Best Compressor VST Plugins – 2020 Guide

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In case you have wondered what makes that drum so fat and punchy, no, it’s not just the drummer and the pattern it plays. And, no, neither that singer has a wonderful voice control in the low end.

There is an effect that makes wonders to such tracks and it’s called the compression. 

Our Top Picks for Compressor VST Plugins

  • 8 compression styles
  • Up to 20ms look-ahead
  • Full Screen visuals
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  • 3 detection modes
  • Classic Phase Response
  • Ideal for saturated compression
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  • Fast & Transparent
  • Inertia time distortion
  • Yin & Yang harmonics modes
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Comparison of the Best Compressor VST Plugins

IMAGEPRODUCT
  • 8 compression styles
  • Up to 20ms look-ahead
  • Gorgeous Retina interface with full screen mode
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  • The best saturated compressor on the market
  • 3 different detection modes
  • Emulation of classic outboard gear phase response
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  • Ultra fast and transparent compressor
  • Unique Inertia time distortion mode
  • Interesting Yin & Yang harmonics mode
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  • Based on the legendary Teletronix LA-2A hardware
  • Gentle, smooth, warm and thick compression
  • Simple to use, but incredibly effective
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  • Modern-looking advanced multiband compressor
  • Up to 6 free-positioning fully customizable bands
  • 6 to 48dB/oct Crossover Slope Steepness
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  • 1:1 emulation of the Empirical Labs Distressor
  • 8 ratio characters including Nuke captured
  • 3 saturation options and 3 detection modes
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  • Advanced emulation of the Urei 1176 hardware
  • Super fast attack with customizable look-ahead
  • Switchable step-based or continuous ratio values
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  • A.I. assisted compressor with learning mode
  • Unique spectral compression feature
  • Frequency-dependent ducking
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What is a Compressor VST Plugin and What Does it Do? 

Compressor VST uses a compression effect. Compression is the process of balancing the volume of the audio track so it fits the desired dynamic range. It minimizes the volume difference between the quietest and loudest part of the audio track.

It’s done in two stages. First, it simply reduces the level of the loudest parts using a threshold feature.  Then, it applies a make-up gain to make the overall track loud as before. This will also increase the loudness for the rest of the track so the quiet parts are also louder and, therefore, much closer in volume to the loudest parts.

Why Use a VST Compressor?

Effects done by a compressor can be achieved only with very detailed and tiresome volume increases and decrease. Without using a Compressor VST you will have to split the signal into duplicated tracks and apply several band-pass filters and then perform the same routine regarding volume staging. Compressor VST does all those things for you automatically in a much more convenient way. 

So, to put it short, using a VST Compressor makes your track shine in a professional and polished way. It improves the sonic balance of your song and increases the overall loudness in a very intelligent manner.

Types of Compressor VST

Compressor VST types are based on hardware Compressors devices, so let’s check their characteristics then:

Variable Mu Compressor

It’s best used when you need to level things out. It relies on the tubes so the process is very smooth. Its attack time can really pull elements together in the mix.

Fairchild 670 is a wonderful example of this compressor type.

Optical (Opto) Compressor

Opto compressor is used when you need a mild compression. The audio signal simply feds the bulb brightness. That’s why we wouldn’t recommend it on percussive elements. They are more famous for creating wonderful saturated output.

One of the best compressors in general, Teletronix LA-2A is an Opto Compressor.

FET Compressor

Field Effect Transistors create punchy sound and deliver high-quality distortion when pushed to the max. 

Urei 1176, probably the most famous compressors of all the time, is actually a FET compressor.

VCA Compressor

Voltage Controlled Amplifier Compressor relies on an attenuator to drop down the volume once it feds a certain level of voltage. They can act fast and work the best on the drums. They are not made for smooth compression or to act as a mastering tool.

DBX 160 is the most iconic compressor of this type.

Quick Take: 
Top 3 Picks

Here are the best compressor VST plugins:

  1. FabFilter Pro-C 2
  2. u-He Presswerk
  3. TDR Kotelnikov GE

Review of the Best Compressor VST Plugins

There are numerous Compressor VSTs out there so it was a bit of challenge to pick the best one for you:

Best Overall:
FabFilter Pro-C 2

PROS

  • 8 compression styles
  • Up to 20ms look-ahead
  • Side-chain EQ with custom filters
  • Gorgeous Retina interface with full-screen mode
  • Versatile compressor plugin with Auto Gain feature

CONS

  • Lack of vintage hardware emulations
  • Not your typical compressor visual environment

Features and Specifications

This compressor provides you with eight different styles with very intelligent look-ahead with up to 20ms and 4x oversampling. You can pick from Clean, Classic, Opto, Vocal, Mastering, Bus, Punch, and Pumping. Most are self-explanatory, but let’s just state out that Punch provides more analog-like compression and that Pumping is designed to work the best with the drums and EDM tracks.

