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A compressor is easily the most misunderstood (or not understood at all) piece of studio gear out there. While each piece of gear in your signal chain has a cumulative effect on your overall quality, none gets you closer to what you hear on the radio, TV, and CD's faster than a top-notch compressor. And that's why I'll repeat this again:
You simply cannot and won't achieve a recording and mix that matches what you hear on professional releases without a compressor.
If you're here reading this then you already know that. But what many of you may not know is exactly what a compressor does, how it does it, and how you control it in order to make it do it! It's such a confusing topic that even that sentence is confusing. But I'm going to break it down into simple language.
I suggest everyone read the top portion where we give a quick overview of all you need to know about compressors before jumping down to our reviews. What we'll do is separate them into price categories and show you the best of the best in each budget range. We've had the good fortune to be able to try and hear all of these. If it's on the list, it's more than good enough in that budget range!
Let's get this show on the road...
If you truly know the deal with these miracle machines, then feel free to skim through it and get to our suggestions below. But if you're unsure or need guidance about which type of compressor you need, take the time to read this section so you can make an informed and confident decision.
All audio is an electrical or digital signal. Studio recording and mixing boils down to how we capture this audio and then how process the signal in order to promote a pleasant, clear listening experience. A compressor is a key component in balancing the varying amplitudes to remove some dynamics.
What this means is that a compressor is designed to lower the volume of the loudest parts of your recording so that they more closely match the quieter parts so that everything can be heard more comfortably. The nuances are essentially raised in volume in this way so all of the details can be heard.
Beyond this basic yet all-important task, it can also be used to sculpt the signal to promote or hide specific details in your signal, such as making sure the initial smack of a snare can be heard or hiding the ear-piercing sounds of sibilance and plosives. Compressors can also function as noise gates and limiters as well...
Yes. They are one and the same. There are three different labels based on what the compressor is set up to do, but in the end they are all compressors. The differences have to do with how you set up the threshold and ratio, mainly.
With a limiter, you'd set the threshold at a high amplitude with the highest ratio possible. This essentially blocks the signal from rising above that threshold, limiting the maximum volume allowed. A noise gate is kind of the opposite. Unless your signal rises above the threshold, then no other sounds can get through. So with a gate you'd set your threshold just above the noise floor. So when only static and ambient noises can be heard without the desired signal like the singer's voice, it simply mutes everything.
Sidechaining a compressor refers to the compression of your main signal based on what's happening in a second signal. So when the second signal crosses a specific threshold, it applies compression to the main signal. Here's a couple examples and a diagram:
In TV, radio, and theater productions where the main attraction is the voice of the speaker or singer, you can automatically "ride the fader" of all of the background music and sounds with a sidechain compressor. This is called ducking. You're ducking (turning down the volume) the background sounds out of the way of the lead vocals whenever the vocals are playing.
A very common mixing practice when dealing with bass and kick drums is to duck the bass whenever the kick fires off. This is an easy way to make sure the kick can be heard clearly since they both exist in the same frequency range most of the time. Equalization can only get you so far, but ducking the bass out of the way of the kick's attack can help the listener's brain latch on to the kick.
This can be done with any compressor as long as it features an insert input/output.
This is another advanced mixing technique that requires a compressor. There are lots of genres of music where varying dynamics are necessary to maintain the emotional breathing of the performance. The game becomes keeping these dynamics while also making sure the details can be heard clearly. This is where parallel compression comes in (sometimes called New York Compression):
What a mixing engineer will do is split the signal into two and lightly compress or not compress at all one version of the signal. Then he or she will aggressively compress a second version. They will then bring the two signals back together and balance the volumes so that the quietest but important details can be heard while allowing the original take to vary in volume.
This is a summary of which an entire short book could be written. Please check out our full exploration of compressors if you want to dig deep.
You have four main settings available to you:
Threshold: This knob features volume settings in decibels from anywhere around -40 dB up to +20 dB to accommodate all ranges of recording materials such as tape and digital hard drives. The threshold is the line you draw in the sand in terms of volume. If the signal crosses above the threshold, compression is applied.
