Aside from EQ, one of the most important tools in any mix engineer's toolbox is their compressor.
Compressors are made to limit the dynamic range of signals so that they better balance in mixes with one another. Beyond that, compressors can manipulate transient material, making them more or less pronounced depending on the settings.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a professional track over the past half-century that didn't use compression in some way. Of course, with so many compressor plugins on the market today, how can you know which ones are right for your needs?
Come dive in with us as we explore some of the best compressor plugins on the market and why you should have them in your arsenal.
Different Types of Compression
Now, before we dive in, it's important to grasp the different types of compression so you can find the right plugins for your needs. I believe that having a diverse arsenal is much better than spending hundreds of dollars on plugins that deliver the same results.
Let's look at the different types of compressors before looking at plugins to match.
FET compression is an essential type of compression for just about any style of music. FET stands for "Field Effect Transistor." You'll find this transistor type in the legendary 1176 compressor, which we'll talk more about later.
The beauty of FET compression is that it has the ability to work quickly and aggressively. However, it's also able to retain transparency, allowing you to dial in large amounts of gain reduction without sucking the life out of your material.
When pushed, a good FET compressor will deliver satisfying saturation, making it a great choice for drum or vocals, especially when you're working with transient-heavy elements.
An optical compressor uses a photosensitive light cell to control the amount of compression. You'll find this style of gain reduction in early compressor units, as it was one of the first ways engineers figured out how to build compressors.
Thanks to the physical properties of photocells, optical compressors have a very musical sound. Compared to your average FET compressor, an optical compressor is gentler and slower.
One of the most famous optical compressor units of all time is the Teletronix LA-2a.
While there are many compressor units that use tubes, not all of these compressor units use those tubes for the gain reduction itself. However, there are many compressors out there that exclusively use tube circuitry to create compression. Due to the complexity and scarcity of high-end vacuum tubes, these hardware units are often incredibly expensive.
Tube compressors, often referred to as delta-mu compressors, are very powerful. One of the most well-known compressors is the Fairchild 670. If you ever want to add a bit of pleasing saturation and coloration to your sound, tube compressors are great. They work in many situations and are even good for use on the master bus.
When the 1970s rolled around, engineers began manufacturing VCA compressors. This was the first time we were able to use integrated circuits to perform the gain reduction. The beauty of these integrated circuits is that they were very predictable and much more affordable than tubes.
Some of the most popular VCA compressors to come out of this era included the SSL Bus Compressor and the DBX160.
VCA compressors are great when you need a bit of extra impact and punch. They also provide glue, which can integrate multiple sounds in your mix and help them sit together as one.
Ask just about any engineer, and they'll tell you how much they revere the sweet sound of analog hardware. However, that doesn't mean they scowl at the idea of compressors that use digital components.
Digital compressors can be extremely useful whenever you need compression that is as transparent as possible. Sometimes, you like the sound of the source material, though you need to reduce the dynamic range. This is where digital compression comes in handy.
Beyond that, digital compression offers far more freedom. Some of the most high-performance plugins on the market are digital.
Best Compressor Plugins
1. Universal Audio - Teletronix LA-2A
A few hardware compressors have reached legendary status in studios around the world, and one of those is the LA-2A . The LA-2A is one of the world's most popular optical compressors with a unique tube output stage that gives it warmth.
The compressor features a slow attack and release time and adds tons of vibe to any signal put through it. To this day, the LA-2A has probably been heard on thousands if not millions of records. Universal Audio, the company that reissued the hardware version of the Teletronix LA-2A, built a plugin bundle with three variations of this wonderful compressor.
The LA2 is a popular 50s-style compressor with very slow attack and release times, while the other two in the bundle have medium-fast attack and release times, giving them similar qualities to the vintage LA-2A models.
You won't find an emulation as good as these ones anywhere else, and we guarantee this is a compressor you'll want to add to your mixes.
2. Waves - SSL G Master Buss Compressor
People often look to high-end stereo compressors to add a bit of glue to their master bus. With the right bus compressor, you can get unique coloration atop your mix.
Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of a bus compressor is the master section of the SSL 4000 G console. Luckily for us, SSL and Waves got together to develop the Waves SSL G Master Buss Compressor , which is a stellar emulation of the original. The Waves SSL 4000 G Master Buss Compressor delivers a uniquely vintage coloration uncanny to the original.
Waves even added modeled analog hum for further color and character!
Even if you don't use it on your master bus, you can use this plugin to tighten up percussion or drums. Overall, if you need a compression plugin to add a bit of polish and glue to your mixes, the SSL G Master Buss Compressor is a solid choice!
