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Review of the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Plugin by UAD

Review of the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor UAD Plugin

The Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor is universally acclaimed in audio production circles for its exceptional versatility and distinctive sonic character. It builds on the foundational technologies of iconic compressors like the UA 1176 and Teletronix LA-2A but introduces a modern twist that makes it indispensable in contemporary studios.

Revered for its ability to impart rich, musical colors and adaptable compression settings, the hardware version of the Distressor has been a staple in the recording industry, featuring on thousands of hit records.

Recognizing the Distressor’s pivotal role in audio engineering, Universal Audio has painstakingly emulated its sound and functionalities in the EL8 Distressor Compressor plugin.

This plugin isn’t just another compressor in a digital format; it represents the only end-to-end emulation of the renowned hardware, providing users with a software solution that mirrors the original’s tactile response and sound quality.

I loaded the UAD Distressor plugin on a synthesizer track and was initially surprised that the manufacturer did not emulate the GUI to 100% like the original. The plugin looks like a ½ 19″ unit with two rack spaces, thus differing from the hardware.

However, this works very well in operation since the compressor is large enough and does not fill the entire screen. Already in the basic setting, I notice the coloring of the UAD Distressor. It reflects the character of the hardware very accurately.

Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Compressor UAD Plugin


The attack time can be set very quickly, as known from the hardware. In my opinion, this compressor plugin is the fastest in the whole range of Universal Audio. The transients are very well handled and can add a certain shine to the signal – clean, unobtrusive, and classy.

What bothers me about many compressor plugins with fast attack times are the distortions that occur during processing. I’m not talking about musical, harmonic distortions, but about digital noise. These artifacts are missing in the UAD Distressor hardware unit, which catapults this plugin into the Olympus of digital effects.

Ratio & Knee Curves

When switching through the individual ratios, the different knee curves become apparent, and using the low-cuts and the expanded side-chain functions allows you to set the compressor very focused. In addition to ratio settings from 1:1 to 20:1, this compressor possesses a special circuit that resembles a brickwall limiter.

Also read: 5 Best Limiter VST Plugins for Mixing and Mastering

This Nuke mode squeezes the signal together properly and is very suitable for parallel drum compression. The higher you set the ratio, the steeper the knee, the compressor’s knee curve. The “British Mode” is missing compared to the hardware variant.

This would be based on the “UREI 1176 All Buttons Mode”, which parallels the 20:1 ratio but goes beyond with exaggerated knee curves. At a specific setting of ratio 10:1, attack 10, and release 0, an optical compressor circuit is emulated. This type of compression is ideally suited for vocals. The special Opto and 1:1 settings convince and make this compressor a wonder weapon.


Additionally, you can cut the bass in various ways and add two different saturations to your control signal via two knobs. The Distortion 2 setting adds even harmonic overtones to the audio, as you would expect from a tube. The Distortion 3 setting enriches it with both even and odd harmonic distortions.

If the ‘Dist 3’ knob is active, the top-end is also slightly attenuated. This circuit thus more closely simulates a tape machine. Some saturation LEDs show you whether you are distorting your signal or staying in the green zone.

Sidechain Filter

Advanced sidechain capabilities allow precise control over which parts of the signal spectrum trigger the compressor, thus avoiding unwanted artifacts like low-frequency pumping, ideal for drum bus compression.

With a sidechain filter, you emphasize the mid-band. This allows you to compress harsh frequencies more specifically. This setting is excellent for taming shrill girl voices, whistling synthesizer sounds, and screaming guitar riffs.

Headroom and Operating Levels

The plugin includes adjustable headroom settings, allowing users to tailor the compressor’s response to the specific needs of their session, whether they are aiming for subtle dynamic control or more pronounced effects.

In Practice

The Distressor plugin is designed to be both intuitive for beginners and deep enough for more advanced users. Setting it up in a session is straightforward:

  • Inserting the Plugin: Begin by inserting the EL8 Distressor on the desired track, be it vocals, drums, guitars, or even your mix bus.
  • Choosing the Ratio: Select a compression ratio based on the desired amount of compression and character. For minimal dynamic alteration with harmonic enhancement, start with 1:1. For more aggressive applications, experiment with higher ratios or even the Nuke setting.
  • Adjusting Attack and Release: Tailor the attack and release settings to shape the transient response and sustain of your audio signal. Faster attack times can tame peaks quickly, while slower settings let more of the initial transient through.
  • Setting the Sidechain Filters: Use the high-pass filter in the sidechain to prevent low frequencies from triggering compression, ensuring a more focused dynamic response.
  • Fine-tuning with Distortion Modes: Engage Dist 2 or Dist 3 to add harmonic complexity to the signal, adjusting the intensity to taste.
  • Parallel Compression: Blend the processed and dry signals to achieve the desired balance with the Mix control, harnessing the power of parallel compression effortlessly.

How does this compressor react to different signals? When you put the compressor plugin on vocals it works very precisely and produces no pumping even with strong level changes on the vocals. Whether you use the compressor like a 1176er or like an LA-2A Compressor, the UAD Distressor does its job reliably and transparently.

You can bring your drums forward, glue them together, or just color them. With the Mix button, which is missing on the hardware unit, you can do parallel compression. This is very suitable for New York compression style.


The UAD EL8 Distressor plugin is an exemplary model of digital emulation done right, capturing the essence and flexibility of the beloved hardware unit. It extends the creative potential of the original by adding features conducive to a digital workflow, like parallel processing and adjustable headroom.

Whether used subtly or as the driving force behind a mix, this plugin maintains the Distressor’s reputation as the “Swiss Army knife” of compressors, making it a must-have tool in any sound engineer’s digital arsenal.

Buy/Download Link: UAD EL8 Distressor Compressor

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