1996 Alesis NanoCompressor

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 31 December 2011 |

The Alesis NanoCompressor was launched in 1996 as part of the Nano range of 1/3-rack-space project studio devices. As far as I can tell, it’s a scaled down version of the component compressor from the incredibly successful Alesis 3630 (introduced in 1991). The 3630 incorporates two of these compressors, both with its own noise gate, whereas the Nano is just a single one, without a gate. I’d say that the real power of the 3630 lies in the combination of its features rather than the components per se, but it obviously wouldn’t have achieved its high status if its compressors were poor. So, there should at least be a laudable standard of quality in this simple stereo unit...

The example I'm looking at was manufactured in December 1996. I relate the following only to this particular example, and my assessment should not be taken in any wider sense. Like all retrospectives on Planet Botch, there is no commercial influence involved.

So, the NanoCompressor is a tiny box which is most unlikely ever to be accused of taking up too much room in a studio. It's very simple and well laid out, with stereo ins and outs on the rear, plus a single ring/tip jack for a side chain. On the front, the user controls are as follows...

The Threshold sets the volume at which compression will kick in. The further to the left you turn this knob, the lower the volume at which compression will kick in, and accordingly the more compressed the sound will be – subject to the setting of other controls.

The Ratio controls the actual amount of compression – how much the sound is squashed. But these controls work interactively, so once again, the result as it sounds to the listener will depend on the setting of the other dials. With the Ratio knob set all the way to the left, there will be no compression at all. With it set all the way to the right, the sound will potentially be heavily squashed – subject to the setting of the other controls. 

Attack determines how quickly the compression kicks in after the strike of a note. With the Attack knob set all the way to the left, the effect is introduced almost immediately. With it set all the way to the right, the initial strike of the note is allowed through without compression.

Release determines how quickly the compression dies away after the strike of the note. All the way left, only the initial attack of the sound is compressed. All the way right, the compression remains active for three seconds after the initial attack, before fading away to leave the natural sound.

Finally, the Output allows compensation for any drop or rise in signal level once the compression settings have been determined.

There are selection buttons for Hard or Soft Knee compression, and Peak or RMS mode. Hard Knee just means the sound is strictly governed by the Threshold setting and will be immediately compressed once volume raises above that threshold. Soft Knee gives a little more ‘licence’ and makes the overall feel less ‘mathematical’. In Peak mode, the NanoCompressor performs as a strict limiter with a ceiling on volume set by the Threshold level. This prevents any loud transients in the playing from exceeding a desired maximum level, thus protecting recordings against unwanted distortion. In RMS mode, the dynamic squeezing is based on the average level of the signal, so things don’t sound so contrived or viciously compressed. RMS mode, however, disables the Attack and Release controls, and sets its own times. There’s also an Input/Output selector button, which allows you to choose whether the LED meters represent input or output levels, plus a Bypass, should you want to switch off the effect.


So that’s the technical layout. How does it sound? Well, I’m not about to go overboard on the NanoCompressor. It does pretty much what it’s supposed to do, but it’s not the best compressor I’ve ever had – or the second, or the third… Even sticking within the realms of single-unit comps (which excludes the 3630), I don’t rate it as highly as my DOD FX-80B. Yes, the DOD’s only mono, and it’s a stomp box for guitar rather than a project studio effect, but I prefer its rather charming personality. In fact personality is what I feel the NanoCompressor lacks.

For that reason I actually use the compressor in my Boss ME-5 in preference to the Nano for recording most instruments in my home studio (I use the 3630 for vocals). There’s also the issue that if you’re using the NanoCompressor as a sustainer, that 3 second maximum on the Release in Peak Mode is too short to give the impression of infinite sustain. So there is stuff this effect can’t do. It’s got sufficient sound-squashing power, but it’s not an “OMG-Wow!” product by any means – not to my ears, anyway.

What Alesis have done as regards pricing on this range has to be admired. But, particularly taking the secondhand market into account, there’s a very wide choice when it comes to compressors. The Alesis 3630 is a much more powerful device than the NanoCompressor, and is, I believe, easily worth the extra money. That’s where I’d head for vocal processing. For instruments which require stereo compression, the Nano isn’t a bad choice, but if you can get away with mono, there are plenty of other compressors which I personally find more exciting. It’s often said that the listener should not be able to tell that a compressor has been used, and if you concur with that, the NanoCompressor would rank quite highly. But there’s another school of thought which treats compression as an effect, and wants it to add a tangible ingredient. If that includes you, you may be left wanting the NanoCompressor’s ‘ingredient’ to be a little more spicey.

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