With hundreds of plug-ins vying for your cash, our resident studio wizard Chris Lyth picks his personal faves
Compressors come in many different forms and each has it's own operational and tonal characteristics. With a near infinite amount of choice available and so little time, which should you choose?
In a bold bid to relieve the agony of choice and keep the bank balances of the world's aspiring producers in the black, I give you: my Magnificent Seven!
UAD API 2500
I'm not one for the overuse of compression, but the sheen the 2500 adds to the mix makes me reluctant to remove it once engaged. The shape and punch it imparts greatly flatters electronic music when used as a mix compressor, and its versatile envelopes also make it a phenomenal drum bus tool.
Many compressors fail when used over the main mix, as they often pump nauseously or make the mix appear somehow small and narrow, but here everything remains crisp and focused. Its tone control section is superb, allowing you to re-shape and sculpt your mix as required. Engaging the Old function results in smooth, Fairchild 660-style tones, while the New button will result in a more raw, in-your-face style.
In addition, the thrust control inserts a high-pass filter into the side-chain path and fundamentally alters the way the unit responds to frequencies. Loud mode in particular delivers an up-front chest rattle that works wonders for bass-heavy genres. The API 2500 architecture is deep and offers immense flexibility that will keep you finding new ways to process your mix for years to come.
Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B
The Tube-Tech is a studio classic and with good reason. Even when not compressing, it imparts a real noticeable warmth on material running through it. This is for my money the lushest and most musical compressor on the market. If you are looking for something transparent and purely functional then maybe look elsewhere, but if you want to add subtle depth, warmth and thickness, this is where the CL 1B delivers.
It's a superb go-to unit for bass, vocals, keys and strings, and it sounds amazing on Fender Rhodes. Conversely,when used on drums at extreme settings it becomes a real tone beast, adding grunge and snap to kicks and thickness to snares in particular. What's more, it's very forgiving – you can absolutely nuke your signal without it actually sounding compressed, the signal just fuzzes up a touch. In short, it's the compression equivalent of full fat cream.
For many engineers the CLA-76 is an absolute must-have: on drums and bass alone there are few that can match its bright aggressive timbre. Many a tame, sampled kick snare has been turned into a thick, crunchy powerhouse after being slammed through a CLA-76. The real selling point of FET compressor circuits is the ultra-fast attack times and harmonic distortion they introduce, lending everything that passes through a dense and upfront feel.
If you're looking for something to add some real grit and depth to your sound, I would start your search here. It's when you engage the All button (which mimics pressing in all of the hardware unit's ratio buttons) that you can make drums go into an all-out napalm assault that no others can get close to. Used in the right way it will make anything sit perfectly in the mix and imbue all signals with a certain verve, but it's when you crank it up to 11 that something really special happens.
Brainworx Vertigo VSC-2
What makes a compressor jump from being good to being great is it's sonic versatility in virtually all applications. I can think of many compressors that sound great on, say, heavy drums, but sound poor across a main mix. The Vertigo, on the other hand, sounds pretty much amazing on everything!
When used at low ratios across the master bus it gives a very cultured and refined, almost 3D effect that pushes the midrange forward slightly. Its subtle colouration is very classy and seems to add life and gloss to the mix without sounding brash and obvious. On bass it's superb at smoothing out and firming up the low end, preserving both weight and power without any complaint.
It's not just reserved for elegant sheen, though: at less conservative settings the punch that can be achieved from kicks and snares is jaw-dropping. Furthermore, the pressure and forward drive it can add to an electronic drum bus is enough to make even the most grizzled, world-weary producer shed a tear of joy.
FabFilter Pro-C 2
While many plug-ins have a distinctive, authentically modelled character that's been derived from classics, the Pro-C 2 is a thoroughly modern workhorse. It's without doubt the most versatile on the market, including eight different compressor models ranging from clean mode, dedicated mastering, vocal and bus compressors to classic and pumping mode.
This allows you to bend it to your will on any signal, be it an antique cello or a full stereo techno mix. All mod cons are to be had here, including probably the most detailed visual metering to be found anywhere, and massively sophisticated side-chaining with high, low and mid band filters that can be shaped to your requirements. The real genius here is that although it's the most flexible unit available at this time, it's also incredibly easy-to-use thanks to its intuitive, user-friendly layout. A future classic without a doubt.
If tube compression is close to your heart, then the Klanghelm MJUC should be on your audition list. It features three selectable models, each with a distinct characteristic which allows for a wide range of compression duties to be achieved quickly and easily. All three models have a hideable panel giving access to such modern delights as Dry/ Wet, Side-Chain Filter and Timbre/Drive tone-shaping controls.
While all of the models have their own particular charm, Mk2 is my favourite, because it has a warm roundness that works well on most sources. On vocals the saturation is perfect for getting it to stand up in, say, a dense house mix. On a whole drum bus it's easy to find a sweet spot using the Wet/ Dry control and when pushed it really slams hard. the added grit in the low end is perfect for adding weight and making drums jump out of the mix.
At any price this would be in my list of top compressors, but at 24 Euros it's utterly ridiculous.
To many producers, the sound of the SSL mix bus compressor is the sound of a hit record. Perhaps the reason it sounds so good is it's sonic ubiquity. Our ears have almost been trained to its sounds since the early 80s, as it's been on literally thousands of records.
But the fact remains: on electronic music, the SSL is an outstanding mix bus compressor, perhaps the best ever. It helps you create a dynamic punchy mix without making it flat, crushed and distorted as many others will. Its simplicity is manifest as there are relatively few settings to choose from, making it a very easy unit to use. To my ears it's fairly neutral tone-wise, but there's something akin to alchemy in the way that it gels a track's parts together as a whole, making it sound cohesive, firm and very slightly forward.
Many engineers find that mixing into the SSL at the start of a project makes the mixing process come together a lot quicker. I'm kinda lost to know what else to say about it, other than that it just works!
Words: Chris Lyth