could astonishingly approach the vocal leveling territory typically crowned by an 1176/LA-2A combination.
The plugin is moderately demanding on an average consumer-grade computer. This is primarily due to the 4x oversampling. Developer, Quinto Sardo, has assured me that a future revision will incorporate an HQ selection feature. SKnote shows this feature off in their excellent Console Strip/ Bus Compression suite, StripBus 2. The feature allows you to select HQ oversampling mode for rendering, and non-oversampled mode for tracking/editing purposes. If your DAW PC/MAC can handle it, you can choose to keep oversampling active at all times.
Visit the website and find this, and lots more SKnote goodies:
Brother Charles is a freelance writer, Gospel music artist and minister. Charles had been a professional touring musician during the nineties; working primarily as a lead guitarist in the Canadian country music industry. Brother Charles is also involved with music production and quality home recording.
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