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Top 10 Compressor Plugins

No audio toolbox would be complete without a compressor. They are some of the most versatile pieces of gear with complex and simplistic functions alike.

Coloration, check...dynamic control, check...mix glue, check. Varied circuit designs in analog compressors make certain models better for one task than another and with the design of digital compressors, choosing the right tool for the job can become more difficult.

Plugins have been attempting to model their real-deal analog counterparts for years, but also offer some new innovations to the world of gain reduction. Check out these awesome plugins and listen to what a proper compressor can do for you.

FabFilter Pro C2

This low CPU intensive plugin, offers immense functionality, and can be used on every track during mixing.

This low CPU intensive plugin, offers immense functionality, and can be used on every track during mixing.

For those looking for a great “do everything” compressor, the FabFilter Pro C2 has exactly what you need and a ton more. This compressor manages to pack eight compression character styles, lookahead gain reduction, 4x oversampling, mid/side control, and the ability to affect each channel independently or linked as a stereo pair with the Stereo Link control into one of the most incredible interface designs plugins have seen.

The eight modes of the compressor allow the Pro C2 to add some coloration to your mixes. Version 2 adds five new modes: Vocal, Mastering, Bus, Punch, and Pumping to give you access to tailored responses to match what you are working on.

Mastering engineers will appreciate the new metering. The size and the accuracy of these meters have increased, and FabFilter adjusted the Pro C2 to comply with the EBU R128 loudness standard. Combine this with the 4x oversampling and GPU acceleration and you have one accurate plugin.

All of this functionality and versatility make this compressor a great choice for any engineer looking for a lot of features in one package. Check out the FabFilter Pro C2 for access to a large toolset within one beautiful plugin.

Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor

Quickly glue your mixes together with this popular and great sounding bus compressor.

Quickly glue your mixes together with this popular and great sounding bus compressor.

There are several reasons engineers have opted to use a stereo compressor on their master bus. When mixing into a compressor, engineers are often looking for more “glue” to their mix or they are after a certain coloration. Check out our article on Mix Bus Compression for more information.

One of the most legendary examples is the compressor from the SSL 4000 G console’s master section. Thanks to SSL and Waves, this emulation can bring you the tone of those boards for vintage coloration and the “glue” effect of this legendary console. To build on its accuracy to the original, Waves added modeled analog hum from the SSL 4000 G for even more coloration abilities.

This plugin is typically used for master bus compression, but also shines when your goal is to tighten up drums or piano. If you need a way to add the glue and polish to your mixes, check out the Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor.

Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A

This is the go to plugin when compressing bass or vocals.

This is the go to plugin when compressing bass or vocals.

Among all hardware compressors, there are a couple that stand out as studio legends. One of those legends is the Teletronix LA-2A. The LA-2A is an optical compressor with a tube output stage. Featuring slower attack and release times, and vibe to spare, the LA-2A has become known for its warmth and character that can be heard on countless records. Universal Audio, the current manufacturer of the reissue hardware, decided that rebuilding the legendary compressor wouldn’t be enough. As a part of their UAD plugins, they took it upon themselves to get all of the famous sounds modeled into their Teletronix LA-2A.

As an optical compressor, most of the common uses of 2As include instruments with fewer transients and vocals. Bass and vocals have been commonly treated with this style of compression, both for its smoother gain reduction and in the case of the LA-2A, for the warmth of the tube output stage.

The plugin offers three variations of the compressor. The LA2 has the slowest attack and release like many 1950s compressors, while the gray and silver models have medium-fast attack and release for a more typical response similar to the vintage LA-2As that have earned their legendary status. Just like the hardware, there aren’t many controls. Output gain and peak reduction controls are available as well as the ability to change metering and switch between limiting and compressing. If warm, tune-aided optical compression is what you are shooting for, but you’re short the $3,000 to buy the hardware, check this out. There’s got to be some reason it’s on so many records.

PSP Audioware VintageWarmer2

Not only does this plugin offer more than most other compressors, but also the tone it creates sounds fantastic.

Not only does this plugin offer more than most other compressors, but also the tone it creates sounds fantastic.

