The 1176 at 50: The Past and Future of the World's Most Influential Compressor

In the 1970s, a pair of Urei 1176s mounted in an island rack behind the recording console was as ubiquitous in professional studios as ashtrays, shag carpets, and brazen upholstery.

Though a lot has changed in 50 years—the cigarette-burned carpets have been ripped out, the bold-patterned furniture replaced with something neutral and sleek—the one thing that hasn't changed is the predominance of 1176s.

In a 2002 interview with Universal Audio, Andy Johns—famed producer and engineer for The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Television, and other era-defining artists—said, "Since you guys came out with the device, I have used them on every record." Decades after Johns' heyday, pop mixing engineer Jon Castelli would use the 1176 on Kesha's 2017 comeback single "Praying."

In studios throughout the world, you can still find entire racks of 1176s. And for those without the physical specimens, there are more than a dozen software emulations to fill the gap.

But why? What’s so special about the 1176?

Transitioning to "New Solid-State Technology"

Bill Putnam started designing audio gear in Chicago under the name of Universal Audio in the 1950s. In '57, he moved to Hollywood and renamed his company Universal Recording Electronics Industries. UREI had just acquired a company called Teletronix, which came with the patent rights to the optical LA-2A compressor. This merger was the first step toward creating the famous 1176.

With tube compressors like the Fairchild 660/670 and the LA-2A dominating the market, Putnam set out to “transition to new solid-state technology."

Using the newly invented Field Effect Transistor (FET), Putnam redesigned his own 175/176 tube compressor and renamed it the 1176. When it was released in 1967, it sold for $489—that’s just over $3,500 in 2017.

Introducing a Signature Sound

The FET circuitry introduced an alternative to the sound of tube compression. The original manual for the 1176 said it was "a major breakthrough in limiter technology—the first true peak limiter with all transistor circuitry offering superior performance and a signature sound."

This new technology also allowed for super-fast attack and release times (20 µS to 800 µS attack, 50 mS to 1.1 seconds for release). However, these fast reactions caused the unit to distort the signal. Thankfully, it imparted a rich, pleasing harmonic distortion, which most engineers describe as “colorful." Even when set to barely compress the signal, the 1176 is renowned for adding its characteristic glow to instrument and vocal tracks.

Its unique “feedback compression" design also added to the 1176’s tone. With modern compressors, the input to the detector unit is taken directly from the input section. But with a feedback compressor, the input comes from the output of the signal.

That means the attack and release times are affected by the amount of compression you apply. Higher ratios and larger amounts of gain reduction create different attack and release curves. This variability is part of what gives the 1176 its unique tone.

Feed-forward compressors tend to be more accurate, while feedback compressors tend to have a warmer sound.

One of the most unique features of the 1176 is the lack of a threshold control. Although the threshold is technically fixed, it changes based on the selected ratio—the higher the ratio, the higher the threshold. The input gain can be used to control the amount of compression applied.

While the threshold is fixed, the ratio (as well as the attack and release times) is program-dependent: After a transient, the compression is quickly released. As the rest of the signal is treated, the release time increases, along with the ratio. This creates the punchy sound that so many engineers look for in the 1176.

As engineer Will Shanks explained in a feature for Universal Audio's webzine in 2003, "People often think of the LA-2A as a program-dependent compressor. In fact, it’s known as the program-dependent compressor, and of course, it is. But the 1176 never gets the same accolades as a program-dependent device... it is."

Changing the 1176

Over the years, the 1176 went through a plethora of changes. No less than 9 official versions of the 1176 have been released.

"Bluestripe" Model A 1176

The original “Bluestripe" Model A version was released in 1967. The same year, Model AB was introduced, featuring different resistors and reduced noise. In 1968, Revision B was released, featuring an improved preamp.

In 1970, we saw the first major change to the 1176—Revision C. Technically named 1176 LN for low noise, this was the first “Blackface" model. It featured a slightly slower response time and improved low-end response.

From there, the 1176 went through a series of slight modifications until the “Silverface" Revision H model was issued in the mid-‘70s.

Universal Audio currently sells a 1176LN model based off of the circuit designs found in Revisions C, D, and E.

Operating the 1176 Controls

The 1176 is unique in many ways, including the way the controls operate. Instead of a variable ratio control, the ratio is selected by pressing one of four ratio buttons:

  • 4:1
  • 8:1
  • 12:1
  • 20:1

Since the threshold is fixed, there is no threshold control. Instead, use the input knob to increase the gain until the desired amount of compression is applied.

To dial in the sound, tweak the attack and release knobs to taste. Just remember—they operate backward from the conventional compressor standards. Turn the knobs to the left for slower times and to the right for faster times.

Drastically changing the attack and release times may cause the amount of compression to change. Use the input gain knob to correct for any unwanted changes.

Tips and Tricks

For the classic 1176 tone, try using the “Dr. Pepper" settings. The name comes from a Dr. Pepper ad that suggested people drink a bottle at 10am, 2pm, and 4pm for a sugar boost. As dumb as that sounds, it was an easy way to remember the following settings:

  • Attack at 10 o’clock
  • Release at 2 o’clock
  • Ratio at 4:1

Many engineers use this setting on vocals, which thickens the vocals and adds a lot of texture.

Chris Lord-Alge uses the 1176 to add grit and distortion to bass guitars that help them cut through a mix. He typically uses higher ratios, such as 8:1, and faster attack and release times for the increased distortion.

Some engineers prefer the aggressive, bombastic sound you get from crushing signals with an 1176. The 20:1 ratio can be great for slamming vocals or drum tracks, but engineers discovered that they could simultaneously push all four ratio buttons to create an even more punchy, aggressive, and distorted sound.

“All Buttons Mode" is commonly used on drums. Also known as British or Brit Mode, it can make drums sound enormous and aggressive.

Looking to the Future

In 1999, Bill Putnam Jr. relaunched his father’s company under the original name, Universal Audio, and began reproducing the 1176 in 2000.

The 1176 has an energy and a presence that no other compressor has. There’s something truly unique about the FET, which is why in 2014, Warm Audio released the WA76—its near-identical take on the original Rev D model.

Purple has been making their MC77 Rev D clone for 20 years. Companies like Klark Teknik, Hairball Audio, and Mohog make designs based off of the 1176. Even Empirical Labs’ Distressor has an 1176-inspired setting.

The 1176 truly is one of the most influential compressors of all time. It has been a studio staple for 50 years, with appearances on hit records from Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson. Many companies—like Analog Obsession, Bomb Factory, Slate Digital, u-he, Universal Audio, Waves, and more—have even released emulations.

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With its long and storied history, the 1176 has become the sound of not just a generation, but modern music as a whole—from rock 'n' roll to disco to trap. And with its longstanding ability to inspire new designs from a mass of modern companies, it's exciting to imagine what iterations we're going to see next.

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