When you are getting started in the world of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), you need to be familiar with plugins, these plugins will be your essential toolbox for mixing and producing your own music, they come in many forms, and could be samples, instruments, effects, cabinets and more.
There are a few ways to get these plugins online, some are free others are paid, but with better quality, which ones you get depends on what you like, however, if you are just getting started you might need a bit of help before downloading the first thing you come across.
The first thing you need to know is that there are fun plugins and there are boring but necessary plugins, the fun ones would be great synthesizers with lots of sounds, a set of samples, orchestral instruments, and effects, boring plugins would be EQs, limiters, and compressors, with the last ones being very important if you want a clean mix.
Compressors have always had an essential role in music production, and there are hundreds of plugins out there that can be used by anyone in the world, so if you want to get a good mix, you’ll need to know how to use a compressor and which one works best for you, and that is why we are here to help you get started by learning about the best compressor plugins and how to use them.
What is a Compressor?
If you already know, you can just skip this part, but for those who don’t or have a case of “I know” but when asked there is just silence, well you need to read this before you keep going any further.
A compressor is the second most important thing after equalization since it’s the most important processor in audio engineering. When compressors were starting to become a thing, they were used to prevent the over-modulation of radio waves, however soon after that audio engineers saw the potential in compressors to improve audio quality a lot more. One of the magical solutions that compressors brought to the music industry was controlling the signals of the dynamic range, which can help with clipping and the problems regarding balancing highs lows, and mids.
Thanks to the compressor the overall control of audio became a lot greater, helping artists and producers get closer to the final product they always dreamed of.
How to Use a Compressor
There is no way we can give you the perfect formula on how to use compression, but we can help you understand everything a compressor can control in order to help you know which knobs to turn and how much is too much.
This will determine the level at which the compressor will start doing the legwork, when the audio signal is louder than the threshold, the compressor will come into play, so remember the lower you set the threshold, the more your audio will be compressed. If you compress the audio too much it will sound distorted so play around a bit in order to get the sweet spot and control the dynamic range while maintaining clean audio quality.
This will allow you to choose how quickly the compressor comes in and reduces the volume of the audio.
There are two main things you need to be aware of here if the attack is high, it will make the audio very subdued and controlled, if the attack is slow, it will give more strength and punch to the audio signal, which is usually the way people prefer to use it.
The ratio will let you choose how much you want to reduce the volume, in other words, if you turn this knob all the way up, you will compress the audio a lot more.
This will let you change how long it takes for the compression to stop and let the audio return to the normal level. It’s basically the other half of the attack knob on compressors.
When you use compression, one of the consequences is that the audio will get a lot quieter, so if you turn up the gain you’ll be able to increase the output level and be able to add more volume. For example, when you add compression to a track on a mix, let’s say the voice, it might make it a lot quieter when compared to the rest of the instruments, so you could use gain to compensate for that, just don’t overdo it or you will get very distorted audio.
So in order to help you reach that amazing moment with your own projects, let’s go over some of the best compressor plugins you can get.
If you want some help with a more visual guide, you can check out SonicSenseProAudio’s video on YouTube on how to use a compressor, it’s brief, straight to the point, and easy to understand.
What Are the Best Compressor Plugins?
If you are getting started on your music production journey, either as a composer or as a producer, you might want to try out a free compressor plugin, there are great ones that you can use for your projects.
Also, remember to play around with the default compressor in your DAW, it might not be the most flashy or feature-rich, but it’s a great way to get something done quickly or get familiarized with the way a compressor works.
Best Free Compressor Plugins
There are a lot of plugins on the internet, trust us, it’s almost crazy the number of digital compressors, overdrives, EQs, and more that are available, but a lot of those are paid plugins, and you’ve probably come across some of them. needless to say, they are not cheap.
So if you can’t afford to get one of the premium compressor plugins or you just want to try out a few to get started on your project, then you can also find some great ones for free!
Check out these free compressor plugins:
The D16 Frontier will offer a great experience for beginners and professionals, with its great-looking GUI and its features. This compressor has all you need to get the best dynamic range on your mix including limiting, soft-clipping, and more.
However, the best quality of this plugin can also be its worst defect, which is why you need to know the basics of compression in order to use this one.
This plugin allows users to use limiting, which is the strongest form of compression and is often used for a lot of pop, and can make music sound great on the radio and such, but it can really take away from the dynamics of a song.
