This has probably been the trickiest 10 Best… post I’ve put together so far, mainly because there are so many compressor plugins out there – even by normal audio plugin standards – and it’s pretty difficult to reduce the field down to only 10.
Anyway, up for a challenge I’ve broken down the list into some simple categories to make my choices a little clearer. But don’t think of these as too definitive – several of the entries would sit just as well in at least one of the other categories). I just found it helpful to at least distinguish between compressors for every-day, go-to duties, and multi-band or “character” models.
It’s also important to remember that every compressor will of course produce subjectively better or worse results on different source material: some are great for drums but would be rubbish for vocals, for example, or vice versa.
Ultimately, the best compressor plugin is always the one that best suites the specific task you’re undertaking and gives you the sound you want with the greatest ease and efficiency. So take the compressors on this list as starting points or hints towards finding and refining your own collection of favourites: if you don’t own them, consider downloading the demos and giving them a spin.
A Quick Salute To The Hardware
One last thing: putting this list together really made me realise what a debt we plugin users owe (rightly or wrongly) to the few hardware compressors after which so many software versions are modelled (either directly as emulations, or more indirectly, merely taking “inspiration” from the control layout). When choosing compressor plugins for your collection to fulfill certain mix roles, therefore, it really helps to know a little compressor history – once you know what each of the classic compressors is best known for, it can add an extra dimension to your use and understanding of your related plugins.
NB: I chose not to include the UAD emulations of the 1176 or LA2A, as they require additional hardware in the form of DSP cards to run. And also because I’ve covered more accessible emulations of the same gear in the shape of the CLA Classic Compressor collection.
1. Go-To Compressor:
Sonalksis SV-315 Mk2
The SV-315 represents a great balance between imparting character and warmth and remaining flexible enough that you know you can throw any compression job at it, and it’ll do it well. It’s kind of analogue in design and sound, but a compressor like this could only exist in the digital domain – the best of both worlds. It has a handy external sidechain; if it had a simple wet/dry mix control too for parallel compression it would be the absolute icing on the cake… Official site here.
Waves Renaissance Compressor
Still my other go-to compressor for it’s solid sound and straight-forward interface. It’s relatively transparent, but does a good job of thickening synths, guitars or pretty much anything else. It’s also great for “glueing” tracks together when used on any sort of submix. In fact it’s actually quite difficult not to get a good sound with this plugin.
Official site here.
2. Character Compressor:
Stillwell The Rocket
My current favourite character compressor, and not just because it can do decent impressions of 1176 and Distressor sounds. It just has a brilliant sound overall, especially for the price of $49 (or $25 for Reaper users!).
Features include the all-important “Parallel Compression” knob for fast and simple mixing of the compressed signal with the original uncompressed version.
This is not to say anything of the “expensive studio meets steampunk” GUI… makes me want to line my studio desk with green leather padding…
Official site here.
3. Multi-Band Compressor
Multi-band compression is one of those things: you have to really know what you’re doing to use it well; but by the time you get to that point, most experienced pro’s seem not to want/need to use it, preferring different approaches (and perhaps expert use of EQ) to achieve their desired results.
Anyway, here’s my pick:
This could equally come under “Go-To”, “Character” or “Plain Awesome” categories. Perhaps not what you immediately think of when someone says “multi-band compressor”, but with it’s simple 3 band structure the Vintage Warmer gets just the right balance between nice flexibility and not tempting you to overdo it (which is so easily done with multi-band compression). It’s been around pretty much forever but never gets old, feeling like it grows with you as your compression skills and understanding improve – a sure sign of a modern classic. Official site here.
This is essentially an update of the tried-and-tested Waves C4 Multiband Compressor – it has an extra 2 bands to work with, but most significantly each band can be sidechained (from either an internal or external source).
The C6 seems designed primarily to meet the needs of front-of-house live engineers, but with all those sidechained bands there’s so much potential for creative misuse, interesting sound design mangling and crazy synth dynamics processing on electronic/club tracks. Official site here.
Image Line Maximus
If you’re interested in multi-band compression, I can guess you’re likely to be looking to self-master your mix for extra loudness. I won’t go into the whole “loudness wars” debate here, but I will say this is one of best weapons in the ongoing campaign… Of course, it can still be used on individual parts as well as on the complete mix. Official site here.