Ratio: This determines how much compression is applied. It may range from 1:1 (no compression) up to 25:1 (limiting). As an example, let's say you're choosing a 5:1 ratio for vocals. This means that for every 5 dB that the signal goes over the threshold, only 1 dB will be allowed through. If the signal goes 10 dB over, then it is reduced to 2 dB based on this same ratio.
Attack: The attack is how fast the compressor reacts to the signal jumping over the threshold. It may range from 0.2 millseconds up to 300 ms. The fastest setting means "immediate" while you may choose a slower attack so the initial transient of the instrument can come through before compression clamps down on the rest.
Release: This refers to how long the compression is sustained after the signal drops back below the threshold. You can set it to be immediate in terms of milliseconds or hang on for several full seconds. Too fast and you may hear a weird pumping sensation. Too slow and you'll create end up creating constant fade-outs.
Of course you also have options like Gain, which is a volume control for your final signal leaving the compressor, and Invert, which can flip the phase of the signal for you which can help in stereo recording. The gain is important to make-up the overall volume you've reduced to maintain your proper gain staging.
When it comes to compressors, you've got five basic types:
We're not going to talk about software plugins, which attempt to emulate hardware compressors. Each of the hardware types perform their job in different ways, such as optical compressors that convert the electrical signal to light and manage the intensity of the light, and pure electronic ones. I wouldn't worry too much about all of that since most are electronic anyways. The thing to worry about is the form factor as mentioned above.
Without beating this horse again since we've done it in so many articles before, the entire point is that you need to decide the shape you want your compressor to come in. If you intend on only ever buying a single compressor and not a lot of other gear, you may be happy with a single channel desktop box that sits right on your desk.
Otherwise, if your'e going to acquire a lot of various studio gear, you should consider the standard 19" rackmount form. It screws into a cabinet along with the rest of your preamps, equalizers, etc. There is also the 500 Series that screws into a tiny rack called a lunchbox. A lunchbox can either be portable or itself can mount into a larger rack. Rackmount compressors will generally feature one or two channels, while 500 Series feature one channel, requiring you to buy two of the same model if you want to capture and compress a stereo signal.
And finally there are compressors that are inside of channel strips. Channel strips are typically come in the rackmount shape but are taller and may require two or three units of your rack space. They include a preamplifier, a compressor, and an equalizer in serial form so you can clean up and mix a single signal live before pushing it into the computer or P.A. system at a live show.
There are a lot of very common and specific questions about using a compressor live or in the studio. It's likely that most of you reading this might have one or a few of these questions yourself. Let's smash through them real fast.
If you have a standalone preamplifier, then you'll output your signal from the preamp to the compressor with a TRS cable and then on to an equalizer, converter, or interface. If your using a recording interface that features a preamp that feeds straight to the converters, then you'll want to check and see if your interface has an insert. This will allow you to insert the compressor (using a TRS cable) between the preamp and converters.
While not all interfaces have inserts (a cheap audio interface won't for sure), you can usually route directly from an output into a compressor and then back into the next line-in input to get around this scenario.
I typically do, however lots of people tell you not to as well. The reason not to is that once you apply compression before the signal hits the computer, you can't undo it. The reason to go ahead is that you can dial in better gain staging, especially if you don't have a lot of headroom. What I do is apply a light amount of compression, especially on vocals, to make sure there won't be any surprise clipping and distortion that ruins an otherwise perfect take. I then will apply more compression later.
Is it? At this point, technology is advanced enough that both do their job perfectly. The problem with relying only on software plugins is that you can't apply compression to your signal before it's already passed the converters, which means you can't safeguard against clipping. Otherwise, for mixing they do just fine (albeit it's less fun than mixing through hardware).
The benefit is that one license of a plugin supplies you with as many as you need. You can compress as many tracks at once with several instances of the same plugin. With hardware, you need a separate compressor for every channel, which can get expensive. I don't care who you are though, I suggest having at least one hardware compressor for vocals for the reasons I mentioned above regarding clipping. Then you have it too later if you want to get into mastering and summing on the mix bus.
