There is no audio tool quite like the compressor. Compressors are incredibly versatile mixing and production tools for coloration, glue, and dynamic control. With so many digital compressor VSTs on the market today, however, finding the right one for the job can be quite difficult.
Luckily, we know a thing or two about compressors. Come dive in with us as we explore some of the best compressor VST plugins on the market today!
Note: This article may contain affiliate links, meaning I would receive a commission - at no cost to you - for any products you purchase.
What Is Compression?
Compression is a technique used to limit the dynamic range of a signal. In other words, a compressor will reduce the span between the softest and loudest sound. Producers and audio engineers use compression to make their tracks sound more polished.
When you use compression properly, you are able to maintain average loudness by controlling the loudest levels.
Of course, there are other, more creative ways to use compression as well. That's why many producers have multiple compressors in their tool belt. Some compressors specialize in adding vintage warmth and saturation. Others can really savagely clamp down on your sounds, allowing for inspiring tone shaping possibilities.
In the classical pantheon of compression, there are 4 giants.
These compressors or - ones very similar - can be heard on literally every recording you've ever heard. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that most recordings will have all of the classic compressors on them.
The most beloved classic compressors are:
Each of these compressors sounds and behaves completely uniquely.
And there's a bunch of other fantastic compressors that are similarly unique.
Frankly, if you're really serious about producing, I'd recommend getting the best emulations available of each of these classic compressor, when you can afford it.
But there are also a lot absolutely amazing modern digital compressors that can do new and incredible things to sound. The modern compressors tend to be much more flexible, and include powerful features that the classics could only dream about.
That's why, if you can only get one compressor today, I'd recommend starting with the best digital compressor, the FabFilter Pro C-2. It will be able to solve so many challenges for you. Then, over time, you can add other classic compressors or specialized compressors to the mix.
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|Arturia Comp FET 76
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|UAD LA2A Bundle
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|Waves SSL G-Master
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|UAD Fairchild 670
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This article is focused solely on standalone compressor plugins. In a lot of instances, though, you may be able to get better results, even faster, using a channel strip plugin that includes a built-in EQ, compressor, and more. So be sure to check out this review of the best channel strip plugins to see if that might be a better fit!
Best Compressor - FabFilter Pro-C 2
If you want a compressor that can pretty much do it all while retaining transparency, then the FabFilter Pro C2 is your best bet. It has eight compression styles packed in, meaning you can have access to almost any type of compression you can think of. Some of the other notable features of this particular compressor include 4x oversampling, lookahead gain reduction, and mid/side control.
Uniquely enough, FabFilter Pro-C2 users have the ability to affect the left and right channels together or independently using the Stereo Link Control. This is a pretty incredible feature that you won’t find on many digital compressors.
Though the compressor is transparent at heart, we love the fact that you are able to add coloration with eight different compression modes. Plus, the C2 version of the plugin offers users five brand new modes, including Bus, Punch, Vocal, Mastering, and Pumping. The responses in these modes are tailored to the type of audio that you are working on.
The new metering is great for mastering engineers. Not only are they much bigger, allowing for accurate readings, but they have also been updated with the new EBU R128 loudness standard. Top all of that off with GPU acceleration and 4x oversampling and you have one of the most accurate plugins on the market today.
Pros of the Pro C-2
- Incredible set of compression tools
- Multiple compression models
- Great interface
Cons of the Pro C-2
- Not a vintage emulation (but is that really a con?)
Best 1176 Plugin - Arturia Comp Fet-76
The 1176 compressor has become somewhat of an industry-standard. Though you could spend thousands of dollars to get your hand on a UAD replica of a Bill Putnam original hardware unit, Arturia's Comp FET-76 has made it possible to get the same sound in plugin form thanks to the company’s TAE technology. All of the tone-shaping you would expect from an 1176 is in the palm of your hands.
As Arturia does with many of its plugins, they’ve added some cool updates to 1176 to push the boundaries further. One of the new benefits of the plugin version is the input-output link, which people can use instead of the old “threshold” parameter that forced users to crank the input to engage compression.
With this new control, you can hit “link” to keep your volume level as you continue boosting the input. You get all of the tasty compression while keeping your sound level.
