The 15 Best Compressor Plugins For Every Mix Situation

Mixing & MasteringMusic Gear
The 15 Best Compressor Plugins For Every Mix Situation

Compression and EQ are the two most essential tools in mixing.

You’ll probably apply them on every single track in your session before the mix is complete.

With such a key part of the music production process, you need to have tools you can rely on.

But choosing the right compressor plugin isn’t easy. There are thousands of compressor VSTs out there, and not all of them work well for every task.

Even so, it doesn’t have to be intimidating. You’ll always get the right tool for the job if you know what a compressor does, the different compressor types and where they work best.

In this guide I’ll go through each style of compressor, recommend a smart choice for every budget and show the best ways to use them in your mix or master.

What is a compressor?

A compressor is an audio processor that’s used in mixing to reduce the dynamic range of audio signals. Dynamic range means the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a sound.

You’ll need to reduce the dynamic range of most signals you record so that both the loud and quiet moments are equally audible in the mix.

Check out our detailed guide to compressors if you need a more in-depth overview to get you up to speed.

The concept seems simple, but there are different ways to implement compression that have different sounds and uses in a mix.

Most of them come from the days of analog hardware. Those classic sounds are still in high demand today.

Plugin manufacturers have developed digital equivalents to bring those timeless tones to your DAW.

Let’s get started.

FET compressor plugins

fet compressors 1176

FET compression is one of the most essential compressor sounds in music.

FET compression is one of the most essential compressor sounds in music.

It stands for “field effect transistor” and it’s the mechanism used in the all-time classic UREI 1176 compressor.

The 1176 has a long and illustrious history and is still used by virtually every professional studio to this day.

FET compression can be fast and aggressive while staying transparent enough to create extreme shifts in dynamics.

It has a pleasing vintage character with satisfying bloom and saturation when pushed.

FET compression is great on percussion, vocals and anywhere you need fast and aggressive yet stylish gain reduction.

Free plugin: Analog Obsession FETISH

Analog Obsession FETISH is an excellent free software 1176-style compressor.

Many independent developers are turning to new methods of distributing their software. Analog Obsesion dev Tunca has moved their entire plugin library to Patreon.

The plugins are still free, but consider getting a subscription if you use them often.

Cheap plugin: Plugin Alliance Lindell 7X-500

At just $29 USD (at the time of this writing) Plugin Alliance’s digital recreation of the popular Lindell 7X-500 series module is a charmingly inexpensive way to get started with FET compression.

This handy FET compressor packs all the snappy attack and analog warmth of the hardware and sounds great anywhere you might use an 1176.

Pro plugin: UAD 1176 Collection

UAD wrote the book on emulating the 1176 in software. Their take on its legacy is still widely respected as the best in the business.

The expanded 1176 collection includes several rare revisions of the original circuit modelled to perfection.

Optical compressor plugins

optical compressors LA-2A

Optical compressors use photosensitive light cells to control the compression.

It’s one of the earliest methods of controlling gain reduction that’s often found in classic early units.

Optical compression has a particularly musical sounding action due to the physical properties of the photocell.

Optical compression has a particularly musical sounding action due to the physical properties of the photocell.

It’s a little slower and gentler than FET compression with a pleasing feel that works well on many different sources.

The legendary Teletronix LA-2A is an optical compressor with a tube makeup gain stage.

It’s probably the most well known optical compressor and many engineers all-time favorite for vocals.

Here are some great options based on the optical sound of the LA-2A

Free plugin: ADHD Levelling Tool

ADHD Levelling tool is a handy freeware compressor that will bring LA-2A style optical compression into your sessions without breaking the bank.

With additional controls for attack release and threshold, Levelling Tool isn’t exactly a direct clone, but the sonic inspiration is clear.

Cheap Plugin: Waves CLA-2A

Waves CLA-2A has been on the scene for a while now, but it’s still a great option for the smooth optical sound of the LA-2A in your DAW.

Waves plugins are often available on extremely deep discounts from sales and offers.

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It’s worth waiting for one to come around if you want to get your hands on the CLA-2A without spending a fortune.

Pro Plugin: Softube CL1B

Softube CL1B is based on Danish manufacturer Tube Tech’s tube-driven take on the optical LA-2A design.

Softube’s recreation is spot on and this pro compressor plugin offers all the weight, heft and tube warmth of the original.

Tube compressor plugins

tube compressors delta-mu

There are lots of tube compressors out there, but like the LA-2A, not all of them create their gain reduction effect using the tubes themselves.

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Creating compression with vacuum tube circuitry alone is possible, but it’s considered much more difficult and expensive than other methods.

That’s why true tube compressors (sometimes called “delta-mu” compressors) are large, bulky and expensive.