You get the point... It's like trying to drive nail into a board without a hammer or nail gun... good luck with that!
Now you know all you need to make the right decision for yourself, your studio, or your band. We're going to bust this up into typical budget ranges and start with the cheapest first. By the end we'll be looking at the top-tier where price doesn't matter... only quality!
Click on any image or the hyperlinked name to view more details and read user reviews.
Now, as you read through this you can know that every one of these is readily available. Other lists and conversations always glorify old comp's that you can get ahold of. This is mainly about bragging rights and higher barriers to entry. These you can pick up as soon as you're ready instead of waiting 12 months for one to pop up used and pray that it's not actually broken.
Most people on the hunt for a compressor at this price range are concerned with vocals, but the following work for everything else too, no questions asked.
The FMR RNC is the best entry-level compressor hands down. It hangs with all of those in the $500 range as well. FMR cut costs everywhere they could, including placing the electronics in a 1/3rd rack-size and using plastic instead of metal for the chassis. Don't let this fool you. Like their preamp, the "Really Nice Compressor" is more than really nice. And you can score a Funklogic faceplate if you want to mount it in your rack along with another RNC, an RNP, or an RNLA.
This is a single-channel compressor with all of the options you expect from a professional grade compressor, but it also features a second path of electronics called "Super Nice." Super Nice mode runs your signal through three compressors in a row at lighter levels. This makes sure you don't have any strange transients slipping through if you're sending in a crazily dynamic signal.
I placed this first on the list so you'll know, this is the one you want if you have a low budget. It's a transparent compressor, meaning it adds no extra flavor or coloration. It reproduces your signal completely and faithfully. I have access to tons of compressors and I still use my RNC as the choice for slight compression during tracking and still love it for heavy compression during mixing. If you want more color than transparency, check out the RNLA below by the same company.
The DBX 166xs is the lower cost, two channel version of their 16- series. What's nice here is that you have the option to record stereo signals or you can record two separate mono signals at once. This one also features an expander along with a gate (which we discussed before). An expander is like the inverse of a compressor. It boosts your signal below the threshold if you prefer that than over-compressing the louder portions. A mix of both is nice if you're looking for a really smashed signal instead of crushing the louder parts.
This is the kind of compressor that you'll be happy you bought even later if you upgrade to something higher-end. These are great to have around when it comes time to track drums live. It's hard to collect enough expensive compressors and it's not necessary on drums tracks and other instruments that aren't the focal point of the song.
What else is neat is that you can engage a separate limiter on top of the compression at the same time. This lets you safely track dynamic sources live without having to heavily compress if you don't want to. Anything that slips through entirely too loud will get caught by the limiter and you won't clip.
The FMR RNLA is their leveling amplifier version of the RNC. It runs a different compression algorithm that doesn't respond to fast transients as quickly (note the attack and release values around the dial), but works fantastic on vocals, bass, and anything else. I wouldn't use it on drums since I have other options but you certainly could, but some initial transients might slip through. The main difference beyond that is that, compared to the RNC, this isn't transparent at all.
The RNLA's compression applies a very warm coloration to the signal that a lot of people have described as "gooey," which refers to the ability to glue tracks together. For instance, if you used this on a set of stems together, it would help them all feel like they sit together better instead of isolated in the sonic soundscape. It's hard to explain if you haven't heard the effect. It's something mixers seek a lot of the times.
If you're looking for a compressor for vocals, this will make your voice sound like those old, warm R&B style vocals you'd hear on records in the 70's and before. It's a nice addition in the midst of all of this crystalline brightness of the digital age.
In this range, you can still consider the RNC or RNLA above and be happy, but here are a few more options that are widely praised that go beyond the cost of those two... They're visually more presentable without having to pick up a rack faceplate too, if that concerns you.
DBX has been in the game forever and are constantly revamping their models by tagging new letters on the end. It's hard to keep up with, honestly. The DBX 160A is patterned to match their classic 160X and XT models from the 70's.
