The current market for digital plug-in compressors is absolutely massive. Hundreds, maybe even thousands exist and we as engineers of all levels are certainly spoiled for choice. The range includes emulations of the most legendary hardware compressors from the past and present, to brand new dynamics processing that aim to be as clean and pure and possible, and sometimes even be capable of achieving effects that hardware simply cannot.

The Gearslutz community members have voiced their opinions - here are the top 10 digital plugin compressors as voted by them. The list includes plugins on both sides of the aforementioned spectrum: emulations and totally new designs. Let’s get to it!


FIRST PLACE


Klanghelm MJUC

Klanghelm MJUC

Klanghelm’s MJUC compressor plugin was a very huge success in the latter part of 2015, when it was released. The compressor subforums “exploded” with Gearslutz users talking about how much they loved Tony’s plugin. WIth its ultra low price point, but ultra high sound quality ratio, there isn’t much to dislike about it. The MJUC is effectively three separate variable-mu tube compressors, all with their own unique internal adjustments and sonic characteristics, that span the history of tube compression. MK1 has some of the slowest compression times of the three, has the least amount of controls, and emulates the tube compression sound from the hardware gear around the 1950s. It imparts the most amount of “character” out of the three. MK2 is based around units from the 1960s and offers more control, such as independent attack and release times control, compression ratio choices, a “Density” control that adds another variable mu tube compression stage, and an “iStage” control that engages an interstage transformer. MK3 is the cleanest of the three and offers the most flexibility and gives the user an additional “Punch” control. “Punch” allows more or less of the transient peak through the compressor, regardless of the attack setting, and can add massive amounts of “snap” on percussion instruments. All three makes offer an additional control panel that allow the user to add some saturation to their tracks via the ‘Drive’ parameter and adjust the tonality via the ‘Timbre’ control. Klanghelm’s MJUC has been a major success and has subsequently set the bar extremely high for the competition, as it seems to be redefining what is possible in the world of low-cost emulations.



SECOND PLACE


FabFilter Pro-C 2

FabFilter Pro-C 2

Fabfilter is known in the community as the go-to company for efficient and excellent sounding plugins. Their plugins not only are extremely light on the CPU, but the workflows they design and integrate into their plugins are intuitive - Pro-C 2 is no exception to this design philosophy. Pro-C 2 is workhorse compressor, equally suitable for both mixing and mastering. With its detailed and informative gain reduction graph, real-time audio display and beautiful meters, the user interface couldn’t get any better. Pro-C 2 has multiple compression styles that drastically change the response and sound of the compression, a sophisticated internal side-chain (reminiscent of the one in the Pro-Q 2), adjustable look-ahead (to ensure peaks are being caught and properly handled in limiting-style scenarios), and a range parameter to limit the maximum amount of compression taking place. The range of possibilities that Pro-C 2 has to offer in the compression domain is massive; it can handle absolutely any compression task with extreme ease which makes this suited to a wide range of audio tasks from music production to post production to podcasts. FabFilter just seem to get it right!



THIRD PLACE


Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov

Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov

Tokyo Dawn Labs have been making their mark in the last few years with their own melange of products. Their commendable policy of distributing a free version of every plugin they release has gained them a ton of popularity. It should be noted that the free versions are nothing to write off either, they are entirely functional and are not crippled or limited in any way. The TDL Kotelnikov also follows this pattern by having a ‘standard’ (free) version and a Gentlemen’s Edition - which is still comparatively low cost compared to its peers. Since its release, Kotelnikov has been labeled as one of the most transparent mastering compressors on the market, though it can also be used in a mix setting too. When set correctly, you can achieve quite a bit of gain reduction before the compression becomes audibly noticeable. One of the more highly regarded features Kotelnikov has to offer are independent ‘peak’ and ‘RMS’ release parameters that effectively give the user a dual stage release, which helps to aid in the transparency of the compression. Shorter release times for peaks can be dialled in via the peak release and then switched over to longer releases via the setting of the ‘RMS’ release. Perhaps one of the best aspects of Kotelnikov, or Tokyo Dawn Labs products in general, is the quality assurance you receive when using it/them. Vlad and Fabien take their jobs as plugin developers to a whole new levele, making sure every aspect of the spectrum is well taken care of, effectively mitigating any unwanted audio artefacts from being ‘inflicted’ by their processors. A worthy inclusion on this list.