The advanced sidechain control is new as well, giving you access to modern sidechaining controls that use an SSL-style EQ and mid-side processing. You can get the sound that you want out of your 1176 without demolishing your low end.
Lastly, you can take advantage of the new Time Warp function, which allows you to customize the compression envelope. For sound designers and experimental producers, having this feature is an absolute dream!
Pros of the Comp FET-76
- Incredible analog modeling
- Instant classic
Cons of the Comp FET-76
Best LA2A Plugin - Universal Audio LA2A Bundle
The LA2a become the go-to compressor for mix engineers all over the world thanks to its soft optical compression. UAD engineers recently redesigned the LA2A plugin to give it more detail.
When you purchase the bundle from UAD, you get three highly sought-after LA2A units, each of which provides authentic emulation that only UAD could create.
The three models in this bundle include the LA2A Silver, the LA2A Gray, and LA2, each of which provides unique compression attributes, such as knee, time constants, frequency dependence, distortion, and headroom.
We love the fact that they included the original LA2, which is from the early 1960s. This plugin has an extremely slow response time, which makes it an excellent choice for those who want a mellow sound. It’s perfect for vocals, acoustic guitars, and other legato sources that require warmth and transparency.
Plus, the bundle comes with presets from some of the world’s top engineers, including Darrell Thorp, Vance Powell, and Ross Hogarth.
Pros of the LA2A bundle
- Some of the best compressors ever
- Essential compressor for vocals
Cons of the Comp FET-76
- Less versatile than other options
Best Distressor Plugin - Empirical Labs Mike-E
Softube has a long history of creating emulations of iconic gear. The company has worked to build emulations of major hardware units from brands like Chandler Limited, Solid State Logic, Tube-Tech, Weiss Engineering, and Trident. The ELI Mike-E compressor absolutely nails the classic tone of the Distressor compressor.
The Empirical Labs Mike-E is one of the best ELI Distressor remakes on the market today, offering one-of-a-kind compression and saturation that you can’t find anywhere else.
This plugin comes with a punchy preamp section, compression and saturation circuity, and three emphasis modes, one of which includes the famous NUKE setting, allowing you to initiate multi-stage distortion. It’s pretty easy to go overboard with this plugin, which is exactly why it is a long-time favorite of so many users.
The beauty is, no matter how far you push the plugin, it never sounds harsh. The custom-designed control circuit gives users a warm, round analog sound and the Emphasis multi-stage circuit emphasizes high frequencies before they run through the CompSat circuit to keep things nice and balanced.
Beyond all of that, this unit has always been praised for its intuitive design. It’s very easy to navigate the interface, especially if you are a beginner.
Whether you need to add beef and punch to your drum, fat harmonics to your bass, or soft saturation to your vocals, the Empirical Labs Mike-E can get the job done.
Pros of the Mike-E
- Best parallel compressor
Cons of the Mike-E
- Maybe a touch too extreme for acoustic genres
Best SSL Compressor Plugin / Best SSL Bus compressor Plugin - Universal Audio SSL
With stunning accuracy, UAD remodeled one of the world’s most iconic bus compressors. The SSL G Bus Compressor is a favorite tool for crafting punchy and powerful mixes while retaining clarity and cohesion. UAD has this compressor fully endorsed by Solid State Logic as well, so you know it’s faithful to the original. Note, as a UAD plugin, this also requires you to own a UAD audio interface like the Apollo Solo.
And if you don't have a UAD interface, be sure to check out Waves' SSL G-Master compressor, which does a great job of modeling the SSL Bus Compressor for a fraction of the price of the UAD plugin.
With new features like the Mix knob, Sidechain filtering, and headroom controls, you can take your control further than ever before. There are also plenty of presets from top producers and mix engineers, including Just Blaze, Peter Mokran, and Ian Boxill.
The SSL G Bus design is very simple. It comes with fixed attack and release controls, as well as an auto-release function that is program-dependent. However, you also get a continuous threshold control, which allows you to go from “glue” to “crush” with ease.