This is where you start finding some additional features you don't get on less expensive compressors. For instance, you have the option to change the knee from OverEasy to Hard Knee curves. The knee is how fast the compression ratio reacts, but not like the attack. The softer the knee, the slower the transition into compression happens. It doesn't wait like the attack setting tells it to. It starts immediately but the process is smoother instead of sudden if you choose a soft knee (more transparent).
You've got insert options if you want to sidechain an EQ to act as a de-esser. There's also an "INFINITY+" option that helps ride the gain to keep you from peaking (versus simple limiting), which can be helpful for live mixes at a concert. The one thing I do like about this is the minimalistic design of the faceplate, saving room for plenty of LED's to show you your gain reduction.
The Art Pro VLA II is a commonly used option for compression. It features two independent mono channels (two compressors in one!) or with the press of a single button you can link the two channels for true stereo compression. Interestingly, you get the old school VU meters up top and the expected gain reduction lights along the bottom. It looks impressive to see those flicking on and off and back and forth, if you want to amaze your clients.
This bad boy is an optical compressor with a hard-coded soft knee. This means, while the compression itself is very transparent and realistic, it does add a pleasant color to the signal. The harder you drive the signal, adding gain and more compression, the more obvious this coloration becomes. That's something a lot of mixers will seek. These flavors are subtle though and not something to worry about if you're not sure.
Typically, solid state and transformerless compressors are transparent. This one and others that feature vacuum tubes will add a subtle saturation of harmonic distortion, which is what people call "color." Having one of these types, and specifically the VLA II, can be great as a general all-purpose compressor that behaves well on vocals, bass, and drums. This particular comp is considered a great purchase for the price due to this value it provides.
The first 500 Series option in the list, the Daking Comp 500 is a mostly-transparent, fast, and accurate compressor that will happily live in your lunchbox next to your lesser toys. Daking makes rackmount options as well but they get more pricey, where as the Comp 500 lets you get into their game at an affordable price.
What I like about this compressor is the simplicity of operation. It doesn't let you bog down in over-analysis of your sound. Most of the options are "this or that" instead of dials. For instance, with your attack and release you choose either Fast or Slow. That's it. You can switch over to Limiter mode with the push of a button, and check both your gain reduction and your output levels in the same fashion.
Of course you can set your compression ratio and your make-up gain at the output, but even there the labels are just Less and More. What Daking is doing is not insulting your intelligence and assuming you understand about compressors, but more than that this keeps you from committing a major sin, which is mixing with your eyes instead of your ears. When the labels are abstract like this, you can't just resort to 5:1 or whatever shortcut you might decide works. You actually have to listen and this means your mix is going to benefit greatly.
Again, these rock for vocals but work equally well for bass, drums, keyboards, drums, etc. Anything you might compress will sound fantastic in this range and above. They can handle any source you toss at 'em.
The Warm Audio WA76 exists to bring the flavor and sound of the classic 1176 (featured below) to the world at a more affordable price. Warm Audio rocks. They are a fairly new company comparatively and jumped right into the big leagues. Everyone loves them and you will too if you choose to give it a whirl.
This bad boy is a hefty beast. It takes up two units of your rack for a single channel of compression due to the juicy transformers inside. As a matter of fact, there are those who will run their signal through this compressor with it on bypass just to color the signal with the transformers. They don't call themselves Warm Audio for nothing!
Like a lot of other Limiting Amplifiers (as opposed to classic compressors), you don't set the threshold. You drive the input gain to achieve the gain reduction you're seeking. Notice the buttons to the left of the VU meter labeled Ratio. You do get to control the ratio but only at 4, 8, 12, and 20 to one ratios. 20:1 is essentially a limiter setting. The other settings are your generalized amounts. Remember, you're controlling the gain reduction through the input by pushing the signal up to the threshold, not so much the ratio here or bringing the threshold down to the signal.
This is a true winner for those looking for a solid color to add to their signal or even mix-bus during mastering.