3. Fabfilter Pro C2
If you need a compressor that can do it all, we highly recommend checking out the FabFilter Pro C2 . This compressor delivers eight unique compression styles, mid-side control, lookahead gain reduction, 4x oversampling, and a Stereo Link control, giving you the ability to affect both sides of your mix or each independently.
If you want to add a bit of coloration to your mixes, the eight modes on the Pro C2 are great. The five new modes in version 2, including Bus, Mastering, Vocal, Pumping, and Punch, can tailor their responses to the audio you are working on.
If you master your tracks, we guarantee you'll love the metering system. The FabFilter Pro has always had a beautiful GUI, though, with an increase in both accuracy and size of the meter section and an adjustment to comply with the loudness standard EBU R128, this compressor plugin has reached new heights.
In our eyes, the FabFilter Pro C2 is one of the best compressor VST plugins for those who want tons of features in a single package.
4. UAD 1176 Classic Limiter Collection
The original 1176 hardware was designed by Bill Putnam many decades ago. Over the years, it has become one of the most iconic compressors of all time, well-known for its aggressive characteristics. The UAD emulation of this unique compressor is an absolute hit, delivering three versions of the 1176 with varying characteristics.
The Revision A is the Bluestripe version, which is based on the very first design that Putnam came up with. This version of the 1176 was known for its "slamming" abilities, which made it an excellent choice for drums. If you want to put the vocals more upfront or emphasize the reverb tails in a drum room track, this version of the 1176 is solid.
Then, there is the Revision E version, which is a low-noise 1176 emulation. If you're looking for a tamer or more transparent gain reduction, the Revision E is a better choice.
Lastly, UAD made the AE (Anniversary Edition) , which delivers lower compression ratios for the most subtle gain reduction of all.
I use 1176's on just about every mix I do, and I highly recommend getting these killer plugins in your arsenal ASAP!
5. Softube Tube-Tech CL1B
The Tube-Tech CL1B is an emulation of the famous Tube-Tech compressor, delivering a silky smooth style of compression that is very similar to the LA-2a. Whenever I need something that is warm, subtle, or musical, I'll often reach for the Tube-Tech CL1B.
One of the best things about this compressor plugin is that it doesn't take very much work to dial in the exact sound I hear in my mind, as there are only a few knobs to worry about.
In a few seconds, I can dial down the threshold, twist the ratio knob into place, and set the attack and release times depending on how transparent I want my compression to be.
Many say that the Softube Tube-Tech CL1B is one of the best compressor plugins for lead vocals. One of the reasons is that it almost feels like an automated volume fader when you lock in the right settings. The plugin works to reduce the sound of louder portions of the audio as they pass by. However, if you set the release time correctly, your quieter parts will come up without any unwanted pumping artifacts that you get with certain types of compressors.
What's even better about this plugin is that it comes with a dry/wet knob so you can dial in heavier compression settings in parallel.
6. UAD Empirical Labs Distressor
Dave Derr made the Empirical Labs Distressor many years ago, and it slowly became the staple for gritty, heavy-handed compression styles. To bring the aggressive sound of the Empirical Labs Distressor into the digital realm, UAD partnered up with Dave Derr.
This compressor plugin is known for its lightning-fast attack time, allowing to shape the harmonic characteristics of audio tracks while actively and aggressively shaping transients. Even Derr says that it's the best emulation of the Distressor on the market today.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. The Distressor doesn't work on everything. However, one thing I really love is the drums, as it is great at shaping transients. It's also great for shaping vocals when used in parallel compression, as it can bring out unique qualities in the vocal that regular compressors wouldn't be able to.
If you want a bit of extra grit in your recording, I highly recommend messing around with the Dist 2 or Dist 3 settings, which introduce a bit of saturation to the signal. It's the perfect technique for creating a more analog sound with a clean or lifeless digital signal.
7. PSP VintageWarmer2
The PSP VintageWarmer2 goes beyond your standard compression plugin. With precise analog hardware emulation and three unique modes of operation, the PSP VintageWarmer2 plugin is one of the best compression and saturation hybrids for mixing and mastering.
The first operational mode is the MicroWarmer, which has typical controls, including drive, speed, release, high, low, knee, and output. You'll also find a small shelving EQ section onboard, which allows you to shape the tone of your signal moving out of the processing section.
The original VintageWarmer is the second operational style, which adds multi-band compression, brick wall limiting, a frequency section, and a few additional release settings.