Speaking of automated processes, you can also apply auto gain and auto release or assign an external side-chain triggering while output meter displays LUFS value according to EBU R128 standards.

Why it Stands Out to Us

We love how versatile Pro-C 2 can be. It will work on vocals, drums, instrument buses, but you can also use it for mastering purposes no matter what music genre you’re working on. 

Speaking about interface, the graphical part is something that’s very hard to miss. FabFilter really did put some effort into making this plugin look both modern and professional at the same time. We really loved the option to have a very interactive full-screen view and that many of the features are displayed visually in real-time in a very graphical way.

Runner-up:
u-He Presswerk

PROS

  • 3 different detection modes
  • Takes up only 30MB of storage space
  • Adjustable compression curve and envelope
  • The best-saturated compressor on the market
  • Emulation of classic outboard gear phase response

CONS

  • Demands prior experience with compressors
  • Modern compression is not that impressive as a vintage one

Features and Specifications

Presswerk comes with 3 detection modes where each represents a different style of compression. Feed-forward is modern and surgically precise regarding input tracking. Feed-back is more loose and musical, quite similar to vintage hardware and Interactive is a blend of those two modes where the signal is analyzed in real-time and according to the type of signal, modes are applied accordingly.

Along with the Feed-back mode, Presswerk also applies DPR mode. Dual-Phase Rotation is an emulation of classic phase response that smooths the harshness and creates a more rounded sound.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Presswork really excels regarding adding loudness in the final mixdown. Parallel compression is handled internally and this can save you some time and project space.

Saturation provided within this plugin makes it really different from anything else on the market. So, if you want to clone an 1176 or LA2A, Presswerk is capable of working that way but it extends and offers you an even wider range of saturation, so, expect to have a lot of fun tuning your personal favorite as a lot of knobs are parametric. And those colors can go into extreme values and create a tape overdrive when needed.

Best for the Money:
TDR Kotelnikov GE

PROS

  • Resourceful and useful manual
  • Unique Inertia time distortion mode
  • Ultra-fast and transparent compressor
  • Interesting Yin & Yang harmonics mode
  • Very useful low-CPU and zero-latency Live mode

CONS

  • Auto-Gain would be a nice add-on
  • Yin & Yang changes could provide more extreme values

Features and Specifications

Kotelnikov seems like a typical compressor with a ratio range from 1:1 to 7:1, attack covering from 20μs up to 250ms, and release up to 2 seconds. Besides distortion, Kotelnikov can also add subtle harmonics, too, using the ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ - Yin controls lower frequencies while Yang handles higher. If you need more than subtle changes, Inertia mode will allow you to add a compression that acts almost like a multi-band. Live mode excels in zero-latency performance and will ask for a very small portion of CPU as well. 

Why it Stands Out to Us 

We like this unit because they are not trying to emulate any specific device and yet being very musical. Sometimes you just need to re-adjust the dynamic range without affecting the original sound source character.

Manipulating the harmonic pattern behavior inside of Yin & Yang mode is something that makes Kotelnikov really different. It can also use peak and rms detection simultaneously while setting the releases separately And given the fact it costs three or four times less, we really think you can’t go wrong with this unit, especially if you’re starting out with your project studio.

Best Vocal Compressor VST:
IK Multimedia White 2A

PROS

  • M/S stereo mode
  • Ideal for any lead track
  • Simple to use, but incredibly effective
  • Gentle, smooth, warm and thick compression
  • Based on the legendary Teletronix LA-2A hardware

CONS

  • Single compressor type
  • Attack or Release adjustments would be handy

Features and Specifications

This unit is an emulator of the legendary Teletronix LA-2A hardware. That’s why the user interface is very simple and white-colored as it pays tribute to the original outboard. It has dedicated knobs for gain, peak reduction, and the gain reduction switch between +10dB and +4dB. Limit/Compress switch chooses between a mild compression and more aggressive, limiter-type. It also goes a step further compared to the original and provides you with the stereo mode that also supports switching from L/R to Mid/Side mixing.  

Why it Stands Out to Us

LA-2A is a legendary hardware unit. It’s been used on so many tracks throughout history that we would need a complete article dedicated to such a list. White 2A is our favorite emulator. It copied the main feature of the hardware - an incredibly simple way to sound awesome on vocals. It could also work on any track that would benefit from a warm but subtle tube compression. 

We also can’t think of a more simple interface on a professional unit. And unlike the rest, it provides you with the Mid/Side mode which will give more diversity in the stereo field.

