A stompbox incarnation of a famed outboard compression circuit.
We fixate so much on the effects our favorite guitarists place in front of their amps that we sometimes fail to appreciate the importance of back-end processing. But the sonic imprint of mics, preamps, console channels, tape, and outboard gear are crucial components of our favorite studio tones.
Few single pieces of “non-guitar” gear have defined recorded guitar sound as thoroughly as the Urei 1176. Since its 1968 debut, audio visionary Bill Putnam’s compressor has tightened and brightened countless guitar performances. The effect has also been modeled extensively, so many musicians are familiar with the effect via software, even if they’ve never encountered the hardware original.
Now England’s Origin Effects has captured the 1176 sound in stompbox form. The Cali76 Limiting Amplifier ($339 street) reviewed here is the basic model, with simple 1/4" input and output jacks. (Origin offers several higher-priced versions with more studio connectivity and/or high-grade Lundahl transformers. They also produce the SlideRIG, a stompbox with two compressors designed to replicate the dual-1176 signal path reportedly employed by slide guitarist Lowell George.)
None are exact 1176 clones, though they’re all based on the schematic. The Origin circuitry is tidily assembled on circuit board using the sort of low-wattage, through-hole components you find in most stompboxes. There’s a 12-stage LED gain-reduction indicator in lieu of the original’s VU meters. And Origin has no affiliation with Urei or Universal Audio (the company run by Bill Putnam’s sons, and official owners of the 1176 brand).
But yeah, the Cali76 sounds a lot like an 1176.
How does the 1176 sound differ from those of most stompbox compressors? Most compressor pedals are based on one of three vintage designs: the MXR Dyna Comp, the Ross Compressor, or the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer. Scratch the surface of any boutique compressor pedal, and chances are you’ll uncover only minor variations on one of those circuits. None of them are subtle—their funky preamps color your sound, and their pumping/gulping artifacts are obvious at high settings. (Those aren’t necessarily bad traits—many guitarists have used them to fine effect.)
By contrast, the 1176 is famed for its speed and transparency. Which is a polite way of saying you can slam the living crap out of the thing with relatively little unwanted coloration. You can apply heavy compression without being obvious about it, and the circuit even adds a nice touch of brightness, restoring the sparkle that can be dimmed by gain reduction. And when you slam the input hard, you get the corpulent distortion that helped define the sound of modern rock. In fact, such classic guitar performances as Jimmy Page’s “Black Dog” and Nile Rodgers’ “Le Freak” were tracked direct to tape via recording console and 1176—no amps needed.
The Cali76 nails those qualities, which you’ll perceive the instant you plug in. At modest settings, the effect tightens and fattens. As you increase the effect, sustain increases, with relatively little noise. Chords are less likely to overpower single notes. Inconsistencies of touch get papered over. The circuit’s speedy response reins in unruly note attack. Clean-toned parts in particular sound louder and fatter. Lo-fi and mid-fi compressors can also have those effects, but with the Cali76, you’re far less likely to perceive them as effects. Yes, you can hear the compression in the audio clips accompanying the online version of this article, but I’m slamming the pedal at close to maximum, and the parts still sound lively. Whacking a standard stompbox compressor that hard? Well, think about the effect your shoe has on a bug on the sidewalk and you start to get the picture.
The Big Squish
Even at daringly high settings, my 50-year-old Strat retained its airy sparkle, but with increased balance and smoothness,. I wondered how long the powerful pickup in my old lap steel would sustain a note, but it rang out so long that I got bored and moved on. A Les Paul recorded direct from the Cali76 into an input channel sounded—well, direct-recorded, but in a cool, Chic-meets-Earth, Wind & Fire fashion.
It’s easy to grasp why some players feel compression of this sort makes them play better. That lightly grazed single note might sing with surprising fullness. That clumsily plucked bass note might not overpower everything else quite so readily. You also can see why some engineers and producers like tracking guitars to disc or tape via an 1176, and not just applying the effect in the mix. And the circuit sounds fantastic in front of an amp. In fact, I could imagine some players using it 100% of the time, either at the beginning or end of their pedalboard signal chain.
Like a real 1176, the Cali76 makes it easy to adjust the response via exquisitely precise attack and release controls. Short attack settings generate an ironclad corset of compression. Slower ones let transients squeak through for greater percussive impact. (Origin Effects says they’ve optimized the range of the attack and release controls for guitar, but I can’t claim to hear a big difference. It just feels and sounds great.)
You can power the Cali76 with a 9V battery, but chances are you’ll prefer to use the optional 18V power supply. The higher voltage provides greater headroom—in other words more sparkle, clarity, and sweetness.
The Verdict The $339 price tag may seem steep for a compressor pedal, but this isn’t yet another Ross/MXR/Armstrong retread. It’s not identical to a true 1176 (which sells new for about $2,800), yet it’s a hi-fi, studio-quality device capable of massive compression with minimal tone damage. In fact, its surgical response and subtle sparkle can improve your tone if properly deployed. This solidly crafted box could serve with distinction on both your pedalboard and studio desktop. If you’ve avoided compressors due to their deadening properties, consider listening again through a Cali76. It proves that compressed tones can be fat and sassy.
Watch the demo video: