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In every great audio engineer’s arsenal, you’ll perhaps find one tool far more common than others.
That tool is the compressor.
In the 1930s, when the compressor was invented, it was initially made to control audio signals in broadcast chains, ensuring they didn’t “overmodulate” or distort. Eventually, audio engineers realized they could use compression for other more musical endeavors, from controlling the transients on drum tracks to fitting singers into the pockets of mixes by limiting their dynamic range.
Over the years, compressor units evolved to suit various styles and tonalities. Eventually, famous hardware units, including tube compressors, optical compressors, FET compressors, and others, became digitized for use in the box.
You likely won’t hear a song made in the past half a century that didn’t use a compressor. While you could certainly use your stock DAW compressor for any dynamic range limiting, premium compressor VST plugins offer a distinct sound quality and style. Often imparting more sonic character to your music productions.
However, with so many compressor plugins available, finding the best compressor plugin for your production and mixing style can be tricky. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of the best compressor plugins (in my professional opinion) to help you optimize your dynamic arsenal.
Related Article: Best Plugins for EDM
Table of Contents
1. FabFilter – Pro C2
View at: Pluginboutique
|macOS 10.12 or higher, Windows 11, 10, 8, 7, or Vista (32 or 64-bit)
|VST2, VST3, AU, AAX Native
|View at: Pluginboutique
|Simple Design & Layout
|None – unless you are looking to color your sound.
The FabFilter Pro-C2 is a solid favorite. Offering versatile, transparent compression, it will handle any production job you throw at it. It’s the default compressor of my setup for a reason: it sounds great and is really easy to use. Unique in this list of best compressors because it’s not based on a classic hardware unit; Instead, this uber-flexible digital-style compressor provides clean, transparent dynamic control with many modern features.
The user interface is stunning, and the spectrum analyzer makes it easy to see precisely how you’re processing your signal. Though this compressor doesn’t emulate any specific units, it offers five different styles of compression for different uses, including:
- Vocal – Great for bringing your vocals to the front of a mix.
- Mastering – Offers super transparent compression without harmonic distortion to keep mix integrity intact.
- Bus – A choice option for glue, especially on drum busses.
- Punch – Offers a more traditional style of analog compression.
- Pumping – Introduces over-the-top pumping artifacts suitable for EDM.
Of course, just because these styles are recommended for specific use doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with them in different situations, too. Whenever I need a transparent compressor, I reach for the C2, it’s one of the best compressor plugins I’ve used.
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2. UAD Empirical Labs – Arouser
Modern Classic is now available as a plugin
View at: Sweetwater
|macOS10.8.5 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later
|VST, AU, AAX
|View at: Sweetwater
|Amazing sound – strong character imparted into audio.
Though Empirical Labs might be best known for developing the Distressor, which we’ll discuss next, it’s the Arouser that’s become the plugin very few of my sessions go without.
If you’re familiar with the Distressor, the interface on the Arousor will look super familiar to you with its horizontal ratio layout, black faceplate, and massive white knobs. However, Empirical Labs added some cool new features that make it all the more unique.
For starters, they added an Attack Modification knob, which changes the way the attack parameter reacts, offering a unique take on the snappy attack that the Distressor already provides. It’s excellent for drums, allowing heavy compression whilst maintaining transients.
You’ll also find a few other features, including several harmonic saturation presets, a detection high pass filter, and a detector sidechain. While you won’t get the same coloration as with the Distressor; it’s still one of the best comproser plugins I’ve used.
3. UAD Empirical Labs – EL8 Distressor
Beautiful saturation & compression plugin
|macOS 10.10 or later macOS 10.15 Catalina, 11 Big Sur, 12 Monterey, 13 Ventura; Windows 10 or 11 (64 Bit only)
|VST, AU, AAX
|View at Pluginboutique
View at Thomann
|Excellent Distressor Emulation
Parallel compression control.
|Maybe too stylized for some.
When Dave Derr developed the UAD Empirical Labs Distressor almost a few decades ago, it became a go-to for many producers and engineers who wanted a thick, gritty, heavy-handed compression style. It wasn’t available as a VST until the team at UAD paired up with Dave to create the plugin version.