Best Multiband Compressor VST:
Fabfilter Pro-MB

PROS

  • Bands support crossover system
  • Handy Dynamic Phase and Linear Phase
  • 6 to 48dB/oct Crossover Slope Steepness
  • Up to 6 free-positioning fully customizable bands
  • Modern-looking advanced multiband compressor

CONS

  • Could be a little bit cheaper
  • Not a newbie-friendly software

Features and Specifications

Fabfilter Pro-MB handles all forms of dynamic processing - transparent compression, limiting or expansion. It also supports upward compression and punchy gating. Its lookahead supports up to 20ms while Dynamic Phase works under zero-latency and prevents phase changes and other artifacts along with Linear Phase mode.  

It provides us with up to six bands and they can be snapped together to form a crossover system with the slopeness range from 6 to 48dB/oct set individually. Bands are fully customizable - every band can have a different threshold, attack, release, and output gain.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Multiband compressors can boost the overall signal while taming those frequencies that could make a problem if you want to raise the loudness of the overall signal. It will work very well on drums, bass and can fix those vocal sibilances easily. 

We find it incredibly useful to switch between compressor and expander within a band. Also, it’s so awesome that bands can be freely positioned anywhere on a spectrum and apply effects only on the frequency range where compression is needed. And you got to love the design FabFilter made for their collection in general. It’s so modern and yet intuitive to use.

Best VCA Compressor VST:
Slate Digital FG-Stress

PROS

  • 3 saturation options and 3 detection modes
  • 1:1 emulation of the Empirical Labs Distressor
  • 8 ratio characters including Nuke faithfully captured 
  • A lot of sonic variations even on a subtle knob turns
  • Probably the closest all-in-one solution compressor can get

CONS

  • Didn’t include British mode
  • Can be loaded only as a Virtual Mix Rack module

Features and Specifications

The user interface is quite simple and it represents a true clone of the Empirical Labs Distressor and that’s why it is built in a strip-mode. It has 4 basic knobs for input and output gain and attack and release setting for the compressor. Down-right there is a knob for a mix between original and wet signal and button to pick one of 8 ratios provided with the dedicated LED beneath every option - all are self-explanatory while the  Nuke option represents brick wall limiting curve.

Why it Stands Out to Us

The original Distressor behaves very differently depending on what ratio is selected. That’s why creating this plugin required much more attention and work than for the rest of the compressors on the list and the FG-Stress really nailed its behavior. Every aspect has been recreated, including the very sensitive knobs. Even a 0.5dB difference can make a drastic change. 

This is probably the most versatile compressor in the world and while we won’t advise you to use just one compressor for everything, this would be our first choice if we had to do so.

Best FET Compressor VST:
Softube FET Compressor

PROS

  • Dedicated knob for external side chain mix
  • Advanced emulation of the Urei 1176 hardware
  • Parallel compression with an external side chain
  • Switchable knob-based or continuous ratio values
  • Superfast attack time with customizable look-ahead

CONS

  • No 32-bit OS supported
  • Look-ahead is limited to only 1ms

Features and Specifications

This is an advanced emulation of the Urei 1176 compressor. It comes packed in an atypical but comprehensive panel with big and small knobs where big represent features found on the original hardware. 

Apart from usual controls, it provides you with the look-ahead, wet and dry balance, and parallel compression knobs. You can also filter out certain low and high frequencies from the detector panel and skip certain peaks for applying the compression threshold. Ratio dial can be set very high, even 20:1 ratio, or act as a limiter when turned to ALL value.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Apart from emulating the legendary unit, we always welcome when the emulation provides you with additional options such as 1ms look ahead. We approve their approach to leaving the option for ratio knob to be both continuous and step-based. The latter will suit emulation purposes, while the former can allow you more subtle values, especially between 12:1, 20:1, and ALL settings. 

Overall, it will make wonders for your drum mixing as it’s prone to extreme gain reductions. This makes it an ideal compressor for any kind of heavy music and, if that’s the genre, we can imagine using it on vocals as well.

Best Bus Compressor VST:
Sonible smart:comp

PROS

  • Frequency-dependent ducking 
  • Unique spectral compression feature
  • Genre-oriented and instrument-specific profiles
  • A.I. assisted digital compressor with learning feature
  • Quite handy “detection focus” for band-pass detection filter

CONS

  • Lack of vintage options
  • Could be slightly more CPU-optimized

Features and Specifications

Spectral compression is probably the key feature of this unit. It utilizes learning mode and analyses the input across more than 2000 frequency bands and a levels compression based on the spectral content and on a profile selected. You can even target or exclude a certain range of frequencies.

Speaking of regular parameters, threshold ranges from 0dB to -50dB, ratio spans between 1:1 and 10:1 while the attack is set from 60μs to 200ms and release from 100ms to 1500ms with the dedicated hold time for both parameters independently.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Smart:comp may be a very handy learning tool for people who are still struggling to figure out how to set their compressor the best. Also, as it’s very clean, it will be a great choice for the first compression, especially on the lead instrument tracks. For the rest of the instruments, it can shine on if you pull the lever closer to the max and we can only say praises regarding kick drum compression. Spectral compression can be used as a very advanced multiband compressor and the provided profiles will make it even easier to get really good results. 

