Technology for the artist: exploring Empirical Labs Inc.

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Technology for the artist: exploring Empirical Labs Inc.

Empirical Labs
Words by Jamie Colic

The word empirical by dictionary definition means “fashioned from experience,” and this notion certainly applies to Empirical Labs Inc.

Founded by Dave Derr in 1992, Empirical Labs Incorporated (ELI). specialises in the design and manufacture of professional audio signal processors and DAW plugins. Rising to prominence with the development of hardware units such as the Distressor in 1996 and later the Fatso in 2001, ELI is responsible for some of the most recent innovations in signal processing with over 28,000 Distressors being used in professional and project studios today.

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ELI’s mantra is both sincere and astute, stating “We want to make products that work a little easier, a little better, and a lot longer – and make sure that they are fun to use.” Not only is this notion admirable, but it also provides some insight into why Empirical Labs Inc. is a brand that resounds so vividly in the collective consciousness of music producers worldwide.

Humble Beginnings

Like many in the industry, Dave Derr’s roots are that of a musician. He spent time with Philadelphia-based rock band Jack Of Diamonds before diving headfirst into the world of electronics. During the 80s he was taken under the wing of senior MIT engineer Jim Bryan, who provided Dave with a position as an electronics tech within a medical establishment.

This served as perfect grounds for Derr to cut his teeth, providing him with a mentor and the means to hone his practical skills on a daily basis. Despite this, it would still be some time before he would commence work on his own designs. 

Fortunately, this all changed when Dave landed a position working with industry giant Eventide. This is where he would eventually contribute to the development of the classic Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer before departing to run his own recording studio.

Years spent as an audio engineer and rock guitarist had trained his ears well. Dave had a great sense of what sounded good, all the years of dissecting radioshack textbooks combined with his time at Eventide had granted him the knowledge he needed to establish Empirical Labs Inc. 

Dave Derr’s love of classic circuits such as the Teletronix LA-2A and UREI 1176 gives birth to a new legend.

Derr set out to create a hardware compressor that encompassed characteristics exhibited by some of his favourite processors including the 1176, LA-2A, and Gain Brain. In particular, Dave had become infatuated with the saturation fingerprint encompassed in these classic units and endeavoured to harness some of these flavours within his new designs. 

1996 saw the release of the Distressor and the market was eventually taken by storm. As a matter of fact, Empirical Labs had received almost 2000 orders before they had even placed their first advertisement. The fact that a good chunk of this buzz had spread via word of mouth was only a sign of to come. In the modern era, we would be willing to wager that there hasn’t been a single top 40 record released without at least one Empirical Labs Distressor “or software emulation” on it within the last 15 years. 

Hardware Units

EL-8 Distressor

All 8 of the Distressor’s predetermined curves are useful from the subtle 1.1 setting that will simply impart some analog flavour without any apparent compression to the classic Nuke setting which will act as a hard limiter. “Fantastic for smashing room mics if that’s your thing!”

Hitting the British mode switch has the potential to impart some classic 1176 characteristics with the right settings whereas the 10:10 “Opto” ratio can get you right into LA-2A territory. This unit can be very transparent or as brash as you like.

EL-7 Fatso

The Fatso’s warm tape emulation has garnered it an adoring fan base making it possibly the most unique hardware unit in ELI’s current product line. It has served as the secret sauce in many professional productions since it was first introduced to the market.  

The latest iteration of the Fatso incorporates a new 1176-style compression circuit, more stereo link options and an improved interface making the Fatso even more intuitive to use while mixing or mastering.

EL-9 Mike-E 

The Mike-E Channel Strip boasts a fantastic mic preamp that sounds phenomenal and is practically noise-free. The same can be said of the unit’s instrument input, providing an easy solution for those seeking a DI.

Empirical Labs Mike-E

Compression, saturation, emphasis and mix controls round out the rest of the unit’s front panel providing a one-stop shop for spicing up your next tracking session. The Mike-E also features a 48v phantom power switch and side chain inputs on its rear panel.


The Arousor

The Arousor brings the famed EL-8 Distressor to engineers and producers who are working in the box. Incorporating a variety of desirable features including attack modification, a detector sidechain and that classic ELI saturation. 

The Arousor is the only compressor plugin made by Empirical Labs and its intuitive UI will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used its hardware counterpart.

Big FrEQ Equalizer

The Big FrEQ is a fantastic solution for anybody seeking an EQ plugin that combines user-friendly analogue workflow with fantastic versatility and function. 

Packing in 12 sections of powerful processing the Big FrEQ immediately provides the user with more shaping options than a standardised EQ plugin, even providing analog saturation with its unique Finisher parameter. 

The Lowdown

With a history based on a love for audio and so many fantastic products featured in the current line, it is no wonder why Empirical Labs Inc. has developed such a prestigious reputation within a relatively short amount of time. 

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