Fulfilling a multitude of utilitarian, corrective and creative mixing roles, the compressor plugin is one of the most fundamental and frequently called-on tools in music production. To be a successful producer - regardless of style - you need to know how to harness the power of this sonic leveller. Luckily, in this guide to the best compressor plugins, we've thinned the pack to what we reckon are the ultimate software compressors you should definitely consider for your mixing arsenal.
Now, as you've undoubtedly noticed, there's a slew of powerful plugin compressors out there, each with its own specific angle on the concept of dynamics control. We've hand-selected our favourites, carefully encompassing all price points and styles, with everything from super-simple, beginner-friendly units to digital emulations of hardware legends and a few we'd call modern classics.
So, if you're looking to bring some much-needed professionalism to your mix, tame those unruly peaks, fatten that snare and smooth out a vocal, you'll need one of the best compressor plugins to do it.
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Best compressor plugins: Our top picks
If we had to pick only one compressor to get a myriad of mixing jobs done, it would have to be the DMG Audio Compassion. This is a slick and powerful compressor that is straightforward to use and insanely versatile. We strongly believe there is no mixing situation this plugin can't handle.
Our second choice would be the incredibly popular Waves CLA-2A . This compressor is as simple as they come, offering producers an authentic vintage feel and tone without the hefty price tag. This is a must-have plugin for every DAW, and we highly recommend picking it up. Luckily, Waves is always running some kind of sales event, so you should be able to pick it up with a sizeable discount applied.
Best compressor plugins: Product guide
Quite possibly the most powerful dynamics processor money can buy, Dave Gamble's stunning plugin is a Swiss Army Knife for compression, gating and expansion, transient shaping and more.
It's the first of these functions that we're concerned with here, of course, and it's no exaggeration to say that they've yet to invent a form of compression that Compassion can't handle.
In Main mode, 15 presets and 30 'Mods' provide a wide range of classic and modern styles (Classic Opto, British Type 1, Drum Buss, etc.) out of the box. In contrast, Advanced mode opens up every aspect of the virtual circuitry to in-depth tweaking, from Threshold Bleed and Hysteresis to Attack/Release Coupling and beyond.
This plugin is truly mind-blowing, so we implore you to check it out.
Read our full DMG Audio Compassion review
A software reimagining - rather than a 1:1 emulation - of Empirical Labs' hugely popular mid-'90s hardware compressor, the Distressor, Arousor adds a number of enhancements and new features to the original design and faithfully recreates its sound and spirit.
Stereo operation and 1.5:1 and 8:1 Ratio settings are convenient improvements. What's more, we particularly dig the Attack Modification knob, non-linearising the attack curve for "additional analogue mojo", and the Soft Clipping section, which does amazing things to transients.
A classic character compressor that works wonders on drums and bass in particular, Arousor is a phenomenal plugin.
Read our full Empirical Labs Arousor review
Another simulation of a classic hardware compressor, Black 76 emulates the legendary Urei 1176LN limiting amplifier, known for the lightning-fast attack time of its FET-based architecture and its general versatility and ease of use.
Every aspect of the vintage original has been modelled, including the 'all buttons in' setting for that recognisable pumping effect and the ability to bypass the compression to imbue your source material with the gentle warming of the amplifier circuit alone. The addition of mid-side processing makes for a helpful extra, too.
Everyone should have a faux 1176 of some sort in their plugins folder, and IK's is among the best around.
Read our full IK Multimedia Black 76 review
Perhaps the ultimate workhorse compressor, Pro-C 2 has become something of an industry standard in recent years thanks to its incredibly informative interface, the versatility of its eight compression styles and the high degree of control on offer.
Well thought-out and realised features such as a continuously variable knee, an envelope Hold parameter, solo auditioning of the compressed signal, independent panning of the dry and wet signals, and an attention-focusing full-screen mode push the functional envelope.
At the same time, the sound of the thing is nothing short of magnificent, whether used for smoothing vocals and guitars, crushing beats, getting creative with synths, or anything else you might want to do with it.
Read our full FabFilter Pro-C 2 review
Available as the extravagantly-named Tube-Tech Compressor Collection (which simply comprises the original and Mk II iterations of the same plugin) and one-third of the Tube-Tech Complete Collection, Softube's officially endorsed virtual version of Tube-Tech's delicious CL 1B hardware (itself a more contemporary take on the Teletronix LA-2A) is a masterpiece.
