The Best Compressor Plug-Ins
These are the three best compressors for each element of your mix, with tips from the pros who use them every day.
Compressors are one of the most essential tools for music producers and engineers. They reduce the dynamic range of audio signals — making quieter parts louder and louder parts quieter — while adding punch, fullness, and that “radio ready” quality to your mixes.
There are so many great plug‑ins available, but we just want the best compressor for our needs, right? This is our round up of the top three compressors for each mix element, with insight from award‑winning producers and engineers.
The LA‑2A is a revered optical compressor, and a go‑to choice for vocals. Famous for its slow attack and gentle tube warmth, few compressors can set the mood of a vocal like the LA‑2A.
The Teletronix LA‑2A Classic Leveler Collection packs authentic emulations of three versions of the original hardware. Here's what producer/engineer Ariel Borujow (Mac Miller, Chromeo) has to say about it — “The UAD LA‑2A plug‑in has become my go-to compressor for lead vocals.”
You may notice a theme emerge as you research the best compressors for vocals. Optical (“opto”) tube designs combine slower attack and release characteristics suitable for vocals, with overall smoothness and warmth thanks to their tube makeup gain.
The Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip plug‑in is an authentic emulation of Manley's revered tube vocal processor. Technically a channel strip, the VOXBOX packs a highly‑qualified optical compressor circuit alongside its class‑A tube preamp, EQ, and de‑esser/limiter.
A later iteration of the LA-2A, the Teletronix LA-3A brings added quickness, clarity, and punch. It's faster, meaning it can latch on to and compress signals quickly, driving vocals through a mix with added presence and excitement.
Here's what engineer Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, Morrissey) has to say about UA's take on this classic solid‑state compressor: “The Teletronix LA‑3A Classic Audio Leveler gives you smooth optical compression, but with the aggression of a transistor circuit. It's perfect for shaping rock vocals.”
Drums & Percussion
1176 Classic Limiter
What can you say about the 1176? It’s famous, it’s fast, and it works wonders on a variety of sources. The 1176 Classic Limiter Collection packs the three most coveted versions of this iconic FET compressor, delivering bold, in‑your‑face compression with tons of character. Use it to drive‑up snares and kick drums, or get creative with the “all‑buttons‑in” mode for smashed, gritty textures.
API® 2500 Bus Compressor
Bus compressors aren’t just for the mix bus. They can be used on stereo instruments and subgroups as well, and can “glue” tracks together while adding energy and cohesiveness to multiple signals at the same time.
When used on drums, the API 2500 Bus Compressor plug‑in delivers signature punch and clarity. It’s that “big studio” drum sound that harkens classic records from Fleetwood Mac and Prince to the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and Beck.
Empirical Labs® EL8 Distressor Compressor
If you're looking for a compressor that does pretty much everything, look no further than the Distressor. It's one of the most popular modern compressors, and for good reason — it can be subtle if needed, but has loads of color and character on tap.
The Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor plug‑in packs all the gritty tone and texture of the original hardware. “It’s the perfect all around compressor,” says Vance Powell. “For kick drums, I like a slow attack. This allows the transient past, and then the compression happens in the body of the kick drum.”
Guitar & Bass
UA 175B & 176 Tube Compressor
The UA 175B and 176 were the first audio compressors purpose‑built for studio recording and mixing music. The UA 175B & 176 Tube Compressor Collection is the only authentic plug-in emulation of these rare hardware units.
Known for their rich transformer‑level saturation, the 175B and 176 compressors are perfect for adding classic tube warmth to guitar and bass tracks.
“The UAD 176 plug‑in is the compressor you can count on to shine the right light on almost any element.” — Joel Hamilton (Pretty Lights, Matisyahu)
dbx® 160 Compressor / Limiter
If you're looking for a compressor with classic quirk and character, you've arrived. Whether you need to energize an electric guitar, punch up a bass, or tame an unwieldy acoustic — with just a few knobs the dbx 160 Compressor / Limiter can add snappy vintage texture to your sources.
Neve® Dynamics Collection
In a compressor round up, we would be remiss in leaving out one of the most inimitable figures in audio. Rupert Neve's 2254 and 33609 compressors are at the heart of some of the greatest recordings ever made.
The UAD Neve Dynamics Collection packages two quintessential flavors of classic Neve compression into a plug‑in. Use the 2254/E to bolster bass tracks with signature Neve fatness. Or try the 33609/C on a subgroup to bring energy and glue multiple guitar parts together.
“When you want to instantly add '70s-style color and size, use the UAD Neve 2254E,” says Dave Isaac (Bruno Mars, Whitney Houston). “It's the classic recipe for vibe, especially on vocals and bass!”
Watch: Neve Dynamics Sound Examples
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