In the world of compressors, option overload is real. In general, compressors are somewhat daunting to learn about, considering the many things that they can actually do. On top of that, most software names out there have their own compressor series, giving you an overwhelming number of options to take into consideration.
We understand how a seemingly good thing can turn out to be a dilemma. In this review, we have prepared a list of the top 10 best compressor plugins in 2020, along with some tips on how to choose the best one out there.
Benefits of Compressor Plugins
Here are some benefits of using compressor plugins:
Reducing Dynamic Range
A compressor is an equipment that is used to reduce the dynamic range of an audio signal. This is done by attenuating the volume of very loud sounds (through downward compression), or by amplifying low sounds (through upwards compression).
Despite the type of compressor that you are using, the controls are universal. All you need to do is to be familiar with the terms that apply to their use, including threshold, ratio, attack, and release.
A nice effect of using compression is that it offers more headroom. This refers to the number of dB between the audio signal peak and the 0dB, where the actual digital clipping happens.
Top 5 Compressor Plugins Reviews
1. Softube Valley People Dyna-Mite
Best for Pop and Rock Styles
- At first glance, this compressor plugin looks like a basic processor with limiting, gating, and expansion features, all of which are externally sidechainable. With its several combinable options, there are more than 18 operating modes that you can choose from.
- Among the options are average or peak detection modes, a range knob that can be used in adjusting the maximum level of gain reduction (from 60dB to 0dB), and pre-emphasized sidechain. On its original unit, this worked only with the gate/expander, while in the Softube unit, it can also be used with the limiter.
- The Dynamite compressor plugin also features VCA gain coupling when used in the limiting mode, as well as a program-dependent release which works together with the manual release control.
- As a limiter, this unit is not transparent, ideal for adding pop and snap, especially to kicks, congas, and snares. While its detection mode has an impact on how it actually sounds, the fact that it is a limiter means that you will still sense the distinctive snap.
- Dynamite is considered as an application-specific type of processor, ideal for both rock and pop styles. Those who loved the original hardware will no doubt love this superb plug-in version.
2. Kush Audio UBK-1
Best for Acoustic Instruments
- The Kush Audio UBK-1 is a compressor plugin that exudes a retro look. It boasts of a number of interesting features, such as its five ready-to-use preset modes such as “Splat”, “Glue”, “Smooth”, “Crush”, and “Squish”.
- These five modes are designed as starting positions that can be used with both individual and mix tracks. For example, as suggested by the name, “squish” is a harsh compressor that is designed to work in flattening out dynamic and spiky waves. Another mode, the “glue”, blends the mixes together.
- The “crush” mode is a variety of the squish preset, working as a starting point that controls huge brass sections and ensembles. “Smooth” is a more subtle feature that is designed in gently improving soft vocal takes. The “splat” mode, on the other hand, may be used in adding more flavor to a take to improve dynamism.
- Another interesting feature of this compressor plugin is its capacity to add saturation into the sound, thus adding bite and definition. Overall, the UBK-1 works really well and is ideal for most home recording fanatics who want to add
3. Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B
Best in Genuine Analog Sound
- In terms of visuals, this compressor plugin is famous for its mono optical compressor/limiter. It features a basic external sidechain selector which can be run in both mono and stereo. This feature emulates the linked sidechain mode that is found in mono hardware units.
- It features simple compression controls: attack, release, threshold, and ratio (which comes with manual make-up gain). It also comes with three attacks and release presets. The standard preset is ‘manual’ with attack and release that follows the knob positions.
- The second preset is the ‘fixed’ mode, setting the attack time to 1 millisecond, while the release time is at 50 milliseconds. In this mode, the knobs are greyed out and become inactive. It can serve as a good starting point, though, because of the labeling, it can be vague.
- The last mode, ‘fix/man’, combines the first two modes with a twist. The attack time is fixed at 1 millisecond, while the release time is variable. The nice thing about it is that the attack control can turn into the delay knob for the start of the release stage. This can result in a 2-stage release with the short peaks experiencing a fast release, while the longer peaks follow the delayed setting.
4. Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Quad (APLTWQII)
The Complete Package
- What makes this compressor plugin different from others is that aside from the standard front-end conventional audio interface, it uses the DSP processing of UA’s UAD-2 system, currently available in SOLO, DUO or QUAD formats. The unit can also be used as an external DSP processing system, relieving the strain from the CPU of the computer, running plug-ins that are exclusive to this platform.
- The Apollo Twin MK II is also designed with the goal of achieving modern recording practices, from the actual functionality of this unit to the type of software that is used in controlling it.
- The interface of this plugin uses two Unison mic/line preamps, a front-panel Hi-Z instrument input with a headphone output, two line outputs, and two digitally controlled monitor outputs. Even though the input count is light, there are eight other digital inputs, plus the option to cascade additional Apollo units.
- It also features a console operator, the Console 2.0 application, which takes charge of routing, monitoring, and signal processing. This piece of software is beautifully designed, with a lot of functionality applied with the feel and look of a standard hardware console.
- As a standard, this compressor plugin features the Realtime Analog Classics plug-in bundle, covering 15 or more plug-ins out of the UAD catalog.