The Opto design serves up a responsive but musical character - with attack times from 0.5-300ms, release from 0.05-10s, and the Fixed/Manual envelope mode enabling input-dependent auto-release behaviour - and the Swedish developer's modelling expertise delivers one of the most convincingly analogue-sounding software compressors we've ever heard.
Read our full Softube Tube-Tech Complete Collection Mk II review
Producers from all walks of life love SSL's much-celebrated Fusion outboard processor. Used to warm up digital mixes, this remarkable piece of studio hardware has been heard on countless records. However, there is a catch - it's eye-wateringly expensive.
Luckily, SSL offers the compressor section of this cherished unit in software form at a fraction of the price. Although this may be a digital recreation of a physical unit, the Fusion HF Compressor still offers producers and recording enthusiasts the tape-like roll-off and smooth attack they've come to expect from Solid State Logic.
This simple-to-use compressor is versatile enough for myriad mixing situations, being just as effective on aggressive guitar tracks to tame the harsh bite that can make them sound brittle, warming up a vocal, or even bringing a little of that SSL magic to master buses.
What's more, you even get some top-notch presets from world-renowned producers and engineers Adrian Hall, Caesar Edmunds and Sean Divine, meaning you can steal compressor tricks from the masters.
Read our full SSL Fusion HF Compressor review
Now, you don't need us to tell you how good Waves plugins are. We'd bet good money that almost every chart-topping track to hear on the radio - or most likely Spotify - has a plugin by Waves contributing to the mix.
While Waves offers a slew of different plugin options from vocal tuning to reverbs, it's probably its many compressors that get the most love - and for good reason. We had many to choose from, but we ultimately decided to go with the Waves CLA-2A for this guide.
Chosen for its incredibly smooth sound, intuitive controls and limitless applications, this could be the only compressor you'd ever need. As producers, we all love the authentic sound of an actual tube compressor, but unfortunately, we don't all have the money or space for one. So, until our next track goes to number one, we'll have to make do with a great emulation.
Some of the greatest sounds are discovered by pure accident or by using a piece of music gear in a totally different way than intended by the manufacturer. Take the Shure Level-Loc from the swinging '60s. Originally conceived as a brickwall limiter for the PA speakers of the day, this chunky, vintage compressor found its way into the hands of modern producers such as Dave Fridmann, who used it to create some of the grittiest and extreme drum sounds ever recorded.
Of course, we can't all get a hold of the original unit - and it's not exactly the most practical, if we could - so it's probably better to use a software emulation. And that's where the Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe comes in.
Using the original Shure unit as a starting point, the Devil-Loc Deluxe builds on what its inspiration started by adding a few tweaks to the winning formula that modern producers crave. The addition of a Darkness control enables users to adjust the tone, while the switchable slow or fast release times bring an extra level of flexibility to the Devil-Loc. Lastly, you also gain a mix dial, so you can now mix the dry signal back in to retain some of the clarity of the uneffected signal.
Best compressor plugins: Buying advice
What is a compressor plugin?
Compressors have a reputation for being fairly complicated devices that, when mastered, have the ability to make all your mixing dreams come true. In reality, they are pretty simple creatures that don't take nearly as much work to tame as you'd initially think.
While it's true that compressor plugins come in an array of different styles, with varying levels of tweakabillity, at their core, they do the same thing - they, well, compress the signal.
Used to attenuate the loudest peaks of a signal and increase the quiet parts, a compressor plugin essentially reduces the signal's dynamic range, delivering a more consistent and controllable sound. This essential mixing device is used on every area of a track, so if you want to produce professional-sounding mixes, you'll want to get to grips with the compressor.
Things to consider when choosing a compressor plugin
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As we mentioned previously, compressor plugins come in a variety of styles, so in order to decide which is the best compressor plugin for you, there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind when you making your choice.
The first of which is whether or not you want a transparent or a characterful compressor. Now, which is suitable for you really depends on its application. If you want the plugin to simply take care of those pesky peaks without altering the tone, then a transparent compressor is for you. On the other hand, if you are looking to bring in some of that vintage warmth to your mix, then the characterful option is the way to go.
Next, you'll want to consider what features you need the compressor to have - and again, this all depends on its intended role within your mix. For example, if you are compressing the bass in an upbeat EDM track, you'll most likely want a plugin with a sidechain option. If you aren't confident with the workings of a compressor yet, you want to opt for one that comes loaded with presets.
If you want to learn more, we suggest checking out our beginner's guide to compression.
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