One of the main advantages of the Distressor is the ultra-fast attack time, which allows you to shape transients with aggression and add a little harmonic distortion along the way. The plugin features variations in compression ratios — 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 6:1, 10:1, 20:1 and Nuke. You can use the 1:1 ratio to warm up synths without compression while adding musical harmonics gently. The Nuke setting is highly aggressive, providing explosive excitement to parallel compression or your entire mix.
What makes the Distressor stand out is its iconic Dist 2 and Dist 3 modes that provide a broad palette of compression textures. They let you shape audio signals with even or combined even/odd-order harmonic distortion. This helps thicken up and color your sound.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Distressor is not every genre’s cup of tea, and if you’re looking for transparent compression, it’s certainly not the best choice. It is, however, a killer piece of software for breathing life into drums or other transient heavy instruments. This is the compressor plugin for adding grit to a sound without an additional saturation plugin.
I like to use it for parallel compression on drums. The Distressor has such a heavy compression ratio setting (‘Nuke”) that it slams the signal, providing punch to your audio tracks.
Related: Best EDM Plugins
4. IK Multimedia – Black 76
Faithful emulation of the 1176 hardware compressor
|64-bit only. MacOS 10.10 or later, 4GB RAM min, Windows 7,8 & 10
|VST2, VST3, AU, AAX
|View at IK Multimedia
|A solid replication of the 1176 hardware compressor.
Very Easy to use
|Lacks parallel compression knob
There are endless 1176 plugin emulations out there. After using many of them throughout the years, I’ve landed on one I like: Black 76 Limiting Amplifier from IK Multimedia. The original 1176 hardware compressor is probably one of the industry’s most recognizable units and has been used on countless records throughout music history.
Though there are many versions of this iconic FET compressor, the team at IK Multimedia decided to emulate the LN Revision E version, as it probably has the most recognizable sonic character of the bunch.
You get all the same features as the original, including the lightning-fast attack time, and the gritty “all buttons in” mode for extreme compression. This helps the plugin come very close to emulating 1176 hardware. An ideal compressor from bass, vocals, and drums to brass; it works on just about anything that can benefit from a healthy dose of compression.
Also available in the T Racks 5 bundle via Splice on Rent to own here.
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The Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B is a tube and transformer design based on the iconic and award-winning optical compressor from Tube-Tech. The Tube-Tech team worked alongside Softube to ensure the plugin emulation met the standard of their prized hardware unit. The result is a beautiful recreation of the CL 1B compressor limter.
The CL 1B offers a warm and mellow compression, with a ‘musical sound’. The controls are pretty straightforward: attack, release, threshold, and ratio with a manual makeup gain. The CL 1B has three attack/ release settings:
‘Manual‘ is the standard mode, the attack and release times set by the respective knob positions.
‘Fixed’ mode sets Attack time to 1 ms and Release time to 50 ms.
‘Fixed /Manual’ mode the Attack time is set to 1ms and the release time is variable.
A fantastic compressor plug-in that can subtly control dynamics and impart delightful audible color. Although expensive, it comes in at a much lower price than buying the hardware unit!
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Beyond the 1176 FET compressor, the LA-2A is one of the few hardware compressors to reach legendary status. It might be the most well-known optical compressor in history, offering warm and musical tube compression.
It’s one of my favorite compresses for adding ‘character’ to tracks, primarily due to its slow attack and release settings.
Though Universal Audio was the original developer of the hardware unit and eventually emulated it in a Teletronix plugin bundle for in-the-box producers, I recommend checking out the one from Waves.
It’s a much less expensive version, yet it offers the same 50s-style sound and ease of use. Plus, it’s easygoing on the CPU, so you can use multiple instances even when running an older computer.
I use the CLA-2A compressor plugin on vocals more than anything else, especially if I go for a smoother and more natural compression style. Like most optical compressors, you can dial in a pretty heavy level of gain reduction without squashing the dynamic range out of an audio signal.
The Waves API 2500 provides you with compression no matter what style you need. Over the years, it has become a top choice in studios due to its accurate VCA technology, perfect for whether you need to pull more tone or punch out of your audio signals.
Onboard, you’ll find three different tone styles, three unique variable types, and tons of parameters for dialing in any compression you could imagine, all while adding a little bit of analog warmth to your sound.