As with most emulation plugins, you get a few upgrades. The internal sidechain filter helps precisely deal with low frequencies to deter pumping. You can also enjoy dry/wet processing with the brand new Mix knob, making it an excellent choice for parallel compression on drums or vocals.
You also get the original Auto Fade feature, which you can set up to 60 seconds to let your signal fade out gently. Overall, this plugin is the closest you can expect to get to the SSL G Buss and no arsenal is truly complete without it. If you're looking for bus compression setting and more of the best bus compressors, check out this article.
Pros of the SSL G Bus
- Incredible analog modeling
- Instant glue for your track
Cons of the SSL G Bus
- Not very versatile
Best Fairchild 670 Plugin - Universal Audio Fairchild 670
The Fairchild 670 has become the gold standard for vintage tube limiters. Nowadays, the Fairchild 670 and 660 units could fetch someone upwards of $50,000.
From the Beatles to Pink Floyd, the silky warmth of the Fairchild 670 has been heard on countless classics. Thanks to UAD, you can now get this same silky warmth in your mixes.
The Fairchild 670 plugin makes use of the original tube-driven gain control, tube amp section, transformer section, and compression curves. There are also a few plug-in upgrades, such as the Wet/Dry feature, headrrom control, and the sidechain filter.
Dialing in the right sounds with this plugin is even easier thanks to the variety of presets from top producers like Darrell Thorp, Peter Mokran, and Ryan West.
This particular plugin has been around since 2004 and UAD has performed a variety of upgrades to improve the original time constants and modeling features. The new UAD Fairchild plugin is based on the “golden reference” units from Ocean Way Studios, separating it from any other Fairchild plugin on the market today.
Pros of the Fairchild 670
- Warm and fat
- Great on bass, drums, or busses
Cons of the Fairchild 670
- Unintuitive design
Best Bus Compressor Plugin / Best Mix Bus Compressor Plugin - Tube-Tech Compressor Collection
When you purchase the Tube-Tech Compressor Collection from Softube, you get access to the Tube-Tech CL 1B and the Mk II version. The classic Tube-Tech CL 1B is one of the best bus compressors around thanks to its slow opto gain reduction.
It has pretty much become a staple in just about every genre, including classic rock, hip hop, pop, EDM, and more. Even with its analog feel, it is one of the more versatile compressors around.
The Mk II version went through a complete remodel. Not only does it look better than it ever has before, all thanks to the new high-res graphics, users can also take advantage of several new features, including side-chain filtering, parallel mixing, and more.
The unique thing about this particular compressor is that it takes a while to fully release thanks to the exponential release curve, giving you transparent transients. No matter what type of material you are dealing with, you’ll be able to create soft and musical compression.
Pros of the Tube-Tech Compressor
- Sounds good on almost everything
Cons of the Tube-Tech Compressor
Best Multiband Compressor / Best Multiband Compression Plugin - FabFilter Pro-MB
Multi-band compression is an exceptionally powerful tool, though can be very difficult to set up if you don’t know what you’re doing. The FabFilter Pro-MB makes multiband dynamics processing easier than ever before while providing engineers and producers with all of the power and functionality they could hope for.
Pro-MB takes a unique approach to conventional frequency spectrum splitting and allows users to create new bands on the frequency ranges that need work. It’s all about bands with this plugin, not crossovers.
We love how interactive the display feels, allowing you to work on your sound without the rest of the spectrum having to deal with the consequences.
There are a few different modes available on the FabFilter Pro-MB, including Minimum Phase Mode, Dynamic Phase mode, and Linear Phase mode, giving you different ways to process your signal.
Similar to other FabFilter products, you also get access to common goodies, such as Smart Parameter Interpolation and MIDI learn. Overall, this beautifully designed plugin is one of the best multiband compressors on the market today and a must-have for any producer or engineer.
Pros of the FabFilter Pro-MB
- Exceptional precision
- Elegant interface
- Unlimited control
Cons of the FabFilter Pro-MB
Best Bass Compressor Plugin - Arturia Comp Fet-76
The Arturia Fet-76 is one of the best compressors for bass, as it comes with variable attack and release contrtols. It is more than flexible enough for you to compress bass in different circumstances, whether you’re dealing with legato, ballad-style arrangements or fast, distorted picking arrangements.