PSP Audioware created a multi-faceted set of plugins when they created the VintageWarmer2. Having three modes of operation and precise emulation of analog equipment, the VintageWarmer2 is a great compressor for mixing and mastering with tons of analog saturation available.

The first mode, called MicroWarmer aims features speed, release, drive, low, high, knee, and output controls. With the addition of the shelving EQ section, this mode can be used for tone shaping while offering a scaled-back, CPU-friendly compressor. The second mode is a direct successor to the original VintageWarmer. It aims to keep low latency while adding brick wall limiting, multi-band compression, frequency selection for the EQ shelves, and more release settings. The third mode, VintageWarmer2, features the FAT mode. This mode allows the plugin to double sample incoming audio for more an improved analog sound.

The plugin has become known for its characteristics when overloaded. PSP aimed to make the VintageWarmer2 exhibit tape like qualities when pushed to overloading. Because of this, the plugin is very useful for coloration, saturation, and of course, compression. For a good emulation of analog processing that can be added effectively to a mix or master, check out the VintageWarmer2.

Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov

This plugin is free, and offers great flexibility.

This plugin is free, and offers great flexibility.

For the engineers who want smooth compression that doesn’t sound too obvious, the TDR Kotelnikov is a good place to start. Not only is there an entirely free version, but there is also a lot of flexibility available here to tailor your compression characteristics to taste.

The controls allow for threshold, peak crest, soft knee, ratio, attack, and two release times. Most of the controls function just as they would on other compressors. The Peak Crest knob can be viewed as a blend control for what the plugin is reacting to. The higher the setting, the more the Kotelnikov reacts to RMS level, the lower the setting, the more it reacts to the peak level. The control can be set to allow for only peak or only RMS, but the ability to blend the two reactions together allows for smooth and configurable reduction. The Kotelnikov allows for high pass filtering as well as stereo sensitivity. This allows for more precise control over what is making your compressor react.

The plugin function well in both bus and individual track scenarios. The tone of this plugin allows the original timbre and tone of your material to shine through. With no form of hardware emulation present in the plugin, the TDR Kotelnikov is a new type of digital compressor looking to make a name for its clean, uncolored gluing. Rounding out its features with oversampling and 64-bit processing, the TDR Kotelnikov is worth looking into for your transparent compression needs.

iZotope Ozone 8 Dynamics

The Ozone 8 dynamics multi-band compressor offers advanced functionality for mastering and mixing.

The Ozone 8 dynamics multi-band compressor offers advanced functionality for mastering and mixing.

iZotope has made a name for itself in the world of mastering and audio restoration. With plugin suites like RX and Ozone, it is clear to see why. The tools provided in these suites are second to none for critical audio work. Within Ozone 8, the Dynamics plugin stands out for its precise control and many options.

Combining the functionality of a quality limiter with a quality compressor is the first thing that makes this plugin so great. Fine-tuning how your mixes and masters sound with this level of accuracy ensures that your finished audio will sound just as you intended. Since its main goal is to act as a mastering compressor, it features mid/side processing, advanced metering, and variable look-ahead times.

The detection filter feature gives even more configuration options over how the incoming signal will affect the compressor’s detection algorithms. Using high pass and tilt modes, the signal can be tuned to have a greater or lesser effect on the compression being used. Other useful features such as learn mode can set where the crossover points used for multiband mode are.

This compressor lends itself to those who need clean compression with lots of versatility. Check this out when mastering as many of its features are geared towards polishing rather than coloring a mix.

Waves CLA-76

Be careful of the "backwards' attack and release settings when using the 1176.

Be careful of the "backwards' attack and release settings when using the 1176.

The Urei 1176 is one of the most popular hardware compressors in existence. It is capable of incredibly fast attack and release times due to its FET circuit, and infamously features “backward” attack and release potentiometers. Waves skipped no details and left those knobs exactly the way they were when designing this plugin.

The interface mirrors the controls of an analog 1176. The plugin allows for analog hum to be added at fifty or sixty cycles if desired. Depending on which revision mode you choose, you will have entirely different characters available in CLA-76. “Bluey” models the Blue Stripe revision which gives a little more edge to the sound due to hotter gain staging while “Blacky” models the 1176-LN model. Featuring less noise and smoother response, this mode gives a cleaner color to your tracks.

