What is a compressor?
A compressor is a type of processor used to shape the dynamics of an audio signal, making it quieter or louder, softer or punchier depending on your specific needs. They are the tool for nailing dynamics automatically at a micro and macro level when volume automation would be excessively time and energy-consuming.
Why you need a compressor?
Compression comes into place whenever the dynamics of a sound are inconsistent or need to be controlled. In poor words, they’re used when you want to control volume over time. Even if they’re meant for dynamic control, some compressors also introduce harmonic distortion, which makes sounds feel richer and fuller.
Your DAW’s stock Compressor
All DAWs, as far as I know, come with at least one stock compressor, which most of the time is suited to accomplish the majority of tasks a compressor could.
Stock plugins are good enough, especially if you’re starting out or if you can’t tell the difference between one compressor and another yet. In that case, investing in a third-party VST would be a gamble as you wouldn’t be fully aware of the benefits that it could bring you.
Some DAWs even come with more than one compressor with different styles. For example, Ableton has a Compressor, which is neutral, and then it features the Glue Compressor, which is developed with Cytomics, and it’s a replica of Cytomics Glue, a notorious bus compressor with its own flavor.
Except for a few scenarios, these are my go-to compressors for most of my needs.
Why do you need third-party VSTs?
A third-party VST might be needed for a number of reasons:
More intuitive, detailed GUI and improved workflow
Each DAW has its own GUI, which reflects on its stock plug-ins as well. While the GUI of the whole environment can feel comfortable and intuitive to you, some stock plug-ins might not look as inviting.
For example, Ableton has a fixed structure for stock plug-ins that could feel restrictive to some users used to floating larger windows.
Ableton’s Compressor also doesn’t feature a really detailed notation of the dynamic range in any of its monitoring modes, which might be needed for more accurate implementations.
Sometimes I prefer using the Fabfilter Pro-C2 which provides these details, especially when working on a master where I need to be conservative and laser-focused on each tweak.
Better sonics performance
Compressors are all designed differently and this makes each one of them unique. Deciding if one’s better or worse is only up to you, based on your needs and your preferences.
Most third-party VSTs you might need can be hardware emulations for the simple reason that they have been developed with a hardware unit in mind that has that particular sound.
This is another interesting pool of reasons for investing in a third-party VST. They exist because developers are able to spot lacks of features in stock plugins and come up with solutions that can make some difficult things easier and some impossible things possible.
One of the most common features missing from stock plugins is Mid-Side and/or Left-Right processing, which can be quite a pain, or even impossible, to set up with stock plug-ins.
Do you need a third-party VST?
It depends. You need to consider what’s your focus when working with music, whether it’s beat-making or sounding, mixing or mastering.
If you don’t care about spending time making your creations sound polished, probably you’re up to delegate the mixdown and the master to other professionals.
In that case, I sincerely recommend not wasting any more time looking for compressors to invest in, unless you just want to binge-read audio stuff.
If you’re dedicated to mixing and or mastering, whether it’s your stuff or clients’ work, then I recommend staying up to date with what’s out there in the market.
How to choose a third-party VST
You can try them out at a friend’s studio and getting your hands dirty to see if any of them fits your needs.
Most software houses provide free trial periods to evaluate them. Don’t make the mistake to start the trial and then forgetting about them. Make sure to pick a period where you have the time and interest in using them.
Then there’s the last option, which is cracking them from piracy websites. This is a practice that we don’t recommend at all, but we acknowledge that it’s a thing that is pointless to ignore. Cracking software sometimes has its own limitations such as DAW crashes, insistent update popups, or other kinds of annoying behaviors.
Downloading pirated software, other than being wrong, also privates developers from the capital they need to improve their software and level up.
The last point about piracy is that you might be tempted to take a lot of VSTs which becomes overwhelming, ending up with a bunch of stuff that only makes your plug-ins list longer to scroll and harder to scan, other than occupying useful space on your computer.
When it’s time to invest in a compressor, you want to get the best of the best for the simple reason that it will affect your future works. Since there are a lot of VSTs out there and considered that you might not even know some of them, here’s a list that is broken down into sections, each one regarding a type of compressor and the best options within that field.
This list is made of tools we used a lot and other recommendations from trusted peers and professionals.
These compressors are designed with the intent of solely shaping dynamics. They rarely introduce distortion because most of them aren’t modeled after a hardware unit.