What Do I Need To Know Before Buying?

Here are some facts regarding Compressor VSTs:

It Will Change Your Sound a Lot

It might be the effect you were missing from the beginning. Maybe you have set everything right regarding drums and it wasn’t about how your drummer was performing or the type of drums he was using - it’s just that your drums needed decent dynamic processing.

You Will Need More Than One

Compressors can have various traits. Some excel well when they are subtle, others show true strength once they are cranked really high. Some are ideal for vocals or acoustic guitar, while the rest shines on percussive elements. Some are transparent, others provide you with wonderful vintage saturation, but none will work the best for every situation. That’s why having a couple of different compressors in your project studio is always a good thing.

It Takes Practice

Compressors are not hard to understand, but they do require some knowledge. And even the best knowledge doesn’t mean a thing until you start using it. Luckily, the good thing about compressors is that there are no strict rules about how something should be done, only general guidelines of how it was done before.

How to Use a Compressor VST

Compressor may be a complicated tool for a newbie. But, once you learn the basics, the rest will follow in practice:

Threshold

Check the gain reduction bar - the threshold number you’re looking for is found once you get the average gain reduction (not the peak) somewhere around 3 and 8. The closer it gets to the 8 the more compression you’re making. We advise you to not apply higher gain reduction unless you’re looking for an extreme compression effect.

Also, bear in mind that you may need to re-adjust the threshold later.

Define a Ratio

Ratio describes how many decibels from the input are exchanged for a 1dB boost when the signal goes over the threshold. So, for a 4:1 ratio, 4dB will be replaced with the 1dB boost, or more precise, every 1dB will create a 0.25dB increase. So, the less number the more mild compression becomes. This also means that 10:1 or 20:1 could almost act as a limiter.

The most usual ratio is between 2.5:1 and 4:1. Rock drums and bass guitar may use a 6:1 ratio as well.

Set the Attack and Release

Attack knob defines the moment when the compression kicks in. The release defines how long it will last once it’s applied. 

Take a look at the kick drum, you’ll have to “tame” the peak of the initial transient and make the rest louder. That’s why the attack needs to be very fast, lower than 10ms and release may go even up to 200ms.

Makeup Gain

Makeup gain is the amount of gain added after the compression and it’s simple to setup. Analyze average gain reduction and you’ll get the good starting point for the makeup gain you need to dial in. Always apply this parameter before moving the channel fader.

If you would like to find out more, check the video on the link below:

Conclusion 

No matter what song genre you’re working on or what instrument you’re playing, compressor VST will always come handy. They bring that professional taste to your performance and if you’re a singer it will push your weaker registers forward as well, so investing in a proper one is always a good call.

People Also Ask

Compression is used in so many different ways and has made its own glossary along that road. That’s why it may be very confusing for people to juggle with terms like Limiter, Expander, Multiband, side chain, and so on. Luckily, we’ll help you out to solve this once and for all:

What’s the Difference Between Compressor and Limiter?

The limiter is nothing more than a compressor with an infinite ratio. Ratio defines how much gain reduction is applied for every 1dB of additional volume above the threshold. While a compressor can significantly reduce the volume of the loudest parts, the limiter doesn’t allow any volume increase above the threshold level.

What’s a Side Chain Compression?

It controls the compression level of one track based on the input from another. The best example for side chain compression is the link between kick drum and the bass. Every time the kick drum is played, the bass sound lowers down leaving the low-end space free for the drum.

What’s a Multiband Compressor?

A Multiband Compressor is a unit that combines several compressors in one. Every compressor has a set of parameters and handles a different frequency range. Different instruments require different compression envelope. That’s why applying longer for the bass frequency range and the shorter for mid-frequencies can be welcomed in the mastering phase.

What’s in an Expander?

Consider it opposite of the Compressor. It expands the dynamic range. It reduces the volume of the signal that doesn’t meet the threshold level so the quiet sounds become even more quiet. The best example of the expander is a noise gate - it completely removes the signal that doesn’t meet the desired volume.

Which Waves Compressor is Best For Vocals?

If we had to pick just one we would have to go for Waves CLA-2A. It has been proven its position on countless records and gives the vocal track smooth and transparent compression. But, due to different music genres, single compressor won’t work on every vocal track so...

How Many Compressors Do You Need For Vocals?

Glad that you asked! 

Every compressor has its own set traits and won’t work in every situation or genre. That’s why you would probably need a set of at least three compressors - warm, fast and versatile. That’s why we would recommend a combination of Optical (or Variable-mu), FET, and Multiband Compressor for a start.