4. Cytomic - The Glue

Cytomic The Glue

Cytomic The Glue

In the pro audio community, the SSL 4000 buss compressor is quite ubiquitous, as it is famous for its ability to “glue” different elements of a mix into one cohesive piece with minimal adjustment. With this characteristic in mind, Cytomic’s ‘The Glue’ is named appropriately. The Glue is often referred to as one of the greatest SSL 4000 buss compressor emulations on the market. Any time a “compressor shoot-out” or “favourite compressor” type thread is created on Gearslutz, The Glue makes an appearance. The Glue not only emulates the original hardware it’s inspired by, but it adds to the functionality of the original with the additions of an extremely fast attack time of 0.1 milliseconds, a ‘range knob’ to control the maximum amount of compression, external sidechain support with a high-pass filter (to allow the user to tell the compressor how much of the low end it should be listening to) and a wet-dry knob. The Glue not only makes for a phenomenal master buss compressor, but it’s also an excellent track compressor when dialled in appropriately. With its intentionally limited control set, settings are fast and easy to program, and it’s hard to make it sound bad. An excellent nod to its forefather indeed.



5. Universal Audio - 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-in Collection

Universal Audio 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-In Collection

Universal Audio 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-In Collection

Universal Audio are widely known for their officially-endorsed emulations of hardware units. Their plugins run on external DSP cards, which frees up valuable processor bandwidth on the studio computer, but because of this the UAD hardware is required to run the plugin. Their 1176 is a classic hardware compressor that emerged in the late 1960s and caught on due to its extremely fast time constants. Producers and engineers were able to catch and compress the peaks and transients of their audio in a way that they had not been able to in the past. For example, being able to clamp down on drums to level them out and to bring up the sustain of the shell decay, or containing the excessively dynamic range on a bass guitar track, whilst adding a bit of lovely distortion are tasks the 1176 performs with ease and it has become a studio staple as a result. While the hardware compressor had separate buttons that each activated different compression ratios, a trick many engineers discovered was that pressing all of the compression ratio buttons in at the same time created a new form of aggressive compression. This “all buttons in” feature is included in the Universal Audio 1176 compressor collection. Universal Audio’s Classic Limiter Plug-in Collection, containing the three separate emulated ‘revisions’ of the original hardware (the Bluestripe, Blackface, and the Anniversary Edition), is consistently thought to be one of the finest digital recreations of the hardware ever made, and that’s probably why it’s on this list!



6. Universal Audio - Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveller Plug-in Collection

Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection

Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection

Universal Audio strikes again with another classic emulation - the LA-2A has also been rated one of the top plugin compressors available today. Compared to the 1176, the Teletronix LA-2A is not a fast or aggressive compressor. In fact, it is a remarkably “slow” compressor that is more suitable for dealing with gradual shifts in dynamic range, as opposed to drastic differences occurring in bursts. The LA-2A is known for being extremely simple to use, having only two main controls for controlling how it responds to audio - knobs for gain and peak reduction. It excels on vocal performances that are long and drawn out, with slowly-changing dynamics. While the attack and release times are not made available for the user to change and seem to be predefined and set at one value, they are actually not entirely linear. The attack and (moreso) release times change dynamically under the hood of the compressor in order to keep the compression smooth depending on the program material being passed through it. Like the 1176 Collection, Universal Audio’s LA-2A Classic Leveller Plug-in Collection contains three different versions of the plug-in based on three different hardware revisions (Silver, Gray, LA-2). The main differences between all of these versions are the attack and release speeds, which allow the user to cover more ground with a variety of audio tasks. It’s a classic for a reason!



7. Slate Digital - Virtual Buss Compressors

Slate Digital VBC (Virtual Buss Compressors)

Slate Digital VBC (Virtual Buss Compressors)

As with all Slate Digital releases, the Virtual Buss Compressors was highly anticipated by the Gearslutz community, and when it was released, the anticipation was justified! VBC is comprised of three separate buss compressors emulating some of the finest classic hardware out there. The first hardware compressor, the ‘FG-Grey,’ is an emulation of the SSL 4000 buss compressor. As mentioned previously, this compressor is iconic in the world of rock production, heard on literally thousands of albums. The second compressor, the ‘FG-Red,’ emulates the famous Focusrite Red compressor. The final compressor in the bundle, the ‘FG-MU,’ is an emulation of the vintage Fairchild 670 but without the weight or the second mortgage. What makes VBC unique is that not only do you get all three compressors in one bundle, but you can run each compressor on its own, or you can run your 2-tracks through any combination of the compressors, in series, to get unique compression curves. Running the compressors in series allows you to stack the tones of each one and lets you use one compressor for one task and another compressor for a separate. For example, you may want to use the FG-Grey to reduce quicker peaks on transient material, followed by slower setting on the FG-MU to deal with the overall dynamics of a song. Being able to combine and customise these emulations in any number of ways presents the user with a massive amount of creative control. Another Slate legend in the making? Try it yourself and find out!