They have advanced metering options, they include lookahead, have different behaviors, and also allow working in M/S and L/R mode with ease. All of these things don’t exclude the fact that they can offer a sort of hardware behavior.
- Audio Damage Rough Rider 3
- Melda Production MCompressor
- TDR Kotelnikov
- Xfer OTT Multiband Compressor
- Auburn Sounds Couture
- Klanghelm DC8C
- Waves C6
- Waves MaxxVolume
- DMG Audio Compassion
- ELYSIA Mpressor
- Fabfilter Pro C-2
- Fabfilter Pro-MB
- Leapwing DynOne 3
- Melda Production MSpectralDynamics
- Sonnox Oxford Dynamics
- Sound Radix POWAIR
- SoundSpot Axis
FET stands for “field effect transistor” and it’s fast and aggressive while staying transparent enough to create extreme shifts in dynamics.
It has a pleasing vintage character with satisfying saturation when pushed.
FET compression is great on percussion, vocals and anywhere you need fast and aggressive yet pleasant gain reduction.
- Analog Obsession FETISH
- Plugin Alliance Lindell 7X-500
- IK Multimedia Black 76
- Native Instruments VC76
- PSP FETpressor (PSP Audioware)
- Softube FET Compressor
- UAD 1176 Collection
Optical compressors use photosensitive light cells to control the compression.
It’s one of the earliest methods of controlling gain reduction, and it has a particularly musical sounding action due to the physical properties of the photocell.
It’s slower and gentler than FET compression with a pleasing feel that works well on many different sources.
The Teletronix LA-2A is an all-time favorite, especially for vocals.
- ADHD Levelling Tool
- Waves CLA-2A
- Waves Renaissance Compressor
- Waves Renaissance Vox
- Native Instruments VC2A
- Plugin Alliance Millennia TCL-2
- Tube-Tech CL 1B
- Universal Audio La-2a Leveler Collection
The most well known all-tube compressor is the vintage Fairchild 670. These classics are so rare and expensive, but plugin manufacturers have been creating digital recreations of the Fairchild and other rich sounding tube compressors.
Tube compressors sound fantastic in many situations, they’re great if you want to enhance the source material with pleasing colouration and saturation.
- VladG Molot Compressor
- Klanghelm MJUC jr.
- Nomad Factory Bus Driver
- Waves PuigChild Compressor
- Acustica Audio El Rey
- Arturia TUBE-STA
- IK Multimedia Vintage Tube Compressor/Limiter Model 670
- Native Instruments VARICOMP
- Pulsar Audio Mu
- Slate Digital FG-MU
- Softube Summit Audio TLA-100A
- UAD Fairchild Collection
VCA compressors came with the introduction of integrated circuits that could perform gain reduction with more predictable results than earlier methods. Noticeable classic units are the DBX 160 and SSL Bus Compressor. The SSL Bus Compressor in particular has become the go-to compressor on the mix bus for many producers.
It offers a clear and classy sound that enhances punch and impact while providing the infamous glue factor that makes a mix sound cohesive and integrated.
- Ableton Glue Compressor
- TDR Feedback Compressor II
- FXpansion DCAM FreeComp
- Waves API 2500
- Waves Dbx 160
- Waves SSL G-Series Bus
- Brainworx bx_townhouse Buss Compressor
- Brainworx Vertigo VSC-2
- Cytomics The Glue
- Native Instruments Solid Bus Comp
- Native Instruments VC160
- Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
- Slate Digital FG-401
- SSL Native Bus Compressor
This compressor is one-of-a-kind as it incorporates the sonic characteristics of the 1176, LA-2A, Gain Brain and others. It also has some unique and interesting features that have made it a staple in the world of audio engineering.
It offers a wide range of control, but also a warm and vintage sound thanks to its custom designed gain control circuit.
- Modern Deathcore
- Pensadia SOR8
- SKnote Disto
- Empirical Labs Arousor
- Slate Digital FG-Stress
- Sly Fi Deflector
- Universal Audio Distressor
- Universal Audio Fatso
Distressor can be considered a hybrid compressor, but it definitely deserves a dedicated section. Many other software developers have worked for implementing different styles of compression into a single instance. A new way of approaching compression in all of its flavors. These can be considered as custom vintage sounds as each one of them is up to the intentions of their own developers.
- Klanghelm DC1A 2
- Klanghelm DC8C 2
- Waves H-Comp Hybrid Compressor
- Sonalksis SV-315 Mk2
- u-he Presswerk