Drip Electronics STA-LEVEL Compressor

Drip Electronics
Drip Electronics has seen a lot of good press around their DIY-oriented PCBs. They make DIY versions of famous tube circuits, like the LA-2A, Sta-Level, and Pultec EQP1A. The man behind the plan is Gregory Lomayesva – he makes what some consider the absolute best boards in the business, retail or DIY, period. They are true to the original schematics and not “improved” as many things are these days.

All of the Drip PCBs are designed to use large, top quality components and are pretty massive things themselves – the Sta-Level PCB for instance fits snugly into a 3U chassis from Collective Cases. The boards are more aerospace than pro audio – you could likely break your hand before you bent one of these things. All together, the PCBs are way over engineered and look outstanding. The attention to detail in things like the curved traces (no corner “ringing” – a concept more likely heard in Hi-Fi circles than pro audio ones) and the short wiring runs make for circuits that are supposed to be quieter and outperform the original designs.

02With that cursory background on Drip Electronics, it is now time for mine: it was the Gates Sta-Level that has always haunted my dreams, since my first impression at a large Boston studio in my early 20’s. Having missed out during the time when you could pick one up for $300 on eBay (or pick one out of a radio station dumpster), the acquisition options are fairly limited: build a point-to-point version, buy a used one, or build one using Drip’s PCB, BOM (bill of materials) and the original schematic.

The Drip STA-LEVEL PCB

No questions, this thing was done beautifully. It is the only “hard” asset that Drip sells, so they should be graded on this primarily. Transformers are mounted directly on the PCB, minimizing wiring runs and making hook up a bit easier. Tube sockets are also PCB mounted, further easing final wiring concerns and length of runs. The only thing that need to be hooked up in the end are the front panel items, the grounds, XLR ins and outs, and the power transformer, a massive softball-sized can that gets mounted to the rear of the case. Most hookup locations are clearly marked, making it easier for relative newcomers to understand (but not necessarily first-timers). Grade: A+

The STA-LEVEL BOM (as of 3/10/13)

This was pretty accurate and had great suggestions for different choices of components in some areas (like the capacitors). However, it is incomplete – a note for those too lazy to read the schematic – and you’ll need to add several items to make it whole if you intend to order everything in one feel swoop. Also, it should be noted that there is a love affair between Drip Electronics and Sowter. This makes it great for those in the UK and not so great for those in the US due to the massive shipping costs. There are some usable options from Cinemag and Lundhal I’ve heard, though I used Sowter and grudgingly ate the shipping cost. It would be nice for Drip to offer suggestions for other transformer models from other companies, in keeping with the helpful nature of the BOM. Grade: B

06

The STA-LEVEL Manual (as of 3/10/13)

What manual? There is no manual for the full Sta-Level board. The best option is to use the previously issued Sta-Level Micro build manual and infer from there. Beginners will have difficulty with this, because even the Micro build manual doesn’t address all of the finer points and assumes previous electronics experience. If you’re considering building this compressor and have never built anything before, take my advice and order some Seventh Circle Audio kits – their entire package is excellent, aimed at the first time DIYer, and the process well-documented and easy to follow. In addition, you don’t have to source any components; this is probably the biggest headache for this build and many others – it can take a month or more for everything to show up. The bottom line is that these kits aren’t designed to be paint by the numbers and assume some basic experience. Still, they are fairly easy to complete in the whole scheme of things. Why some of Drip’s products have excellent manuals and why this one doesn’t makes for a lot of confusion out there, as seen in their own forum. Grade: D

As Built Notes

  • You’ll need the input and output pads as shown in the schematic, as you’ve got two 6V6 tubes in there – the same as a Deluxe Reverb. This thing has power  and output for days – enough to severely tweak your A/D (I imagine).
  • I ended up using a bunch of RCA NOS tubes, including a nice 6386, Sowter transformers (in & out), a Hammond 270FX for the PT, and large ass capacitors for the rest of it, including some Jupiter Tone caps that I’ve always liked in guitar amps.
  • I added the 6-position selectable recovery time switch to allow for a faster release – this modifies the value of R35 (I think), now ranging from about 220K to 4.7M.
  • Collective Cases (from Dan D) makes a great 3U case that fits the PCB perfectly and looks great – it also fits the Simpson model 27 dB meter that is recommended for the build. Get this to make life easier.
    • Make sure that you first do this to any case you get from Collective Cases: Grind away the paint down to bare metal for all screw holes that connect to another piece of the chassis. If you don’t you will have a much better chance of finding hum issues when you first turn the unit on. Bare metal to metal contact ensures that the entire thing is grounded and anything that should be grounded on the front panel is at the same potential as the actual star ground on the rear.

The STA-LEVEL Sound (a review)

I have barely had more than a day to use it, but I find myself loving the Sta-Level on vocals, bass, drums, and especially acoustic guitars, often paired with a 1176. This one (as built) has a wonderful tendency to shift some of the lower mid harmonics up a bit, making the low end stand out more clearly in the mix without adding more mud. The unit is distinctly Hi-Fi and clean, but with a lot of body, especially in the low mids. You can compress a signal by 30 db or more and it feels right – you’ll mainly get the onset of distortion that increases predictably as more gain is added to the signal. Finally, it runs pretty cool for the amount of tubes in there – far cooler than a Manley Vari-Mu!

I’m extremely happy with this Drip Sta-Level build and have found that just running signal through it with no compression adds a nice subtle flavor to a signal. It’s very quiet.

I have to give Drip a lot of credit for creating this DIY niche in the pro audio business. With a bit of marketing and especially product marketing help, I do hope that their business flourishes. It seems like they are fixing some of the issues that come with rapid product rollouts in a new company. Highly recommended!

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