Fulfilling a multitude of utilitarian, corrective and creative mix engineering roles, the compressor plugin is one of the most fundamental and frequently called-on tools in music production of all kinds.
Indeed, it’s often said that compression - along with its natural partner, equalisation - is the key to a professional sounding mix, so gaining a full understanding of its application and the theory behind it should be considered an essential part of any producer’s development.
With so many impressive and powerful plugin compressors out there, though, each with its own specific angle on the concept and practice of dynamics control, how does even the experienced engineer decide which are truly deserving of their hard-earned cash?
Well, thanks to MusicRadar, you don’t have to, as we’ve done the legwork for you, thinning the pack down to what we reckon are the eight software compressors you should immediately place at the very top of your shopping list.
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We’ve been careful to encompass all price points, and as diverse a spectrum of form and function as possible. so there should be at least one model in our collection to suit your needs and budget.
Just to clarify exactly what we’re looking at here, this is our pick of the finest broadband compressors currently on the market, so don’t be dismayed or enraged by the lack of multiband options or dedicated limiters.
Also, although it appears that numerous hardware emulations have made the cut, that wasn’t part of the criteria when narrowing the field - all eight entrants just happen to be awesome compressors, regardless of real-world provenance or lack thereof.
With our judgmental reasoning explained, then, let’s take stock of the current state-of the art in plugin compression.
The best VST compressor plugins 2020
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £150
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, while 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. Mind-blowing.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $199
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 very handy improvements, but 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.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €120
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 wild pumping effects, 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.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €24
It would be a serious mistake to assume that Klanghelm’s remarkable ’tube-based’ plugin compressor must make qualitative compromises in order to achieve its super-low price tag, as MJUC absolutely holds its own against operationally comparable offerings costing five times as much.
Three modes give you a choice of ‘50s-style vari-mu, ‘60s Urei 175/176-style, and ‘modern’ dual vari-mu (feedback and feedforward) designs, between them bringing the best out in the gamut of instrumental sources, from vocals to the drums bus.
The winning combination of value for money and jaw-dropping performance add up to a plugin that no in-the-box producer can afford to be without.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £134
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 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, while 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.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €299
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 (review link below), 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 belter.
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.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €129
Although not up there with Compassion in terms of ’under-the-hood’ tweakability, u-he’s analogue-style compression and saturation plugin is fair bristling with knobs and buttons, facilitating adjustment of such technicalities as detection circuit topology (feedback, feedforward or a combination of the two), knee shape, gain reduction non-linearity, RMS window and internal/external sidechain input mix.
If that’s all too much to deal with, though, six simplified alternative interfaces boil the visible controls down to only those required for certain specific tasks - Drum Compressor, Vocal Compressor, Limiter, etc.
The presets reveal Presswerk’s classic hardware influences – Urei 1176, SSL 4000, Fairchild 670, Teletronix LA-2A, dbx 160 et al - and the chameleonic way in which they’re represented is truly extraordinary.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $99
Solid State Logic’s 4000 series mixing console played a significant role in defining the sound of ‘80s pop and rock, and while there are a few plugin emulations of its all-important bus compressor available today, our favourite is that of Brit developer Cytomic - mostly for its vibe and sound, but partly because of its comparative affordability.
The three fixed ratios of the actual SSL (2:1, 4:1 and 10:1) haven’t been expanded upon, but there are a few more Attack and Release time settings, and the all-new Mix and Range (depth of compression) controls give a major boost in flexibility; and crucially, the sonic styling is eerily close to that of the real deal.