The one thing to note about the Arturia Comp Fet-76 is that it has an edgy character, which helps bass guitars cut through the mix beautifully.
My go to sound is a slow attack and fast release, aiming for around 5 dB of gain reduction.
Best Vocal Compressor Plugin - Fabfilter Pro-MB plus LA2A
Having these two types of compressors available for vocals is a dream. The FabFilter Pro MB can be used to create thick, tonally-even vocals that are often heard in modern pop music. It can also be used to deal with tonal inconsistencies found throughout a mix.
The vocals are almost always the center of the mix. It makes sense to have a plugin that allows you to focus on them in an in-depth manner.
The UAD LA2A or the Waves version , while simple, is excellent for providing warm, smooth, and fat compression while retaining all of the necessary transparency. If you’re dealing with pop vocals, jazz vocals, folk vocals, or any vocals that need clean and consistent compression, there is truly no better choice than the LA2A.
Best Drum Bus Compressor / Best drum compressor plugin - Pulsar Mu
The Pulsar Mu is an emulation of the iconic Manley Variable Mu compressor, which was itself a modern emulation of the legendary Fairchild 660. It’s pretty incredible how faithful this plugin is to the original. It’s wonderful for mixing and mastering, though we love it best for drums.
Pulsar uses Topology Preservation Technology to model all of the in-depth characteristics of the original 660, though gives it tons of improved upgrades as you would expect. In fact, you get stereo functionality, which makes it more of a 670 emulation in theory.
Beyond that, you get handy mid-side processing, perfect for dealing with the kick and overheads separately. For fine-tuning your compression settings, you can use the modern visualization mode.
Lastly, you get tons of control over the sidechain signal thanks to the new sidechain modification. The built-in EQ section features three bands with variable frequencies for use with the sidechain feature.
If you’re looking to get warmth and transparency with your drum compressor, look no further than the Pulsar Mu.
Pros of the Pulsar Mu
- Powerful sidechain features
Cons of the Comp FET-76
Best Waves Compressor - API 2500
Waves' emulation of the API 2500 VCA compressor is a work of art. It recreates the classic API compressor, and excels at adding punch to drums. It can also really bring a touch of life and color to your overall mix if it's feeling a little too dull. This thing really shines on just about any instrument bus. It tends to bring out the mids and highs a bit in relation to the lows, which can help enhance clarity as well.
The Waves API 2500 includes a lot features you won't see on other plugins, including variable feed-forward and feedback tone control, three different knees, and three different detection modes ("Thrust").
On top of that, it includes an automatic makeup gain mode that works really well, optional analog noise modeling, and a built-in high- and low-pass filter for the threshold detector.
It might sound like a lot, but thankfully it's loaded with tons of useful presets. Plus, I find that it's really not that difficult to get a good sound with.
Enable auto gain makeup, then set the attack and release like normal. From there, just play around with the knee and detector until you find something that works for you. I find that "F. Back" tone mode tends to work 90% of the time, so I usually just keep it on. Voila, you've made your busses pop out and sound way more exciting!
Pros of the API 2500
- Great on busses
- Flexible options
Cons of the API 2500
- Complex controls
- Dated graphics
Best free compressor VST - Whatever comes with your DAW
A lot of the time, the best free compressor is the one that you can get with your DAW. In Pro Tools, for example, the free compressor comes with all of the necessary parameters for optimum control, including Attack, Release, Threshold, Knee, Ratio, Sidechain control, and much more.
Plus, the free compressors are usually digital compressors that are very transparent. Before spending tons of money on plugins, consider learning how to use the free compressor that comes standard in your DAW.
Free Sidechain Plugin - Rough Rider 3
Rough Rider 3 might just be one of the most popular free compressors around today. It has been around for more than a decade and has half a million downloads. Rough Rider 3 has an expanded sidechain input, as well as a feature that turns off the “warming” filter. The metering is now more accurate than it ever has been as well.
With easy-to-use controls, the Rough Rider 3 plugin is a wonderful choice for newbies. With that said, even seasoned engineers will enjoy the Mix knob and sidechain features.
