Back to the roots
Over the past few years, the plug-in market has been flooded with hundreds of varieties of compressors, everything from vintage emulations to absolutely transparent compressors with slick, hyper modern interfaces. With this barrage of choices, it’s easy to get lost in the selection and forget about technique. Therefore, before you read this article, make sure you already have a good grasp on how compression works, when to use it and when not to. With that being said, lets get down to business. Over the years, I have tried tons of compressors, some were great, while others detracted from my productions. Here is a list of my current favorites, in no particular order.
This SSL style compressor is meant to be used as a bus compressor, and it truly shines as such. The wet/dry control is a fantastic feature that allows you to completely slam a source and dial back the compressed signal. This works wonders on a drum bus, especially if you route the kick to it’s own bus as to bypass the compression. I find that to much compression on a kick makes it loose it’s punch, but I love the pumping distortion on everything else. The side chain feature is great for mixbus processing, leaving out the sub-bass and only reacting to the top of the mix.
Another great thing about this compressor is the modest price tag. At only $99 it really outperforms it’s price tag. Even better, it’s absolutely FREE with Ableton Live 9!
Perhaps the most accurate emulation of a hardware compressor to date, the Softube incarnation of the Tubetech Cl 1B is my go to compressor for vocals, light synths and any delicate sources. This compressor will teach you to properly use compression as there is no automatic makeup gain, no fancy meters that show you how the signal is being effected and no truly meaningful numbers on the knobs. It forces you to compress with your ears, using only a trusty VU meter as your guide. In general, this compressor can get out of hand fairly quickly and the pumping distortion is quite noticeable. As such, finesse is key with this one. Once you have a feel for the limits and sweet spots of this compressor though, it really can so amazing things on a vocal track.
While not the most expensive plug-in on the market, it’s certainly not the cheapest either at $299. It’s worth waiting until you have a solid grasp on compression before you splash out for this one, but once you have it, you will wonder how you ever mixed without it.
Of course FabFilter made it’s way onto this list. Straight from Holland, these plugins were practically made for dance music. The latest version of Pro-C, Pro-C2 is a versatile, do it all compressor. With 8 compression styles: Clean, Classic, Opto, Vocal, Bus, Mastering, Punch and Pumping it really works on just about everything. This is the Swiss Army Knife of compressors. When I need to compress a synth or a bass, I will usually reach for this one first. It’s wide set of features and great sound make this one an easy choice.
If I could only have one compressor plug-in, I would probably choose this one, just for the fact that it can do so much, so well. Of all the compressors on this list, I would say Pro-C2 is a contender for best value at $179 for the single plugin, or at a substantial discount when you buy one of the FabFilter bundles.
Oh, the quintessential rock compressor, the 1176. It’ may be the most widely used hardware compressor in high end studios, and for good reason. The 1176 is a fantastic option when you are looking for colorful, aggressive compression. The Universal Audio emulation of this compressor is a fantastic emulation and works well on vocals, drums and anything you want to add a little gritty compression to.
Amazingly, UAD offers a free version of this with any UAD-2 card, as well as offering an updated version for $249. If you aren’t a UAD owner, the Waves version can get the job done at the same price with their CLA-76. Personally, I prefer the UAD version because Universal Audio also manufactures the hardware version of this and that shows in the quality of the emulation.
Okay, this is more than just a compressor. PSP’s Vintage Warmer is also a saturator, and a good one at that. When you need to fatten up a bass sound, this plug-in does a brilliant job. Just flip the “Fat” switch and the sound is closer to hitting 2” analog tape. While the PSP website recommends this for mastering duties, I find it works wonders on bass tracks, synths and busses alike.
Vintage Warmer is a great deal at $149 and is available on the PSP website.
Summing it all up
These five compressors are some of my favorites for mixing dance music. While my gear tastes is always developing, I would call these my Top Five Compression Plug-ins for 2016. From buttery smooth to heavy pumping compression, these compressors provide a wide pallet of sonic capabilities. Yes, there are plenty of other great options available and I want to hear your favorites! Let us know your favorite compressors, both hardware and software, in the comments below!
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