In Search of the Best Compressor Plugin – Top 5 Compressors

By | January 2, 2015

The music technology market is filled with different kinds of compressors, ranging from the cleanest to the most abusive – and everything in between. You might be looking for the best compressor plugin out there, as we all are. Read on to find out about some of the gems on the compressor market today.

I’ve used lots of compressors in my music production career, and I can tell you right now you won’t find one magical compressor which will take care of all your needs. The key is to know which compressor can affect your sound in certain ways. I think they all have their own share in the music game – as well as their sound.

I will list my top five favorites below and tell you a little bit about each of them.

Clean, clean, clean

FabFilter Pro-C

Read my review on FabFilter Pro-C here.

Fabfilter Pro-C

Fabfilter Pro-C

This compressor is my favorite one to reach for if transparent compression is needed. For example, to tighten up the dynamic range without adding any color or excessive character.

I also love the customizable side chain filter on it, to compress only a certain area of the frequency spectrum, such as only the high end or the low midrange.

Some of the highlights of the Pro-C include: three compression styles (Clean, Classic, Opto), automatic make-up gain which is very useful for tuning in the right amount of compression quickly, mid-side controls and parallel compression.

The mid-side feature is very useful if only the mono information needs to be compressed and the stereo information left alone, or vice versa. For example, a vocal is usually in the center of a mix so the compressor could be set to process only that.

Even though the Pro-C is a “clean” compressor, you can get some more characteristic results from it by using the Classic and Opto styles included. This is a great go-to track compressor for “everyday” use.

Bring on the SSL

I am a big fan of SSL-style compression. It has a very unique feel to it (and you’ve heard it on loads and loads of records). I am of course talking about the classic bus compressor from the SSL 4000 G Series console.

There are many emulations made of this particular compressor, and while I’m sure they all get the job done, there are slight sonic differences to them. My favorite of the bunch would be:

SSL Duende Native Bus Compressor

SSL Duende Bus Compressor

SSL Duende Bus Compressor

Quoting Solid State Logic: “It is a simple unit with a simple purpose, it makes complete mixes sound bigger, with more power, punch and drive.” And I think the people over at SSL know what they talk about – they were the ones that made it. I agree with their statement as well.

The Duende Bus Compressor is a very special plugin and I think it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, gluing a mix together. Here’s how to use it: stick it on your mix bus, aim for 2-4dB of gain reduction on the meter, and adjust attack and release to taste. Done!

In order to be truly impressed with this plugin, you need to understand what the compressor should sound like. The Duende Bus Compressor might be “too transparent” to some or its effect might not even be heard.

The way I see it, this thing will “grab” your audio in a very special way – unique to the SSL sound. And whether you like the sound of SSL, is up to you.

Highlights of the Duende Bus Compressor are: amazing on the mix bus (but use it wherever you want as it’s a plugin unlike on the actual console) and very simple to use. Legendary sound in your toolbox.

Here are a few albums known to be mixed with an SSL 4000 Series desk:

What about vintage?

PSP OldTimer

PSP OldTimer

PSP OldTimer

The OldTimer by PSP Audioware is inspired by the sound of vintage circuits, and boy does it deliver them to the table.

My absolute favorite use for this compressor is vocals. The tube sound you can get out of the OldTimer is incredible. At the same time it removes any digital “coldness” and levels vocals out beautifully. It’s like the instant mojo you would be getting out of expensive analog gear.

The OldTimer is very easy to use with only a few knobs, the most important of which are the Time and Valve controls. The Time knob acts as the attack and release, tied into one knob – which I like very much. The Valve control being the small secret to this plugin of course, adjusting the amount of tube sound to your signal.

To summarize the OldTimer in a few words: pleasant and rich, sought-after tube sound. Easy to use with only a few knobs, an analog-sounding track compressor that works especially well on vocals. I looove it!

Waves CLA-2A

Waves CLA-2A

Waves CLA-2A

There are many emulations out there of the classic LA-2A compressor, and the Chris Lord-Alge signature CLA-2A by Waves is one of the great ones.

The sound of the CLA-2A is lively, smooth, detailed, sparkly and very pleasant. There is just something about the attack and release wired to this compressor, as you can’t change the values yourself. The way the CLA-2A reacts to incoming sound is something unique – it just knows how to massage the signal that’s fed into it!

There are only two main knobs to this compressor, the Peak Reduction which is used to compress, and the Gain knob to boost the gain of the compressed signal. Very easy, huh?

It’s the sound that counts. I love it on vocals, keyboards and pads the most. Put a piano or vocal through this thing and you’ll have an instant “a-ha” moment. Likewise with the SSL compressor, you’ll hear an LA-2A on records everywhere.

Modern Favorite

Waves RVox

Waves RVox

Waves RVox

The Waves RVox is a special little unit, designed to be used solely on vocals. Of course, you can break the rules and use it on whatever you wish (and I’m sure it will be awesome as well), but I’ll be discussing it on vocals here.

The RVox has a very distinct, radio-like sound to it. When you crank it and if you speak to a microphone through it, you’ll sound like a radio broadcaster. This is of course one use for it, should you need that kind of sound in your endeavors, but I like to beef up my music vocals with it.

As you might guess already, I like simple tools. The RVox has three controls, a noise gate, the compressor section and an output gain. Simple enough? The gate could be useful, but I rarely use it. That leaves me with two controls.

Sometimes, I might use this as the first plugin on a vocal to fatten things up, or the last plugin to finalize a vocal sound. It’s handy for leveling out all the excessive peaks and getting an even vocal.

The RVox is a little bit similar to PSP’s OldTimer, but has a different flavor. The RVox, too, has a tube-like driven sound. In a nutshell the RVox will bring you an in-your-face vocal sound with zero effort.

Found the best yet?

As you can see, these five are only a scratch to the surface of plugin compression. But they are the ones I have found to be amazing and the ones I will keep using. You should check them out if you’re looking for a new compressor to spice things up in your music.

Keep up the drive,

-JP

2 thoughts on “In Search of the Best Compressor Plugin – Top 5 Compressors

  1. Vince

    Great information here. There is quite an art behind this all, I’m amazed at how much knowledge is involved to create great music

    Reply
    1. JP Post author

      Thanks Vince, yes the art behind music engineering and production isn’t talked much and is kept pretty much “behind the curtains”.

      Reply

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