The biggest strength of this plugin is to maximize the loudness of a song without distorting the sound, which can give you the space to let some of the instruments shine such as the drums and more. However, an extreme use of this function can really bring down a song, so listen closely and try to maintain the natural dynamics of the song
This is a great one for beginners and people that want to get things done without too much tinkering and solving “puzzles”.
With the Klanghelm DC1A, you’ll be able to get the most basic function of a compressor, but it will also give you a lot of control over that basic function, so in a way, they completely avoid the “master of none” situation by being the best at the core of what makes a compressor good.
You’ll be able to use two knobs, one input knob, and one output knob, along with four buttons that allow you to change compression style and use a high pass filter which will help you control those loud heavy frequencies.
Yala by Analog Obsession
At first glance, this is also a simple and basic compressor, but this plugin has a few extra functions that will make your standard compression experience more fun.
Aside from the essentials, this plugin has a few interesting functions, one of them is the “Volume” which changes it up a bit and doesn’t really do what you expect.
The volume knob on this plugin increases the amount of compression without increasing the input signal.
You can also use an “Attenuation” knob which would be very similar to gain.
Interestingly enough, this compression plugin will give you a lot of harmonics, so while it’s a little bit weird, it can be a lot of fun to play around with.
Audio Damage Rough Rider 2
First of all, this one has a cool name, which is not that important but hey, it’s free and if you are going to try a new compressor, why not have one with a cool name?
Aside from that at first glance, this is actually a very cool compressor, it has everything you can expect from a compressor, but it also comes with a “Sensitivity” knob that will control the threshold.
However the real strength of this compressor comes in the form of aggressiveness, in other words, if you need an instrument to have a lot more punch and impact, this compressor will deliver. Although you might also want to have some very strong vocals that stand out from the rest of the music which is very common in hip-hop and sometimes rock and metal.
It’s very easy to use and while it may seem very sleek and simple, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Try it out yourself and have some fun with loud compressing.
A lot of compressor plugins, if not most of them, are based on existing hardware, especially paid ones, but this plugin is all digital without any real-life role model on which to base its functions.
If you get this plugin from Tokyo Dawn Records, you will surely enjoy mixes in the cleanest way possible, as its strongest quality is to reduce gain, which is one of the most important aspects of a compressor.
You’ll also find that this plugin is very versatile and very precise, if anything the only thing this compressor doesn’t excel at is giving more punch to the sound, but you could even manage to do that if you pair it with a VST.
This is one of the best free options available and it goes to show that you don’t need original hardware to have an amazing plugin, and to top it all off, the design is stylish and easy on the eyes so always know what you’re doing even if you are not a professional.
Best Paid Compressor Plugins
If you know what you want and have some experience with compression and music production in general, you should consider getting the best of the best, and although these might not be free, they are certainly worth it to get the best premium quality in your music.
UAD 1176 Classic Limiter Collection
This is arguably one of the best compressor plugin periods, this Universal Audio plugin emulates the classic hardware to perfection which was the original 1176 made by Bill Putnam.
You can get the Classic Limiter Collection which includes three different versions with their own specific qualities.
Revision A or Bluestripe
This one is based on the original design by Putnam, which offered amazing distortion qualities in the best way possible, in other words, it could give you that great impact that you want on drums for example. This is something that is often heard in rock and metal, so if you want that “in-your-face” experience, you will be able to get it.
Revision E or LN
This is not exactly the opposite of the previous version but it is a bit softer when it comes to gain. The LN on its name actually refers to “low noise” so if you want to get a more basic compression that keeps everything neat and clean, this will be a better fit for you.
AE or Anniversary Edition
The best thing about this version is that you’ll have access to lower compression ratios (2.1) so you’ll be able to subtly take out the gain while still maintaining the overall impact of the track you’re working on.
Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B
This plugin was based on the optical compressor from Tube-Tech by John G. Peterson.
This plugin is a great option if you want something a bit more smooth and more subtle, so if you want punchy on-your-face sounds, this is not the one for you.
One of the best uses for this compressor is vocals, if you want clear, smooth, controlled vocals you will definitely get them with a balanced frequency dynamic of highs lows, and mids and good control of loudness
Brainworx Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
This is another plugin that is based on an incredible “real-life” compressor and it really lives up to the expectations. The original is great in every way, from the looks and style to its functionality and performance. This compressor is also a very expensive one, so you will be happy to get this at an accessible price rather than paying $10,000 for the hardware, even if it’s still a plugin.
