Review: Gainlab Audio ‘Dictator’ Variable-Mu Compressor

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Review: Gainlab Audio ‘Dictator’ Variable-Mu Compressor

gainlab dictator review
Words by Erika Fedele

Federal Audio | Enquire for pricing

Gainlab are a relatively fresh face in the rack gear universe having only launched during the latter part of 2020 but in that very short time since, the tube gear specialists have quickly garnered a reputation for providing high quality, forward-thinking rack gear with the modern engineer in mind. 

Taking its name from the Budapest Studio from which the Gainlab team were all inhouse audio engineers, the brand already have a few releases under their belt, namely the awesome Empress Tube EQ and now this, the equally impressive ‘Dictator’ Dual Pentode Vari-Mu compressor.

Read more product reviews here.

Like the Empress, the Dictator also serves as a nod to the brand’s obvious and apparent love for tube outboard gear and the sympathetic and character-rich tones such units tend to impart on their program material. Also like the Empress, the Dictator features a slightly more updated take on what is essentially one of the most iconic tube circuits in all of studio lore, the beloved Variable-Mu compressor.

Now, anyone with even a passing knowledge in the various species of compressor will probably already have a pretty good idea of what you are in for when it comes to the wonderful world of Vari-Mu compression, but just in case you needed a refresher, a Variable-Mu compressor is a compressor that primarily utilises a vacuum tube as its central element of gain reduction.

I know you are probably thinking ‘don’t opto compressors and other compressor types employ tubes in their topography as well?’ And the answer is yes they certainly do, but the primary difference being that in Variable-Mu circuits, the tube itself is the gain reduction component, as opposed to other types of compressors that use tubes in the amplifier and output sections of the circuit but rely on a different design for the actual compression itself. To put it simply, Variable-Mu’s are the most ‘tube’ of the tube compressors and thus have a character that is entirely their own.

The Dictator is a tastefully modern and very ‘now’ example of a dual-pentode tube Variable-Mu compressor and this is apparent from the minute you plug it in.

A Dual Pentode Vari-Mu compressor incorporating a highly desirable variable gain design and with an added sidechain that just screams modern dance music, it’s an awesome way to inject some vibe into in-the-box recordings as a hardware insert, while also being ideal for chucking on a master buss or vocal chain for a bit of tasteful tube compression.

Loosely based on classic Vari-Mu’s of yore, like the Fairchild 670 and Gates STA-Level, the Dictator employs a pair of military-grade 6k4p-EV pentode valves, sourced from countries such as Hungary, East Germany or Poland during the Warsaw pact. These are renowned for being some of the longest lasting and highest quality tubes around for this kind of processing.

Where the Dictator differs greatly from the aforementioned classic models is in its modern sidechaining capabilities and the presence of the ‘Mu Follower’ branch circuits, which allows for awesome synchronisation between the two channels, providing ultimate accuracy for parallel processing. Side-chain filtering can be engaged at a number of pre-indexed switchable cutoff frequencies ranging between 22Hz and 200Hz, and you can optionally link two units for further stereo operation.

The accuracy and consistency of the ‘Mu Follower’ make it absolutely perfect for processing everything from lush synth pads, marrying basslines to kicks, layering 808’s, ducking vocals and various other compression tasks in the stereo field. While there is no doubt that this kind of routing and sidechaining is one of the Dictator’s strong suits, one of the biggest upsides of the Dictator is in the quality and variety of the compression sounds on offer here. 

You’ll no doubt notice the ‘Fastest-Fast-Slow’ options on the Attack and Release parameters – fairly vague and without a millisecond or hard measurement in sight. This makes a tonne of sense when you start to consider the ways in which a Vari-Mu circuit fundamentally differs from a FET or VCA circuit. With its tube-based front end, the Dictator skillfully eschews the kind of rigidity so common in other compressor circuits, operating in a much more organic and reactive way, the result of which equates to an extremely pleasant and characterful sound quality that seems to undulate and change depending on a combination of program material and threshold position. 

As somebody with a penchant for fast attack times, I found the fastest attack setting to be more than quick enough for all but the most percussive transient material and it’s ability to fatten and flatten and saturate proved an awesome way to impart character on a sound while also performing its attenuation duties.

While on the topic of the threshold function, the centrally placed, oversized Threshold control is definitely a nice touch and allows for a surprising amount of variance which is important, in the context of a Vari-Mu comp. 

At its lowest threshold, the Dictator is capable of some heavy-handed pumping and harmonic fire ideal for creative sound design. Being so program-dependent means that the Dictator can be driven quite hard, and the beautiful saturation that this brings with it is both harmonically rich and extremely musical. Gently tickling the threshold, the Dictator is an exquisite and classy sounding attenuator, transparently shaving a decibel here and there or working as a perfect thickening agent to a lead vocal or piano sound or even as an affordable gateway into the world of tube compression on the master bus.  

In terms of metering, the Dictator offers classy backlit VU metering, that are switchable between Reduction and Output level and provide a nice visual reference point, but the truth of the matter is, you’ll find yourself relying less on these and more on your ear as you drive the the Dictator’s Dual Pentode Tubes further and further into saturation. That is after all, one of the beauties of Variable-Mu.

Head to Gainlab Audio for more information. For local enquiries, reach out to Federal Audio.