Free Multiband Compressor VST - Wavosaur C3 Multiband Compressor
If you want to take advantage of multiband compression but don’t have a ton of cash to spend, you might consider checking out the Wavosaur C3 Multiband compressor. While it might not be the most exciting plugin to look at, it is very easy to tweak and provides surprisingly clean and versatile compression with each band.
Whether you need to tame some strange tonal inconsistencies in a vocal track or even out your master bus, the C3 multi-band compressor is a great tool to get the job done.
Best Compressor VST FAQs
We've put together some of the most common questions we receive about the best compressor VSTs. If you've got a question that hasn't already been addressed, don't hesitate to leave it in the comments section!
What are the most common types of compressors?
The vast majority of hit records you know and love have probably featured multiple instances of FET compressors (aka 1176) and optical compressors (aka the LA2A). There's many other types, but if you want to start building out your toolbox of compressors, I'd recommend starting out by purchasing the best 1176 and LA2A you can afford.
What is parallel compression?
Parallel compression involves mixing a clean (uncompressed) signal in with a compressed signal. This way you maintain all of the dynamics of the original, while gaining control and tone shaping only available through a compressor.
What is sidechain compression?
In normal compression, the loudest portion of the source signal triggers the threshold, compressing the source signal. With sidechain compression, the loudest portion of an external signal triggers the threshold, compressing the source signal.
In this way, you could have a kick drum trigger a bass to turn down. Or you could have a vocal trigger a guitar to turn down. The possibilities are endless, but parallel compression can really help you mix stick together.
What is multi-band compression?
Multi-band compression involves applying different compression parameters to different frequency ranges. For example you could only apply compression to the hi-end of a guitar to help control finger noise. Or you could aim to apply 2dB to each frequency band of a song, giving each range a little more control.
How is a compressor different than a limiter?
A limiter is essentially a compressor on steroids. Both turn the volume down once the a signal crosses a threshold, but compressors tend to do so in a more gentle manner. Many of these compressors can do basic limiting. But if loudness is really what you're looking, you'll want to check out the best limiters plugins, especially for applications like mastering.
Learn more about Mixing with Compression
This is only one part of mixing with compression! Luckily, I've put together a bunch more articles to help you master this crucial mixing skill!
- How to Use a Compressor: Learn to Mix with Compression Quickly!
- Sidechain Compression Explained for Beginners & Key Settings
- 3 Tips for Using a Sidechain Compressor to Add Punch & Clarity
- Multi-band Compression Tutorial for Great Vocals, Drums & More!
- How to Use Mid-Side Compression for Amazing Recordings!
- How to Use Parallel Compression for Powerfully Punchy Mixes
- Should You Compress Reverb? The Real Answer Finally Revealed.
- The 5 Types of Compressors (And Exactly When To Use Each)
- 10 Vocal Compression Mixing Tips (Including Best Settings)
- 9 Powerful Drum Compression Techniques for Punchy Pro Mixes
- Loud, Punchy Kick Drums with these Compression Settings
- How to Compress Snare - Use *These* Settings Punchy Snares
- Exactly How to Compress Bass for Tight Low End Thump!
- How Compress Acoustic Guitar Perfectly, Every time
- How to Compress Synthesizers: Best Compressor Settings for Synths
- How to Compress Organ: 4 Steps to a Great Mix!
- How to Compress Percussion: Compression Settings for Everything
- How to Compress Strings: 8 Magic Settings You Need to Know
From a Frustrated Producer in a Ragtag Bedroom Studio to Major Placements on TV Earning $1,000s!
My name is Evan, and I've been making music since around 3rd grade. I'm from San Diego, California, but I've lived in Washington, DC for the last 20 years.
While I still have a full-time day job, I have created systems that have allowed me to produce dozens of songs a year in my spare time.
My songs have been on Netflix, TV shows like the 90 Day Fiance, an award-winning indie film, and NPR’s “All Thing Considered.” They've also been streamed millions of times.
In addition to being a music producer, I am passionate about teaching people how they can make professional-sounding music and earn money licensing it, all in their spare time.
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