Splitting Heirs: Why the LA-3A Audio Leveler Sounds Different Than its Kin, the LA-2A

LA-3A Plug-In & Hardware
UAD LA-3A Powered Plug-In & Universal Audio LA-3A Audio Leveler hardware re-issue

This month we are taking a up-close-and-personal look at the UAD LA-3A Classic Audio Leveler Plug-In, including when and where you might use it versus its electro-optical kin, the legendary LA-2A.

But first, a brief history…

The LA-3A compressor made its debut at the 1969 New York AES show. Brad Plunkett designed the LA-3A and also played a major role in the development of the 1176. Essentially, the LA-3A is a solid-state version of the LA-2A; it retains the same simple control set (Gain, Peak Reduction, Comp/Limit Switch) and, of course, the all-important T4 electro-optical panel module (ELOP for short)—the source of the great program-dependent compression characteristics of the LA-2A.

Sound-wise, the LA-3A is quite different from the LA-2A, even though it uses the same T4 ELOP as the LA-2A. For small transients, the attack will be about the same for the LA-2A and LA-3A; whereas for large transients, the LA-3A will be faster. This is because the LA-2A uses a tube to drive the EL panel directly, and the circuit has a certain maximum voltage level. The LA-3A, in contrast, uses solid state, which can’t generate enough voltage to drive the EL panel. So, there is an “autotransformer” in the circuit to boost the voltage going into the ELOP panel.

Thanks to this design, with the first part of the attack on a large transient, the EL panel will be brighter in the LA-3A, making the first part of the attack faster. For the last part of the attack (or for smaller transients), once the sidechain voltage has decreased, the attack time will be about the same as the LA-2A.

This opens up possibilities for the LA-3A that the LA-2A was not as well-suited to: for example, drums, especially overheads and room mics. Another example is close miking on snares, kicks, and toms — as long as the style of playing is not super aggressive (but hey, it still might get you the sound you want). Many people also like the way the LA-3A brings out the midrange frequencies, and therefore it commonly gets used on electric guitar.

In the spring of 2007, Universal Audio released the LA-3A Powered Plug-In, giving our users the definitive sound of the LA-3A. Like all our other emulations, we used the schematics and actual hardware to create the most accurate LA-3A plug-in out there.

For the video, I use the LA-3A on various drum tracks. Enjoy.

— Dave Crane

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