FET or Solid State compressors, or field effect transistor compressors, make use of transistor circuits. They respond quickly to the signal you run through them, and they’re also quite punchy, colourful, and bright.
There’s some debate online about the distinction between VCA compressors and FET compressors, according to Messitte. However, he states that “In a VCA compressor, the transistor is housed within an integrated circuit (an IC) which responds to the voltage of your incoming signal. The FET, however, works with the electrical field as a whole, and gain changes are the result of electrical charges in addition to voltage.”
In practice, FET compressors are capable of extremely fast attack times, but they tend to introduce some colour and distortion to the signal you apply them to—especially when driven. For mastering purposes, this isn’t typically something you’re looking for, but FET compressors tend to suit a wide variety of aggressive rock and rap vocals.
Perhaps the most popular FET compressor of all time is the 1176 Limiting Amplifier, which was originally introduced to the market in the late 1960s. This compressor has lightning-fast attack and release times, and it delivers a bright, present, and energetic sound.
One of the iconic features of the 1176 is that when you push in all four ratio buttons in at once, the results are aggressive and musical. Putting the 1176 into this state is commonly referred to as “all button mode” or “British mode.”
Over the years, there have been over 13 revisions and variations of the 1176—each revision is unique in its own way. If you’d like to learn more about the differences, this Universal Audio article provides a comprehensive overview of each revision. Universal Audio’s 1176LN reissue is what you’re most likely to find in stores now, but you can hunt down previous revisions of the 1176 by searching websites like Vintage King.
In the Box options
Like the LA-2A, just about everybody making software compressors has taken a stab at the 1176 too. The Waves CLA and UAD versions are again the standouts, but there have been other worthwhile entries into this crowded field more recently. There are also some credible hardware recreations that cost scarcely more than their software counterparts. What a time to be alive!
It’s hard to mention the 1176 without talking about its infamous “all buttons in” setting, AKA “British mode.” This definitive setting is also available on any emulation worth its salt, and maybe even a few that aren’t. A common application of “British mode” is on any drum mic (or parallel buss) that you intend to “crush.” Room mics are a common choice for this, but I’ve had great results applying the 1176 all-in crush treatment to wurst (or knee) mics as well as front-of-kit placements. I usually end up liking around 5-7 dB of reduction in these cases, but many go for more and I wouldn’t try to stop them.
Many producers swear by a combination of the LA-2A and 1176 on vocals, with the former providing smooth dynamic control and the latter bringing some tasteful vibey excitement. I’m a big fan of the 1176’s higher ratios (12:1 and 20:1) for lead electric guitar and other melodic instruments.
Quick pro tip: the uninitiated often miss that the 76’s attack and release controls are opposite what you’d expect, with the fastest values (the shortest times) living farthest to the right.