Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Compressor

A modern classic -- one of the most versatile compressor/limiters around! Add gentle warmth in 1:1 mode, or "Nuke" your tracks. Dial in distortion to taste.

The Empirical Labs Distressor is the product that started it all for Empirical Labs. Born of founder Dave Derr's love of classic compressors like the 1176, LA-2A and Gain Brain (among others), the Distressor incorporates his favorite sonic characteristics of these, along with other unique and interesting features that have made it a staple for audio engineers all over the world.

Distressors Everywhere

With over 22,000 units in the field, it's safe to say that the Distressor is one of the best selling high end compressors of all time -- if not THE best selling. A prominent recording engineer recently wagered that there probably was not a top 40 record made in the last five years that didn't have at least one Distressor on it.

Add Analog Color

Besides providing a wide range of control and a unique feature set, the Distressor offers a warm, vintage sound by using a custom designed gain control circuit. This "warmth" or "vintage sound" has become a major issue in the last few decades, as the super clear and linear digital technology does next to nothing to soften "harsh" sounds, nor emphasize the bass frequencies in music sources. Conversely, older analog tape, vinyl records and tube equipment could not be prevented from coloring the sound, often to the frustration of recording engineers. However, many people now realize that this coloring can be extremely pleasant and musical. Digital technology is often referred to as "cold" and "brittle" among other terms (although read more we prefer "unforgiving").

From Zero to Brickwall

All eight of the Distressor's curves are unique and distinctive, from the 1:1 mode that simply warms up signal with low order harmonics without intentional compression, to the "Nuke" setting -- a brick wall limiting curve that shines on live drum room mics. Each curve has its own personality and several actually use different circuitry, and are effectively different compressors. Most exceptional is the 10:1 "Opto" ratio which uses separate detector circuitry to emulate the oldest (and valued) "light controlled" devices, such as the LA-2A.

It's Not Just a Compressor -- It's a Distortion Generator

Another large part of the Distressor's personality and power derive from three modes that color the signal, even without compression. These extended audio modes were designed to allow emulation of some very old and expensive vintage compressors & limiters, and let the Distressor deliver a classic "knee" sound all its own by providing user programmable, warm harmonic distortion. In addition to the basic distortion mode, Distort 2 emphasizes tube-like 2nd order harmonics, while in Distort 3 setting the distortion becomes dominated by 3rd harmonics more closely resembling tape. Two HP filters - one in the audio path, one in the detector path - are also available to help with low frequencies that can cause pumping and breathing.


- Classic knee sound -- with modern noise specs and improved performance. The Distressor really grabs.
- Programmable analog distortion/warmth -- helpful in the pristine but unforgiving digital world. Three audio modes provide user-programmable, warm harmonic distortion. Emphasized tube-like, 2nd harmonic in clean and Distort 2 mode. In Distort 3 mode, the distortion becomes dominated by 3rd harmonic, more similar to tape.
- Distortion indicator lights -- A 1% LED and a "Redline" (3%) LED. No hard clipping until a few dB past "Redline."
- Advanced built-in sidechain EQ -- High mid band emphasis prevents harsh, edgy guitars or vocals from hurting innocent ears. Low cut keeps the low "sum & difference" frequencies from pumping the upper frequencies of source material.
- Foolproof operation -- Even though there are 384 possible settings (not counting knob settings), it's almost impossible to get a bad sound. Keep all knobs on 5 or 6 (around middle) with ratio at 6:1 and you won't go wrong.
- Eight unique curves -- from the 1:1 mode that simply warms up signal with low order harmonics without intentional compression, to the "Nuke" setting -- a brickwall limiting curve that shines on live drum room mics. Each curve has its own personality, and release shape. Most exceptional is the 10:1 "Opto" ratio which uses separate circuitry to emulate the oldest (and valued) "light controlled" devices, such as the LA-2A etc. See manual to emulate other compressors of old.
- Discrete and integrated combination -- the best of speed/linearity with repeatability. Hand tested
& selected components.
- Huge knobs with high resolution numbering -- for easy readability and repeatable settings. They also go to 10 and a half.
- Locked, calibrated, output level -- Allows speed in setting tape and live mix levels.
- Stereo Strappable
- Switchable 115/230 volt operation -- Extra fuse provided inside unit.
- Over-designed power supplies -- Runs cool, allowing cabinet to be sealed -- without heat vents. Long life components.
- Single height and light weight -- classic sound in a small, extremely reliable package.
- True bypass -- Know what it's really doing. All contacts doubled up for maximum reliability. No internal audio connectors.
- XLR and 1/4" phone ins and outs -- XLR fully balanced, transformerless design, pin 2 hot. Changeable by user to pin 3 hot!
- All metal film and Roederstein resistors in the audio path -- top quality components. Many military spec. parts.
- Interface and features found nowhere else.
- Hand wired, calibrated in USA.
WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm - www.p65Warnings.ca.gov.
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- Freq. response is 2 Hz to 160 kHz in clean audio mode (+0, -3 dB). Response is shaped in distortion modes (Dist 2, Dist 3).
- Dynamic range 110 dB from max. output to min. output in 1:1 mode. Greater than 100 dB signal to noise in distort 3 mode.
- Distortion ranges between .02% and 20% depending on distortion mode and release times set on front panel.
- DC coupled output - High quality input caps.
- Input impedance is 20K Ohms, Output impedance is < 75 ohms
- Time constants - Attack range 50uS - 50mS. Release range .05 sec to 3.5 seconds, normal modes and up to 20 seconds in 10:1 opto mode. Time constants are dependant on ratio.
- Metal Chassis - single height 1.75" high, 10" deep, 19" wide.
- Weight: 12.1 lbs
Dimensions and Weight in Packaging
Base Item
Shipping Weight: 12.25 lbs
Shipping Dimensions: 23 x 18 x 3 in
Manufacturer Part Number (MPN): EMP EL8DIST
Warehouse Resealed
Shipping Weight: 12.25 lbs
Shipping Dimensions: 23 x 18 x 3 in

For support or warranty questions, please contact the manufacturer:
Phone: 973-728-2425

Reviewers gave this product an overall rating of 5 out of 5 stars. (5 ratings)
Submitted November 11, 2020 by Todd J in Cutler Bay, FL
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
(see rating details)
Verified Customer zZounds has verified that this reviewer made a purchase from us.
I like fewer things and more versatile things. This is literally my pride and joy. I track everything with a little bit of distressor on it. You can flavor it different ways if need be but i use it just to get recorded on the front end as musically as possible. This compressor was my answer to "which compressor should i buy" if i am not ready to shell out money for a one trick pony that was used on such and such record back in the day blah blah blah. I'm not looking for their sound I'm looking for the sound in my head for the project I'm working on. Since I work with many genres and day to day what i'm doing changes this thing is my go to for anything before it hits the interface. Love it!
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