As one of the most dynamic instruments around, the human voice requires compression in most modern mixes to stand out without jumping out of the speakers. Without compression, the human voice presents many unique mixing challenges.
Luckily, there are hundreds of great vocal compressors out there for taming and adding excitement to vocal recordings.
Of course, choosing the right vocal compressor can be difficult. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite vocal compressors we’ve used over the years. Let’s dive in, shall we?
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It’s Okay To Use Multiple Vocal Compressor Plugins When Mixing
The idea of using two or more compressors when mixing a vocal is known as serial compression. To learn more, check out this guide on how to compress vocals.
Serial compression is when you dial in each compressor in a way that it addresses a specific quality of your vocal dynamics. The reason we apply serial compression to vocals is that we don’t want a single compressor to work really hard. By dividing the work between multiple compressors, the compressors will sound more transparent and act more effectively.
Typically, a signal chain with two compressors is made up of a fast and punchy compressor first (such as an 1176-style compressor) and a slower, gentler compressor following it (such as an LA-2A-style optical compressor).
You can use the first compressor to catch transients and peaks at the beginnings of phrases, while the slower one is there to smooth everything out after the fact. Of course, serial compression isn’t always necessary, and sometimes having non-transparent compression is exactly what you need. I like to think of vocals in heavy rock mixes, which are often pretty clearly over-compressed.
However, if clarity and transparency are what you’re after, we recommend using multiple compressors to achieve the best sound.
Now, let’s hop in and check out some of the best compressors for vocals.
Best 1176-Style Compressor Plugin for Vocals - CompFET 76
The Arturia CompFET 76 is the perfect vocal compressor, imparting a unique flavor on vocals that is hard to find elsewhere. Not only is it good for controlling lead vocals, but it’s also wonderfully effective for background vocals as well, making dynamic control a piece of cake.
For those who don’t know, the 1176, which was originally designed by Bill Putnam Sr. during the late 60s, is one of the most legendary compressors of all time. The sound of this compressor was used on countless hits, from Chaka Khan to the Killers to Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen and beyond.
Plus, when Arturia models hardware, they get it right. Even throwing this plugin on your vocals without dialing in any compression gives you a warm tone that simply makes your vocals sound better.
While the CompFET-76 is great for serious vocal control, it can be subtle when you need it too. With the addition of the sidechain EQ, you can separate the frequencies that need control from those that don’t.
Of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s nothing quite like going into “All-In” mode and oversaturating your vocals to give them that gritty, in-your-face tone. It's my favorite way to use parallel compression on vocals.
Best LA-2A-Style Compressor Plugin for Vocals - Summit Audio TLA-100
Softube is another company that excels at modeling iconic hardware, and the company’s emulation of the classic TLA-100 from Summit Audio made our jaws drop. Plus, as you probably guessed, you get everything you would have with the original Summit Audio TLA-100 along with other features, such as the Saturation Knob, the Low-Cut Filter, and the Parallel Inject.
One of the main benefits of this compressor is that it is very easy to use. LA-2A-style compressors only feature a few parameters, making dialing in the perfect amount of vocal compression a cinch.
This classic compressor gives you everything you could possibly need, including sublime leveling, natural-sounding gain reduction, and ease of use. When you put a vocal through the TLA-100, you get a product that sounds full, warm, and compact. It’s so easy to control the dynamics of your vocals without strangling them to death like other compressors.
The TLA-100 is great for working in conjunction with the CompFET=76, as it provides a smooth, transparent layer of compression that subtly grabs the source material and sits it well in the mix. With the addition of the extended features, it’s one of the most versatile LA-2A compressors on the market.
Best Aggressive Compressor Plugin for Vocals - Empirical Labs Mike-E
While many people think of the Empirical Labs Mike-E as a preamp, we like to think of it more as an aggressive compressor. This plugin emulates the CompSat circuitry found on the original hardware, which delivers a unique form of compression and saturation different from other mic preamps.
The compressor is based on the Distressor from ELI, which is arguably one of the most famous hardware compressors out there. However, Empirical Labs took it a step further by adding a much longer attack time, making the plugin version of the compressor more versatile. The preset ratios found on this plugin include 2:1, 4:1, 8:1, and the almighty “Nuke” setting.
What truly sets this plugin apart, however, is the Saturator section. The Saturator section uses a multi-stage soft-clipping circuit, which affects lower-level signals with a triode-style form of saturation. As the level of your vocal signal increases, another clip circuit kicks in to flatten the peaks and add a bit more harmonic distortion.
With a mix of onboard compression and saturation, it’s not the most transparent compressor plugin out there, though if you’re looking to give your vocals some much-needed aggression, there’s no better choice.
Best Multiband Compressor Plugin for Vocals - FabFilter Pro-MB
Once in a while, we need to tame certain parts of the frequency spectrum in our vocals. For example, your low-mids might be out of control, though the last thing you want to do is squash the whole signal with compression if you have the ability to hone in on that part of the spectrum.
This is where a versatile and transparent multiband compressor like the FabFilter MB comes into play. With an intuitive layout and a variety of powerful controls, the Pro-MB makes multiband dynamics processing easier than ever.
You can easily create bands in different ranges to control your vocal as needed, all while seeing how the plugin is reacting to your vocal with the real-time spectrum analyzer.
Best Free Compressor Plugin for Vocals - Rough Rider
Finding a free compressor that can do more than your stock compressor is a challenge. Luckily, Rough Rider exists. This compressor plugin is one of the most popular free dynamics plugins out there right now and has been around for more than a decade. Audio Damage has continued to put out Rough Rider updates as well, giving you the features you need without ever having to drop a dime.
With the newest iteration of Rough Rider, you get an external sidechain input, more accurate metering, and the ability to turn off the “warming” filter, which is built into the plugin.
We absolutely love how clean and intuitive the interface is, perfect for anyone who is just getting their feet wet in the world of compression.
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.
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