The variable stereo link allows you to use two-channel operation, and the three distinct new settings allow dialing in how responsive you want the compression to be to the incoming signal.
While this compressor has infinite uses, I often find myself adding it to the drum buss for a little bit of added punch and glue, as well as individual kick or snare drums. It also works wonders on a mix, putting elements in their place and allowing drums to punch through.
Keep your eyes out for this plugin on sale, as it’s well worth the investment.
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8. Waves – SSL G Master buss compressor
Glue Compressor powerhouse taken from the SSL 400 console
|macOS 10.15 Catalina – macOS 12 Monterey; Windows 7 – Windows 11
|VST2 & VST3, AU, AAX
|View at Thomann
|Classic glue compression from the buss compressor of the SSL 4000 console
Mastering engineers will often stick compressor plugins on their mix busses to give their mixes glue and cohesion. Mastering is one of the instances where the Waves SSL G Master Bus Compressor comes in handy. It was taken from the mastering portion of the famed SSL 400 G Console and was developed by Waves in conjunction with the team at SSL to provide in-the-box mixers with all the same magic as the original.
If you want more vintage character from the plugin, you can initiate the analog-modeled hum to add a little noise. Be careful with applying this, as it can add unwanted noise to your mix.
Beyond mastering, it’s another go-to compressor when I need to add punch to my drums. It does an excellent job at squeezing dynamic range without compromising the low end.
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Straight forward limiting and compression
|macOS 10.15 Catalina, 11 Big Sur, 12 Monterey, 13 Ventura & Windows 10 or Windows 11 (64-bit only Editions)
|VST, AU, AAX
|View at Plugin Boutique
|Great results on a wide source of material
Easy to use
|A little expensive for some.
Many decades ago, Bill Putnam designed what would eventually become one of the most iconic hardware compressors ever, the 1176. It was the first compressor featuring solid‑state circuitry and an ultra-fast 20-microsecond FET gain reduction.
The 1176 is known for its aggressive style of gain reduction, and the UAD emulation of this compressor gives you access to three different digital compressors in one. The first type is the Bluestripe Revision A, which is based on the initial Putnam 1176 design and offers ultra-fast attack and release times, perfect for slamming drums and other transient-heavy instruments.
We also get access to the Revision E version of the plugin, which is a much more transparent compressor plugin than its cousin, offering low-noise operation and a warmer overall tone.
The third compressor VST plugin in the collection is the UAD AE (Anniversary Edition), which offers subtle gain reduction with lower compression ratios. This collection provides some of the best compressor plugins for both heavy and transparent gain reduction, and the Bluestripe alone is probably used on every mix I do.
10. Soundtoys – Devil Loc Deluxe
Extremely crunchy characterful compression
|macOS 10.12 Sierra and later (Intel / M1 / M2 Apple Silicon supported) (64-bit only), Windows 7 and later (64-bit only)
|AAX, VST 2, VST 3, AU
|View at: Pluginboutique
Ability to shape the tone and character of your sound.
Ability to shape the tone and character of sound
Soundtoys is one of my favorite plugin developers as the company offers some of the vibey-est, vintage-style effects plugins on the market. Though the developers might be best known for their legendary Echoboy delay and Decapitator saturation plugins, the Devil-Loc Deluxe deserves the same love.
It takes inspiration from the quirky 1960s Shure Level-Loc hardware unit, initially used on public address systems to limit dynamic range. Not only did Soundtoys give the compressor a total facelift, but they also added a few unique parameters to the original, which only had an input level knob, a distance selector, and a bypass switch.
Whenever your tracks need an extra dose of attitude, you have a Crunch knob for distortion, a Crush knob for squeezing the life out of your signal, and a Darkness knob for when you want to take your audio signal into the depths of the underworld.
The Devil-Loc Deluxe is not one of your average compressor plugins. Still, with its heavy-duty style of compression and saturation, it’s an ideal choice for controlling dynamic range whilst adding a little bit of chaos.
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11. Brainworx – Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
Excellent control and versatility
|macOS 10.11 – macOS 12 Monterey (Apple Silicon Supported except for AAX); Windows 8 – 11
|AAX DSP, AAX Native, VST2, VST3
|View at: Pluginboutique
|Lots of processing options.
It’s also suitable for individual instruments and buss mixes.
|At the sale price of £30, none.