The tubes and transformers required to make these processors work are impractical for all but the most serious setups.

But all that iron and tubey goodness results in an incredibly powerful sound.

The most well known all-tube compressor is the vintage Fairchild 670. These classics are so rare and expensive (authentic units have sold for over $100K) that most producers will never even see one, let alone hear it on their tracks.

Luckily, plugin manufacturers have been creating digital recreations of the Fairchild and other beefy sounding tube comps since the dawn of digital.

Creating compression with vacuum tube circuitry alone is possible, but it’s considered much more difficult and expensive than other methods.

Tube compressors sound fantastic in many situations, especially any time you want to enhance the source material with pleasing colouration and saturation.

Free plugin: Klanghelm MJUC jr.

Klanghelm produces a suite of excellent analog modelling plugins for free. MJUC jr. is no exception.

MJUC jr. is the little brother of the highly regarded MJUC delta-mu style compressor. This completely free plugin will get you the tube driven compression tones of the larger version with ease.

It’s hard to imagine that a mixing tool this useful and musical could be available completely free…

Cheap plugin: Arturia TUBE-STA

This stylish delta-mu style compressor has the vibey look—and sound—of the legendary Gates STA-Level hardware unit that dates back to 1956.

This near mythical vintage comp commands the typical high prices of old school tube compressors and is famous for its ability to utterly squash the signal without unpleasant artifacts.

Arturia’s fantastic take on it gives you all the tube texture of the original.

Pro Plugin: UAD Fairchild Collection

UAD produces some of the most highly regarded digital replicas of analog gear.

With the Fairchild collection, they’ve gone all out, modelling each and every component down to its most idiosyncratic elements.

This is as close as you can get to a real Fairchild in your DAW—and that’s a wonderful thing.

VCA compressor plugins

VCA compressors came on the scene in the 70s with the introduction of integrated circuits (ICs) that could perform gain reduction cheaply and with more predictable results than earlier methods.

This technology gave rise to classic units like the DBX 160 and SSL Bus Compressor.

The SSL Bus Compressor in particular has become a secret weapon on the mix bus for many producers.

It offers a clear and classy sound that enhances punch and impact while providing the “glue” factor that makes a mix sound cohesive and integrated.

Free plugin: Ableton Glue Compressor

I’m cheating a bit here since this is a built-in DAW plugin. But if you’re an Ableton Live Suite user you already have access to an excellent VCA style compressor modelled on the SSL bus comp.

Glue compressor works great for providing that subtle sonic adhesive that holds individual busses and entire mixes together.

Cheap plugin: Cytomic The Glue

Cytomic’s The Glue is another great take on the SSL Bus compressor design.

It’s a lightweight plugin that will give you that classic VCA gain reduction without choking your CPU.

Pro plugin: SSL Native Bus Compressor

If you’re searching for the classic SSL sound, why not go straight to the source?

SSL’s suite of native plugins includes an excellent take on their classic VCA bus compressor design that can give you all the glue, punch and flavor of the original.

Digital Compressor plugins

The sound of analog hardware has an enduring appeal for most engineers.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent compressors out there with completely digital DNA.

Digital compressors are perfect whenever you want ultra-transparent compression that doesn’t affect the basic sound of the source material.

In fact, the lack of limitations in the digital domain gives developers the freedom to create some ultra high performance compressor plugins.

Digital compressors are perfect whenever you want ultra-transparent compression that doesn’t affect the basic sound of the source material.

Free Plugin: TDR Kotelnikov

TDR Kotelnikov is a legend of the free plugin scene.

This well-designed VST shows off the power of high-fidelity digital compression with a classy sound and deep control.

Cheap plugin: Klevgrand Korvpressor

Klevgrand Korvpressor is a flexible and transparent compressor that’s designed to work with any sound in your session.

It features a unique visual representation of the gain reduction function that gives you an intuitive feel for your sound’s dynamics.

With simple controls for attack and release as well as advanced functions like lookahead and maximize, Korvpressor is built to be your workhorse compressor.

Hot tip: Klevgrand Korvpressor is now available in LANDR Studio, the best all-around package for producer essentials like mastering, distribution and plugins.

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Pro plugin: Fabfilter Pro C-2

Fabfilter Pro C-2 is the undisputed king of advanced compression.

This top quality compressor plugin sounds gorgeous and features a user interface that makes even advanced compression features simple to use.

Deep dynamics control

Compressors are extremely important in music production, no matter what genre or style of music you mix or master.

Today there are more plugin compressors available than ever before. Having so many options is great, but sorting through them is a challenge.

Now that you know some different types of compression and what they’re good for, get back to your DAW and squash some signals.

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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