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Is the Altec 436C The Greatest Audio Compressor Ever Made? Yes!

altec 436 rs124 compressor

What makes the Altec 436’s arguably the greatest audio compressors ever made?

it rounds off top and bottom of waveform instead of snapping it off like solid state compressors do when driving a source into distortion.


First, the design is just so damn simple. The topology is stripped down, bare and minimal. It’s basically just a sparse PSU, an input transformer, variable mu stage, power stage, output transformer and a simple rectifier for control and that’s it! The unit was initially designed to be left on for 20 years and never touched. Keep in mind, these were public address compressors (PA comps) often used in auditoriums, churches and large venues where the local sound guy would set them up, sometimes with a locking screw pot, so no one could mess with it. They were left alone and never even powered down.

The second thing that makes the Altec 436’s so special is the iron. The Peerless transformers are known to be extremely well engineered and above all, have almost no second order distortion (more on this later). Even the 800 watt single monaural solid state Altec 1593 amps were simple, robust, and voiced to be drop in replacements for the Altec 1568 and 1569 and also had Peerless tranny’s. They were also meant to be left on all day and night and were known to produce an incredible sound. They were meant to run into a 70 volt line. Peerless always made quality of laminations, had high accuracy of winding… everything that makes a transformer good. You can’t see the inside cause they’re potted. They were solid nickel core instead of the other materials some made.

JML Recording Studio pair of EMI RS124 modified Altec 436C’s. JML Studios has 4 pair of these modified units, 2 pair of 48V modified 1591’s and a pair of RS124 modified 438C’s!

Peerless transformers feature great separation between winding – side by side on the bobbin. Both primaries wound at the same time which tends to balance out the winding which reduces second order distortion. Even order distortion (seen in a square wave) is desirable, which is every even harmonic up to the fundamental harmonic. 1, 3, 5, 7 & 9th order harmonics are musical and beautiful. Chord structures in music tend to fall in line with these distortions so magic happens when you use them to make music. Odd order distortion is bad.

Odd order harmonics tend to sound a little grittier, deeper and richer and higher levels of this cannot be used as even-order harmonics because the ear recognizes the non-harmonic content and it results in an unpleasant effect.

Again, even order harmonics are seen in square waves. Sine waves have no distortion, no deviations from fundamental harmonic. When you clip a vacuum tube guitar amp its beautiful. When you get towards the limit of the amplitude output it does not flat top it tends to round the top and bottom of the wave and produces fewer even harmonics and more odd harmonics. Fender cranked to 11 you have resonance and saturation in the output transformer & interesting harmonics happen. Things tend to ring and you get resonances. Fender amps have 8 drivers and tubes, each contributing to the tone and sound. Solid state has none of this beautiful harmonics. Solid state clipping buts a flat top and further into clipping looks like a square wave. Vacuum tubes, when clipped, looked rounder.

Primary tone of the Altecs come from soft power supply. If you’ve ever heard someone talking about a soft power supply, it means it is not regulated and voltage tends to sag a bit, creating variation in voltage. This eases off and reduces even order harmonics. Rounding the edges of the waveform.


As seen in January 2024 Salt Magazine

audio engineering equipment
audio engineering

So why are the Altec 436’s so 3D? How do they make any source sound so huge and bring out things you don’t normally hear in the stereo image field? One answer is also a secret to creating more width in your imaging. It’s because there’s no way of stereo linking a pair completely or to have them track together for stereo use. This gives you the feeling of a wider stereo image where the speakers seem to disappear from the room and there is no longer directional listening, it is 360 degree engulfing you from all around you.

These Altecs tend to have least distortion with least compression & limiting. To limit unwanted distortion, use the fastest release time. Threshold doesn’t really effect distortion. Sounds best on voice when hit with only about 2-5db of compression whereas for mix or stem 10db or more will get a great sound. The harder you hit it the more you change the timbre of the sound. On the other hand, sometimes that’s cool! You can really crush guitars, heavy vocals & drums (especially kick, snare or room). They’re so simple they can be used on ANYTHING and sound amazing.

  • PRO TIP: The more natural sounding you want the instrument to sound, use the less compression. Try using no EQ and instead focus on better mic placement. Marshall stack on 12? Hit it hard with compression. The more processed and the more interesting you want it to sound, hit it hard! If you want the source to sound more natural, just tickle it with 1-2 db of compression at most.

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