8. Kush Audio - UBK-1

Kush Audio UBK-1

Kush Audio UBK-1

UBK and Kush Audio are known for their highly-stylised presentations of their plugins, versus the more standard “industrial” GUIs so frequently seen on hardware emulations. Instead of showing numbers related to ratios, attack times, release times, thresholds, etc., the UBK-1 gives the user five separate compression modes, each with their own descriptive name, that each are finely tuned to produce a specific compression type. The name of the compression mode gives a hint as to what sort of sound the compressor might impart on audio running through it. For instance, the “Glue” mode is great for master buss work; as the name states, it’s meant to “glue” or hold the mix together. “Splat” is a geared towards enhancing the initial snap of a transient, which makes it great for limp & lifeless drums. Other modes include “Smooth,” “Squish,” and “Crush.” The UBK-1 also offers a very sonically pleasing form of analogue-modelled saturation, which can be varied from “light and gentle” to “a bit gritty” and works wonders on any tracks that just need some “dirtying up.” The Gearslutz community loves Kush Audio products and in the UBK-1 it’s not difficult to see why.



9. Softube - Tube Tech CL1B

Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B

Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B

Softube has a rich history in developing highly successful recreations of well-known studio gear. The Gearslutz community have been mostly raving about all of Softube’s phenomenal software released since their inception. The Tube-Tech CL 1B is Softube’s emulation of the optical tube compressor of the same name, created by Danish makers Lydkraft (who fully endorse and approve this emulation). The unit is well-known in pro studios for its overall versatility in compression, handling vocals, acoustic elements, bass, and even full masters with ease, due to its relatively low distortion gain-reduction. (Some users note that the tone generated by the vacuum tubes within is pleasing enough that they sometimes simply run their masters through it just to grab a hint of the vibe the unit offers, sometimes without even using compression at all!) The CL 1B has a extremely clean and easy to understand graphical user interface derived straight from the fascia of the hardware. In addition to use in other genres and applications, in recent years, it seems that rap, hip-hop, and pop producers are reaching for this plugin quite often when mixing vocals, and this is well-documented throughout the forum. Another exceptional plugin from the Swedish boffins at Softube!



10. SKnote - Disto

SKnote Disto

SKnote Disto

SKnote is one of those boutique developers that is always releasing plugins that Gearslutz users consistently rave about. Quinto Sardo is the “intellectual madman” behind Sknote and he never seems to rest, as the products continually and perpetually roll out - and at ridiculously low prices to boot. Sknote’s Disto is a compressor plugin based on two separate hardware compressors. With Disto, we have two independent instances inspired by the iconic ‘Distressor' and a stereo interpretation of the ‘Fatso Jr.’ The Distressor was a significant creation in the hardware compression timeline and a Gearslutz favourite. It’s a versatile compressor, but it tends to be favoured on percussive material in many cases. With its ability to attack and release extremely quickly, it can clamp down and compress quickly, making the ‘Distressor’ ideal for adding serious punch to transient-heavy material. The other compressor’s inspiration was not only a compression box, but also an analogue tape emulation box that added some of the aurally pleasing effects of running audio through magnetic tape. In addition to “standard” compression, Disto also features mid/side and L/R compression which adds to its overall versatility. Disto has received a lot of great remarks from the Gearslutz community members since its release late 2015, making its presence on the list entirely justified.



And there you have it - sorry we couldn’t “compress” this list any more than we have but we hope this gives you a solid overview of what the Gearslutz membership love the most for their digital compression needs - as much a great starting point for someone looking to equip a new studio rig as a great list for someone who wants to augment a dream system with a - ahem - “dynamic” list of terrific plugins. Happy squashing!

Thanks to everyone who voted for their most-used and best-loved compressors!