The API 527 is another 500 Series option for you lunchbox users. I chose the 527 over the 525 because it features a different set of circuitry while the 525 is very close in sound to the WA76 above and the 1176 below.
They managed to cram all of the features you'd want into this 500 chassis, which is amazing. You can link it to another 527 for stereo recording or keep rolling in mono. There are switches to change the bend of the knee, a look-forward versus back compression feed, and flick between different metering. What I do like is that the attack and release are on one knob that has two independent spinners on it. Space saving!
Notice as well that the ratio reaches up to ∞:1, meaning that this guy can double as a limiter as well. The main difference between this model and their others (and most other compressors) is that it functions on RMS (root mean square) detection instead of Peak detection. RMS is basically a very similar math equation to finding the average and in this case we are talking about the average volume. With this type of compression, you maintain more of your natural dynamic fluctuation while still bringing the average volume down. This is a far more transparent sound than peak compression at lighter levels.
This is your cheapest entry point into the coveted API hardware that is found in the giant mixing consoles that huge studios use. You've heard API on thousands of hit records and may have never known it. This is the big leagues.
The Summit Audio TLA-50 is literally a tank hiding within a steel chassis. It's a half-rack unit that can be paired with a second version of itself to record stereo signals if you want. Just like other high-end compressors, the options are simplified and the values around the knobs are vague so you're made to mix with your ears and not your eyes. It's the affordable version of the TLA-100 that's about three times as costly.
The attack and release have two choices: Fast or Slow. The bottom switch on the left-side asks you if you want to meter the output or the gain reduction. This is also a Leveling Amplifier, meaning you're not going to change the threshold, only the input gain and the compression ratio (here it's labeled as Gain Reduction on the big knob on the right). This beast uses a vacuum tube in its hybrid circuitry to add some warm coloration.
This compressor really shines on single sources, especially with the sidechain option available. The fastest attack is still not quite as fast as others, meaning that it may not be the best choice for mixing drums the way it's done right now in pop and heavy metal for instance. But if you're on the hunt for a great vocal or bass compressor, you're looking at one right here.
At this level we're tossing money out the window. It's not even a part of the conversation. We're identifying the world's best compressors that do the job better than any others. But be prepared to cough up the dough if you want to work at this level!
The Teletronix LA-2A is one of the most well known and respected leveling amplifiers ever. It's even in a technology hall of fame. There are three versions out there floating around still widely available (but used) depending on who owned the company at the time. You've got Teletronix, Babcock Electronics, and UREI, but they are all the same LA-2A goodness.
Notice the lack of options. You don't need them or want them here. The attack time is hard set at 10 milliseconds while the release is about 60 millseconds up to 50% and then the last half of the release is anywhere from half of a second up to a full second. The left-most knob is your input gain to drive up to the threshold. The Peak Reduction pot controls the compression ratio. The smaller knob on the top right is for your make-up gain of either 4 or 10 dB.
Recording and mix engineers love this thing for it's unique warmth it adds. You'll see other terms thrown about like "fat" and "big" which are both subjective but describe a very real flavor this comp adds. You can drive the input signal real hard to achieve an interesting distortion as well. This can sound nice with bass and really complement a mix, helping it stand out.
Most of the time, this is the compressor that everyone considers the best available. It's the holy grail.
The Universal Audio 1176 LN is arguably the best or second-best compressor ever (depends on who's arguing!). This leveling amplifier has gone through various upgrades over the years since 1966. Ultimately, we ended up with the FET version with the LN designation...
FET stands for Field Effect Transistor which Bill Putnam felt was an improvement over the valves he was using, which moved it into the realm of solid state electronics for faster and more precise attack and release settings. Eventually more was added to reduce the noise floor, which is what the LN stands for: Low Noise.
You don't control the threshold on this one, just the input gain, ratio, attack, and release. You do have the option to monitor the gain reduction or the output levels, which is a nice convenience for gain staging purposes. It should be mentioned that you have your typical four choices for ratio settings like other leveling amplifiers. You can choose 4, 8, 12, or 20 (turning this bad boy into a limiter!).