Due to its fast attack and release, this compressor can be useful for transient heavy material such as percussion. The punch that the CLA-76 adds to drums is great whenever you need big drum sounds. If you are after the sounds of the real deal Urei 1176, the Waves CLA-76 can get you started with presets from Chris Lord-Alge. If you have used the hardware before, you will feel right at home. Check out the legendary sounds of the CLA-76.

Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B

This opto compressor offers a smooth and transient response, great for vocals.

This opto compressor offers a smooth and transparent response, great for vocals.

Another hardware emulation of a classic compressor. The Tube-Tech CL 1B is another great example of what a killer optical compressor can do for your tracks. Considered to be a “go-to” compressor for vocals of many genres, the CL 1B has demonstrated time and time again what smooth compression is great for. Softube did a painstaking recreation of the classic hardware and succeeded in maintaining its smooth and transparent tones.

The controls on the plugin mirror the hardware with a few small changes. In addition to gain, attack, release, threshold, and ratio controls, the plugin allows for parallel compression to be done from within the plugin. Save yourself an auxiliary track and use the knob to blend the perfect amount of compression into your mixes. On top of this, a sidechain low cut “switch” was added to the plugin for additional tweaking options.

This compressor has made itself known for its use with vocals, but many bassists have sworn by the CL 1B as well. It may be worth trying out on a master bus for the transparent and smooth tones it can yield. If a more transparent optical compression is what your mix needs, you won’t find much better than the CL 1B.

Klanghelm MJUC

The MJUC emulates some of the best sounding, most popular hardware of the 1950's and 60's.

The MJUC emulates some of the best sounding, most popular hardware of the 1950's and 60's.

Variable-mu compressors have been popular choices for bus compression for years. Hardware like the Fairchild 670 and the Manley Vari-Mu have become standards in high-end studios, and have graced many records with their smooth, colored tones. For those of us who cannot drop $30,000 on a Fairchild or even $4,400 for a Manley, Klanghelm has sought to help out.

The MJUC was designed to emulate the best of every variable-mu compressor Klanghelm could get their hands on. The result is a collection that reaches back to the 1950s in available sounds. Model Mk1 offers the most coloration, ranging into dense and thick textures. Model Mk2 looks to emulate designs from the 1960s. It adds four ratios to choose from as well as Density and IStage buttons for more color choices. The density switch adds a second vari-mu stage to reduce the dependence upon where you have your attack and release settings. Model Mk3 looks to be the most Hi-Fi and sounds similar to a 670 in the way that it adds punch.

The price of this plugin makes the desirable effect of variable-mu compression available to the masses. The MJUC’s versatility and inclusion of different levels of coloration make this a great plugin for any mix or master. For more information on variable-mu compressors, check out our article on Mix Bus Compression.

MeldaProduction MCompressor

The MCompressor offers transient tone, with complex functionality.

The MCompressor offers transparent tone, with complex functionality.

Melda Production’s MCompressor is one of those plugins that surprises you as you use it. The feature set is very large, and the price tag is very small making complex issues much easier to handle for every engineer who faces them.

To start, the plugin features a transparent tone allowing for straightforward compression with no additional color. It features input/output gain, attack, release, RMS, threshold, and ratio controls as well as three knee modes with size adjustment. This section alone allows for many useful changes to make to your mixes and masters, but the MCompressor does not stop there. It adds mid/side processing, upsampling, a safety limiter, and automatic gain compensation for increased functionality.

The MCompressor can be linked to operate in stereo or unlinked for different compression of separate channels in your incoming signal. To make this plugin even more enjoyable to use, the entire UI can be edited to fit your style or to match your DAW. When transparency, a large list of features, and a small price tag are what your mix needs, Melda Production has your back with the MCompressor.

Conclusion: Whether you are new to engineering or you are a seasoned professional, compression can be one of the harder topics. Luckily, the options in sound quality, configurability, and features allow every engineer a toolkit to accomplish their goals. Whether mixing or mastering, compression becomes important for dynamics, color, and glue. These differences may seem small at first, but their impact on your mixes is noticeable.

If you’re looking to hear what top-notch compression can do for your mix, follow the link here for a free mastered sample of your song:

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