4. Flexible Compressor:
Although it’s not as hyped as some other Waves plugins, H-Comp is a really great all-rounder – it’s capable of everything from simple transparent tasks to full-on tube saturation, has a staightforward but attractive interface, a no-nonsense external sidechain, and a satisfyingly large Wet/Dry mix knob for parallel compression. Official site here.
5. Classic Console Compressor:
I’ve found that putting this plugin over the the master buss right at the start of a project and writing / producing / mixing into it (remembering to drop it out every now and then for reference) adds an extra level of detail and almost indefinable “Pro Sound” glaze to my overall sound. One of those plugins that immediately makes your whole DAW system feel about twice as glossy and good. Official site here.
URS Classic Console Compressors
The 1970 Classic Compressor apparently models a classic Neve 2254 (“smooth and warm”), while the 1980 is similar to the SSL E Series compressor (“snappy and aggressive”). All are beautiful-sounding and well worth checking out. Official site here.
6. Unusual Compressor:
All the Fabfilter plugins look great and are a little different when you’re sick of all the classic emulation GUIs… but they’re also surprisingly ergonomic and easy to use once you get over the initially overwhelming (but undeniably cool) visualisations and meter displays. The Pro-C unusually features M/S compression which I find useful / fun for some sound design and film sound tasks. It also has the obligatory mix knob. Is anyone sensing my obsession with parallel compression yet?
Official site here by the way.
7. Free Compressor:
We’re really spoilt for choice here – for every classic emulation and glossy-looking commercial plugin, there are at least 5 that do anywhere from 80% to 100% as good a job. Again, compressor choice is so subjective – you may very well find your favourite sound is from a free/bargainous compressor rather than a higher-end emulation. It’s horses for courses!
Bootsy is a “computer scientist / musician” who makes some very cool effect plugins, all available for free from his blog. Density MkII is simply the best freeware compressor I know of right now. Maybe it’s because it’s not trying to emulate a “classic” sound – it’s very much it’s own beast, and can be used on everything from drums to synths to mix buss processing. It is PC only though. The nearest thing to an official site here.
Antress Fire Chainer
There are several awesome Antress compressors, most of them modelled on the usual famous hardware units. The Fire Chainer is a “Classic Fairchild 660 Compressor clone”. Lots more info here.
8. Drum Buss Compressor:
Waves Kramer PIE
I totally made up this category just so I could feature the Kramer PIE. Several of the other compressors on this list would be great on drums too, including the CLA-76 Bluey (all buttons in of course!) or the SSL G Master Buss Comp.
Anyway, the Kramer PIE emulates the classic Pye hardware compressor, of the type used by Mr. Eddie Kramer (amongst many others), who helped develop this plugin.
This is a great example of a compressor that’s only really right for one thing – submixes, particularly drum submixes, and particularly rock drum submixes – but it does this one thing so, so well. Official site here.
9. Hardware Emulating Compressor:
Some of the other plugins in this list could clearly fall into this category, but it’s worth mentioning just how good the CL 1B as an emulation of the “rather popular” hardware original. One of the most indefinably “musical” plugins, let alone compressors. Official site here.
CLA Classic Compressors
This is actually a bundle of four classic emulations, created with the help/endorsement of uber-rock producer Chris Lord-Alge. The four are the CLA-76 Bluey and Blacky (1176 emulations, fantastic for drums, guitars, bass… actually everything), and the CLA-2A and CLA-3A (with the famous original LA2A’s nicely saturated sound).
Finally, us in-the-box producers can go “all buttons in” for that famous 1176 drum-crushing sound (see No. 8 above).
If you’re producing rock music, or you want more rock-style aggressiveness and colour saturation in your electronic tracks, these are as good as anything available right now. Official site here.
10. Wildcard Compressor:
It’s probably never taken me less time to get so excited about a new plugin that I’m actually bouncing in my studio chair than when I discovered the Sonalksis TBK (or “The Big Knob”) 3-piece collection of effect plugins. They were called TBK-1 (filter), TBK-2 (distortion) and TBK-3 (compressor), but in putting this together I notice they’ve dropped the “TBK” thing and are now slightly more descriptively Creative Filter, Digital Grimebox and Über Compressor.
Anyway, if you are into sound design (and frankly every producer should be a sound designer these days), and particularly if you make any style of electronic/club music and are used to abusing your raw material with extreme compression, I can’t recommend these highly enough. Official site here.
As ever, please leave your comments, thoughts, corrections below.
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