Lastly, you have the VintageWarmer2 processing mode, which features the lovable FAT mode. I often flip on FAT mode when I want to give my audio a more analog sound.
If you're looking for a transparent compression plugin, the PSP VintageWarmer2 is not for you. In fact, the plugin has become popular thanks to the fact that you can drive it hard to give you a saturated analog hardware sound. When overloaded using the Drive knob, you get tape-like qualities. It's an altogether different compression style that is useful for injecting saturation and coloration into your mixes.
8. Softube Weiss Compressor/Limiter
The Softube Weiss Compressor/Limiter plugin is an emulation of the famous Weiss DS1-MK3 dynamics processor. This piece of hardware has become somewhat of a legendary hardware unit. In fact, the original piece of hardware won the Outstanding Technical Achievement award, and this plugin is an almost uncanny version of it.
You'll find all of your general compression parameters, including Attack, Release, Ratio, Threshold, and Knee, as well as a parallel mix control, allowing you to dial the plugin in only as much as you need.
You'll also find helpful mid-side controls, allowing you to work on the middle and stereo portions of your mix independently, which can be extremely helpful in mastering situations. The cool thing is that these controls are all found on the plugin's main interface, which Softube decided to keep clean and simple.
However, if you want a bit more control, the expert menu is easily accessible, which allows you to mess around with the various parameters with more nuance. The waveform display provides feedback on all of the choices you make, and you can even use the plugin as an expander by turning the Ratio knob to the left.
9. Brainworx Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Class A
There are certain mastering compressors that seem to rise above the rest time and time again. The Brainxworx Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Class A is one of those plugins.
On the Class A Compressor, you're able to choose between discrete and optical compression. The optical compressor was upgraded with a "hand-wired" Mogami cable and Lundahl input transformers. These unique elements give you a smooth yet punchy sound, all while delivering clarity and depth.
The plugin also comes with an output transformer, which allows you to switch between three coloration types. The steel transformer gives you a slight bit of harmonic distortion, the nickel transformer boosts the mid-range, and the iron transformer smooths out the high-end.
This compressor works really well when you approach it conservatively. I often find myself using it on the stereo bus with a slow attack and medium-fast release. If I can, I'll time the release with the tempo of the song. Then, I'll dial back the threshold, so I'm getting around 1-2dB of gain reduction.
One thing to take advantage of with this plugin is the parallel compression knob. If you're feeling adventurous, you can dial in 10+dB of compression before dialing back the gain reduction effect using the mix knob.
10. UAD Fairchild 660/670
When engineers talk about classic or legendary compressors, a mention of the Fairchild 660 or 670 compressor usually comes up. These titanous tube compressors fetch around $50,000 per unit, making them nearly impossible for your average studio owner to use.
However, many engineers say that the sweet, silky warmth heard on Beatles and Pink Floyd records can be attributed to these compressors.
Luckily, UAD came out with one of the most accurate recreations of this plugin, so you can give your tracks the same smooth, classic tube character found in the original units. With the tube-driven gain control and tube amp and transformer section, you get the unmistakable analog tone that you can't get anywhere else.
Of course, to take the plugin even further, UAD added plugin-exclusive features, such as Headroom Control, Sidechain filters, and a Wet/Dry knob for mixing in parallel.
11. Soundtoys - Devil-Loc Deluxe
The Devil- Loc Deluxe from Soundtoys goes along with the company's MO of developing vibey vintage-style plugins with modern takes. This unique plugin emulates the 1960s Shure Level-Loc hardware unit, which was first designed to limit the dynamic range on public address systems.
However, the original piece of hardware only had three controls, including a bypass switch, a distance selector, and an input level knob. Soundtoys decided they were going to give the Level-Loc facelift and features upgrade. On this plugin, you'll find a Crush knob (impacts the compression level), a Crunch knob (delivers an aggressive saturation effect), release settings (slow or fast), and a Darkness knob (shapes the tone of your signal).
At the end of the chain lies the Mix knob, which allows you to dial in absolute insanity before you slowly realize you've unleashed too much chaos, and now you need some more of your original dry signal to receive forgiveness for your sins.
As you probably already guessed based on the name, Devil-Loc Deluxe is not a subtle compression plugin. It's great for adding grit and character to drums, basses, vocals, or any other subgroup of elements that are lacking oomph.
12. iZotope Neutron 4 Compressor
Sometimes, you just want a solid digital compressor that can reduce the dynamic range of your signal without imparting any additional color or character. The beauty of this compressor is that it can be as transparent and surgical as you need it to be. However, if you want to add a bit of color once you have your compression dialed in, you can go into "vintage" mode.