The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor has long been my trusty sidekick for audio mastering. This plugin is a meticulously modeled emulation of the hardware mastering compressor by Shadow Hills.
The Class A allows for three different compression styles with different coloration, including Steel, which provides a touch of harmonic saturation; Iron, which smooths out the top end; and Nickel, which boosts the midrange.
The Shadow Hills features two compression stages. The first is an ‘Optical’ processor, providing basic Threshold and Gain controls; this is followed by the VCA compressor, labeled ‘Discrete’ on the paneling. The VCA provides more comprehensive Ratio, Attack, and Recover dials alongside its own Threshold and Gain controls. This gives you a lot of versatility over how your audio will be processed. You can process using the twin compressors in series or independently. This flexibility allows the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor to be used on various sound sources – not just as a mastering compressor. This makes the Shadow Hills a highly versatile compressor, capable of tackling individual instruments, mix busses as well as taking care of mastering duties/
If you’re looking for a compressor that provides professional sound quality and transparent compression over entire mixes, then the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor is one of the best digital compressor plugins around. Available at around $/£30, a great bargain considering the hardware unit is over $/£10k!
What does a compressor plug in do?
Compressors are used to lower the loudest peaks and boost the softer parts of an audio signal. They do this by compressing the audio signal, which they do by reducing its dynamic range. This ensures a more consistent, balanced, and manageable sound.
Compressors are often used throughout a track to create cohesion and smooth out dynamics. Careful compression will make your tracks sound thicker and well-balanced and avoid jumps in volume. They can also be used creatively to add punch and color to a sound. If you aim to create professional-sounding mixes, mastering the compressor is necessary.
What is the best compressor plugin?
Ultimately, it depends on the use of the compressor, different compression styles are used for different music production jobs. As a quick guide, the FabFilter Pro C2 is a great value, versatile compressor used by many music producers.
If you are after warmth and adding a bit of color to your audio tracks then the Universal Audio Empirical Labs Distressor, Empirical Labs Arouser, Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe and Softube CL 1B will help you achieve professional sound quality.
If you’re looking for a classic compressor plugin, then the IK Multimedia Black 76, Waves CLA-2A, and UAD 1176 Classic Limiter Collection will do the trick.
If you want to glue things together on your mix buss, look at the Waves API 2500, Waves SSL G Master buss compressor, and the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor plugins.
How do I choose a compressor plugin?
Do you want to compress your signal or add some color to it? If you only want compression, then a transparent compressor is for you. If you want your compressor plugin to bring in some color and vintage warmth to your music production, then opt for the colorful compressor.
Consider what production jobs you plan to use it for; for example, if you plan to use your compressor to mix EDM Bass & Kicks, then having a side chain option will help. If you want fast attack times for working with percussive elements? Or if you aren’t confident using a compressor yet, perhaps you want to opt for one that comes loaded with presets.
Another thing to consider is if you’re going to compress individual tracks, or a mix buss? If it’s the latter, you’ll want a mix buss compressor.
What are the different types of Compressor plugins?
s a quick guide, we can break down compressor plugins into two categories; mix buss compressor plugins and compressors for individual audio signals.
Within these two categories are seven different compressor types: VCA, FET, optical, tube, digital, Vari Mu and PWM.
FET compression: is great on percussion, vocals, and where you need fast and aggressive gain reduction.
VCA Compressor plugins: precise control of compression settings. It has adjustable attack and release settings, flexible ratio settings, and accurate metering.
Optical compressor: optical compression preserves the sound’s natural dynamics while maintaining subtle control. Transparent gain reduction and a natural sound. Great for vocal compression.
Tube Compressors: impart a warm, classic sound by gently distorting the compressed signal.
Vari Mu Compression – Vari Mu compressors can sound wonderfully round, warm, full, and weighty, often without sacrificing audio detail.
PWM Compressor vst plugins: Pulse width modulation compressor vst plugins are less well known, but still used.
Digital compressors: Those that don’t emulate hardware offer precise control, transparent compression, a wide range of ratio settings, attack and release times, sidechain options, and advanced metering. Essential tools for music producers.
What is the most versatile compressor VST?
FabFilter Pro C2 has many features and a wide range of compression styles and settings, making it an essential tool for most music production jobs.