This is as transparent as they come, versus the LA-2A above which is extremely colorful. So determining which is better is entirely based on which flavor you like. I say, in my perfect mental utopia, you should have both! If it's one or the other... you won't go wrong with either. But you can always add color, but not remove it. That's one argument for going transparent. In the end, your listener won't care or know. This is just stuff the pro's argue about! You simply can't lose on this one. It can compress anything perfectly.
If you haven't heard of Neve then you aren't doing your research! The Rupert Neve 543 is the version of their giant mixing console compressors for the rest of us who don't have or need a big board like that. The company decided to use some more modern advancements in their Portico models than completely replicate the old line-up.
Although this is a VCA compressor, the feed-forward mode allows the attack to be as fast as any other compressor. With independent gain reduction and output level monitoring, you're in complete luxury land. There are dozens of Neve clones for each of their models, regardless if we're talking about comps or pre's, but you'll never nail the perfection and luxury of an actual Neve.
Further luxuries include a bypass button, RMS versus Peak detection modes, Feed-forward versus Feed-back detection, and also a high pass filter at 250 Hz for the detector (so bass doesn't trigger the compression). Those who've had the pleasure of using this compressor hail it as the most transparent compressor ever. Combine that with the RMS detection and you can use this on any signal or switch over to Peak detection for scalpel-precision detail work. You simply can't lose with this winner.
The Empirical Labs Distressor is another of the most respected and sought after compressors. It comes in various models such as the EL8, EL8-X that includes a "British Mod," and the EL8-S stereo pair. While most of the classics were invented in the 60's and 70's, the Distressor came on the scene in 1995 and immediately solidified it's spot at the top.
It's hybrid circuitry provide serious control on the digital side yet still provides some color on the analogue side. You'll read a lot of people praising this one for drums and bass, but just as many people use it on vocals, synthesizers, guitars, etc. It's truly universal in its usage and appeal. Beyond this, it's also able to stand up to extreme compression which makes it a go-to for pop and electronic mixers who want to breathe some analogue life into the computerized genres.
Perhaps the most unique and interesting features are the Detector and Audio buttons. You can tell the peak detector to ignore the bass by engaging a high pass filter. You can also apply a true high pass filter or two modes of distortion as well. The only thing I wish the Distressor did have was an ability to monitor the output levels as well as the gain reduction. That's okay though, you can just watch the input values on the next piece of gear or at the converters.
Any version of the Distressor is the bomb... if you can afford the stereo pair then all the better! You can unlink them and have two mono channels too. You do that and you'll be sitting among the studio elite.
In my opinion, the Avalon VT-737sp is one of those pieces that every studio should have at least one of. It works on any source and works well. It's a channel strip that features a preamplifier, a compressor, and an equalizer. The preamp made our list of top pre's and we're featuring it here for its comp too. You can score two solid pieces of gear in one along with their very respectable EQ as well.
There are various versions out now with a new black faceplate and a Babyface version, but they're all essentially the same. First, your signal is going to pass through the preamp electronics that feature four vacuum tubes and then two more in the compressor. When we say warm, we're talking very warm here! It's perfect for any source but I feel this guy really shines on vocals and bass.
What's cool is you can link it with another for stereo. What's cooler is that you can use the EQ with the compressor as a de-esser with the sidechain switch or leave it in 4-band mode. If you're a vocalist on the hunt for a compressor and you don't have a top-notch preamp yet, definitely go for this. You won't believe the difference when you pair it with any microphone (and especially with a high quality mic). The price isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect for such a master work of engineering and art.
Pop, R&B, and Rap vocalists should give this heavy consideration.
At the top of this guide, we walked you through the fundamental functions of compressors and how to use them to achieve the sound you're looking for. You understand at this point that having a compressor is not an option and that it really boils down to purchasing the best one you can afford. We provided you with the best options in several budget ranges and then showed you the best of the best regardless of price.
At this point, you have all of the information you need to make a decision. Don't overthink it! By choosing any of the models discussed here you can be sure that you'll be picking up one of the best studio compressors available.