It's worth noting that the iZotope Neutron 4 Compressor is an incredibly complex plugin, which makes it difficult to summarize in just a few paragraphs. As you can probably tell from the interface, it's capable of just about a million different things. If you're new to mixing or music production, the learning curve might be a bit steep. However, if you want to master a compressor that you can use on just about anything, then this compressor is a great choice.
One of the things I really love about this plugin is its multi-band compression capabilities. For example, sometimes, I'm working on a bass guitar track that has a bit too much dynamic range in the low mids between 100 and 200Hz. With iZotope's multi-band compression, I can simply compress that range without affecting anything else. This isn't a feature you'll see on very many standard compressor plugins, which is one of the reasons this plugin stands out.
13. Waves - DBX160 Compressor
Many consider the DBX160 one of the greatest compressors for drums of all time. When the original DBX160 hardware unit came out, engineers were astounded by how well it could control heavily-transient dynamics while retaining a clean sound with minimal THD.
In the late 70s, the DBX160 was used on just about everything. by the 80s, DBX began making different models, which became classic in their own right. Waves did an excellent job at emulating the various controls and characteristics found on the original unit. Plus, Waves added a few unique features that aren't found in the original unit, such as mid-side dynamics processing, a stereo component, and mix and noise controls.
I often find myself using this plugin in parallel, especially when I want to smash my drums to give them added punch and body before mixing them back in with my unprocessed drums.
14. Tokyo Dawn Labs - Kotelnikov
If you're in the market for a free compressor that works just as well as any of the compressor plugins above, the TDR Kotelnikov is a solid choice. Even for a free plugin, it is one of the most flexible compressor plugins on this list. You can tailor the various parameters found on this compressor to fit your needs.
Some of those parameters include threshold, attack, release, soft knee, ratio, and peak crest, many of which function similarly to controls found on other compressor plugins.
One of the unique parameters is the Peak Crest parameter, which is somewhat of a blend parameter to determine what the compression is reacting to. At lower settings, the Peak Crest reacts to peak levels, while at higher settings, the Peak Crest reacts to the RMS level.
We love the fact that Kotelnikov has a high-pass filter setting, which is especially useful for working with music that has a heavy low end, such as hip-hop or EDM. In short, you get far more precise control over what your compression is reacting to.
Kotelnikov is a solid digital compressor that can work as a bus compressor or as an individual track plugin. You won't find any type of hardware emulation in this compressor plugin, as it is meant to deliver clean, crisp, and uncolored compression when you need it most.
15. Xfer OTT
The Xfer OTT might just be the best free compressor plugin on the market today, especially for those that make modern electronic music. This plugin has become somewhat of a classic over the past decade, offering some of the most versatile multi-band compression that can spice up your music production with a little tweaking.
The OTT in this plugin's name stands for "over the top," and the developers aren't wrong.
Start by dialing in the Depth control to get the perfect amount of compression. Then, set the attack and release controls of the three bands depending on what you're looking to control.
With its upward/downward compression algorithm, it adds a unique sound to your mixes that I haven't personally been able to find anywhere else. It's a mix between glue and maximization, perfect for when your tracks need that bit of extra hype.
Plus, with a completely free price tag, it can't be beaten!
Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't craft a clean, punchy, and exciting mix without spending hundreds, if not thousands , on third-party plugins. While the plugins above certainly have their place in mixing and music production, it's important to understand that, at the end of the day, a lot of what you need to get done can be performed using your stock DAW compressor.
I use Pro Tools more than any other DAW, though I also know plenty of engineers who use Ableton, Logic, Reaper, FL Studio, and Studio One. There are many instances where we load up our stock compressor plugins, especially when we simply need clean and versatile dynamics processing.
Besides the versatile features these stock plugins usually come with, they are also often easy on the CPU, allowing you to use multiple instances of them throughout your sessions without bogging down your computer.
Stock DAW compressor plugins can also be excellent learning tools for getting a better grip on how certain compression controls and parameters work.
Final Thoughts - Taking Control of Your Dynamics
Regardless of the style of music you produce, mix, or master, you'll eventually need compression to reign in your dynamic range. Luckily, there are more compression plugin options out there than there ever have been before.
Whether you're looking to limit the dynamics of your vocal, smooth out the peaks and add some glue during mastering, or impart that classic analog hardware sound on your tracks without spending thousands on a real analog hardware unit, I highly recommend taking advantage of some of these great compression plugins above!