With this compressor, you’ll be able to get a lot of depth and clarity thanks to the opto and VCA which you can use to mix and match however you like.
Brainworx bx_ Townhouse Compressor
Another great plugin by Brainworx is the bx_ Townhouse which is based on very popular hardware that was made in 1978 in London and used Solid State Logic components. The result was a compressor that was very punchy in a way, which was not very common at the time, and was very popular with rock bands, and it still is to this day.
When used correctly a compressor can give a lot more life, strength, and punch which is common for rock bands to have, so if you like that type of music, you’ll love this compressor.
Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe
Soundtoys likes to emulate vintage hardware but with a twist, and this plugin is no different. This compressor plugin takes inspiration from the Shure Level-Loc was originally from the 1960s and was mainly used for public address systems at first.
The original hardware had an input level knob, a distance selector, and a bypass switch, but the Devil-Loc Deluxe features a few upgrades including crush which is compression level, crunch which helps with saturation, release (which has a simple switch that allows you to select fast or slow), darkness, which is a cool way to say tone, and finally a mix knob.
It’s very similar to its predecessor but it gives you a bit more freedom with the tone controls and the compression itself, just make sure you get good with the mix knob because it can be a bit too strong sometimes.
This one is also a lot cheaper than other options here, so keep it in mind when shopping for a bundle of plugins.
FabFilter Pro-C 2
When it comes to digital compressors, a lot of producers and artists will say that the FabFilter is the best one.
This compressor plugin is not only very good in terms of quality but it’s also a very versatile one, which means that you can use it for anything from vocals to bass, drums, and masters, so if you get this one you have a lot of ground covered.
You’ll have access to eight program-dependent compression styles with all the compressor essentials, additionally, you have an EQ section, HP and LP filters, and more.
Let’s just say that while it doesn’t try to break the mold or have a crazy look, it is the best at the essentials while still expanding some of the features.
How to Choose the Right Compressor Plugin
After reading this article you probably realized that compressors are not as simple as you thought, it’s not just about controlling peaks and compressing audio, it’s about a wide range of options that allow you to control dynamics in sound.
Every puling has its own features and particularities which will make some very good for specific situations and instruments, others a bit more on the jack-of-all-trades space, and some just offer the basics of what a compressor does.
The best thing you can do is to first make the most out of default compressors and free plugins and experiment as much as you can, only then you’ll be able to find the sound that you want because knowing the genre that you want to make will only give you some pointers but in the end, there are really no rules in music.
So only you have the answer to the question: “How to choose the right compressor plugin?”
Also, remember that the most important thing when choosing a compressor is that the essentials are great, it’s not about how many features it has because you can complement your compressor plugin with other things but you only need one compressor, so as long as the compression side of things is good, the rest is just extra.
Do You Need a Lot of Compressor Plugins?
You don’t really need to have a lot of plugins in general, even though you need to try a few before knowing what you want, especially since it’s so easy nowadays when compared to the days without the internet.
In an interview with Andy Wallace from soundonsound.com, this subject is touched upon:
Virtually all engineers and mixers could fill entire magazines with lists of the gear they use and explanations of how they use it, and what they like and dislike. By contrast, 90 percent of Wallace’s work…is done on a large-format console — usually an SSL — and the number of outboard units and plug-ins he uses rarely reaches double figures
Andy Wallace is known to be an essential mixer, responsible for solidifying some of the most important sounds of rock and metal from the 90s and 2000s including Nirvana’s Nevermind, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory.
If you didn’t know a lot about compressors when you first clicked to read this article, we hope that by the end of it, you are aware of how important compression is when it comes to getting a great quality mix.
Just remember that while you can have a library of plugins that can satisfy every single genre and style that you want to experiment with, you should first try to explore the stock DAW compressor.
Once you get familiarized with the basic concepts of compression you can then start exploring free plugins, and when you feel confident enough, you can consider paying for a premium compressor, but keep in mind that while you can put a price on a compressor, you cannot put a price on experience and hard work, so start making music and learn through trial and error so you can get the skills to use any tool you want, because now you know there are a lot of options for you in the compression department.