5. Slate Digital FG-X Virtual Mastering Processor
Best Audio Mastering Processor
- The FG-X mastering compressor has the capacity to get the mixes really loud while still maintaining a dynamic feel all throughout.
- It features two sections – the compressor, and a leveler. The compressor section is transparent, helping in tame the mix before it reaches the final leveling phase. The leveling section is the best part, with LoPunch and Detail transient knobs, which enable you to adjust how it reacts to low and high-frequency transients, primarily the kick and snare.
- Other features of this compressor are the dynamic perception knob and the ITP (Intelligent Transient Preservation) Slider. It allows you to easily adjust between smooth and hard transients. It is found to be effective when used for aggressive music styles.
- The Constant Gain Monitoring feature allows you to adjust the gain as much as needed, while still keeping the output volume the same. This will easily save you from thinking that the leveler changes the sound when it is only really making the mix louder.
How to Choose the Best Compressor Plugins
When it comes to choosing the best compressor plugins, it is important to know which type you need to choose from your mix.
With this in mind, it is helpful to learn about the different types of compressor plugins.
VCA means Voltage-Controlled Amplifier. It refers to the part right in the midst of the circuitry in this compressor type. It is designed to react to peaks that are above the set threshold. They are also famous for having a fast response. As such, they are usually the ideal options for rhythmic, peaky, or transient-heavy material.
Many of the designs of VCA compressors come with precise control for a wide range of parameters, including ratio, threshold, makeup gain, attack and release time, and at times, knee. These offers make VCA compressors a jack-of-all-trades, versatile, dynamic processors.
Depending on how they are set, VCA compressors may be transparent or not, depending on the tone and harmonic characteristics.
VCA Compressors are good for:
- Adding punch to the sound
- Compressing drums, and percussion
- Buss compression (master and subgroup)
- Any compression task since they are so versatile
Just like the VCA Compressors, FET compressors use a specific type of component referred to as “field-effect transistor,” designed to mimic the behavior of actual tube circuitry. These types of compressors produce faster reaction times.
Many of these FET compressors do not have threshold control. The actual amount of compression that is applied depends on the combination of the input signal amplitude and the input level control setting. The louder the input is, the more the signal becomes compressed.
FET Compressors are good for:
- Limiting (thanks to its fast attack time)
- Adding excitement and aggressive sound to vocals, bass, drums and more
- Parallel and processing
Variable-Mu Compressors are based on a tube circuitry that creates smooth compression and a pleasant coloration. This type of circuit achieves attenuation by re-biasing the tubes. It may not be the best option for transient control, as it is not a fast-acting compressor, but it can add depth and warmth to anything.
As a result, you can expect to get a great sounding and aggressive compression when you set the threshold and input controls to the extremes. On both original and emulations, the attack and release controls are combined together with the Time Constant parameter, allowing you to select from the six pre-set attack and release time combinations.
Variable-Mu Compressors are good for:
- Adding color, warmth, and fatness to any type of source
- Mastering and limiting
- Adding glue on the buss
- Parallel compression
In general, compressors split the input signal into two parts. One goes through a detection circuit, determining how the compressor will actually act, while the other serves as audio operated using the compressor, sending it to the output.
With optical compressors, there is a unique detection circuit. The audio signal turns into light, triggering an electro-optical sensor that rules the gain reduction. The response of this system is transparent and smooth. Unlike other types of compressors, hardware optical compressors feature fixed ratios, usually at 3:1.
Optical Compressors are good for:
- Transparent compression
- Improving vocal track vibes
- Adding sheen and warmth to vocals, basses, guitars, and other instruments
These types of compressors allow you to focus on a number of user-definable frequency bands. They are used on the master bus, as well as in mastering situations. They may also be useful in mixing content.
They are quite complicated since there is a need to set the crossover points in order to define the frequency zones and to configure the compression parameters for each one. They are perfect for tasks that are not usually not appropriate for single-band compressors.
Multiband Compressors are good for:
- Targeting certain frequency bands
- Smooth outsources
- Reducing problem frequency
Non-Emulative Digital Compressors
Even though analog-modeled compressors are quite popular, they are a lot of compressor plugins out there that are not designed to simulate the behavior and sound of certain vintage units, with the capabilities that use the versatility and precision of digital technology.
Non-Emulative Digital Compressors are good for:
- Highly versatile
- Comprehensive and precision controls
- Extra features (which are not found on analog units)
Which wave compressor is best?
The gauge as to which wave compressor is best depends on the actual purpose of use. One of the most popular wave compressors these days is the CLA-2A optical compressor, which is ideal for drums. The API2500 is also great for drum tracks.
Which is the best limiter plugin?
From the list above, the Softube Valley People Dynamite compressor plugin is the best limiter model. While the limiting feature is part of its standard features, it offers a number of combinable options that will allow you to choose from and get the best output that you are looking for. When used in the limiting ode, this plugin features VCA gain coupling and a program-dependent release that works with the manual release control.
In your journey to searching for the best compressor plugin, there is no doubt that the very first thing that can help you in making a decision is knowing how a specific model is designed to meet your needs, preferences, and requirements. As you may expect, every option will produce different results depending on specific factors during application. In the end, go for something that will suit your specific area of application, whether you are going for vocals, mixing, drums, or mastering.