Buyer's Guides

Best Compressor Plugins for Polished and Pro-Sounding Results

If you’re a budding producer, you will quickly learn that compression and EQ are two of the most important allies you will make in your production process. You’ll most likely find yourself applying them to every track in your session as you complete the mixing process.

So, needless to say, you’ll need to equip yourself with the best compressor plugins you can get your hands on. And with thousands to choose from, it can be a daunting selection, especially for newbies.

Not only that, but not every compressor plugin is necessarily the right one for each job you will come across. To remove any intimidation from this process, Headliner is here to take you by the hand and walk you through the different types of compressors, what they do and offer, and, crucially, which are the best compressor plugins to spend your hard-earned dollars and pounds on.

What is a compressor?

The name may conjure up thoughts of a dusty piece of gear that faintly hums whenever it’s switched on, but the idea behind a compressor, whether it’s the original outboard physical version or a plugin, is relatively simple. 

An audio compressor is a tool used to control the dynamic range of audio signals, which is the difference between the loudest and softest parts. It works by reducing the volume of loud sounds while allowing quieter sounds to remain unaffected or boosted, ensuring a more consistent overall volume. This helps in preventing abrupt volume spikes and making recordings sound more polished.

There are different ways of going about this. Most of the methods are classic ones from the good old days of analogue outboard gear, and many approach compression with the wish to get a result as close to the analogue sound as possible.

Don’t start sweating at the notion of trying to find space for an old compressor and forking out the big cost that would entail — in this golden age of plugins, many digital emulations sound absolutely brilliant and truly close to the original sound. Let’s get compressing!

Optical Compressor Plugins

If you want to talk about the classic compressor sound, many a producer’s thoughts would quickly turn to the optical compressor variety. These classic bits of gear compress music and sound using photosensitive light cells. It’s one of the earliest methods of compression, found in a lot of the earliest compressors.

Its proponents love the fact that the photocell produces a pleasingly musical sound. Compared to the FET compressors, it’s a little more subtle, with a gentler process. A famous example is the Teletronix LA-2A, which many seasoned engineers will get misty-eyed about. If you think this could be the sound for you, here are the best compressor plugins that replicate the optical compressor style.

Waves CLA-2A

You may have heard of Waves’ CLA series, named after famed engineer Chris Lord-Alge. And it’s their CLA-2A is one of the best compressor plugins for achieving the optical compressor sound. It’s also a lovely affordable option when compared to the competition, especially as Waves often have lots of sales and offers going.

Plugins like the CLA-2A are the mixing chains Lord-Alge uses himself on tracks from the likes of Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones, so rest assured this is a compressor plugin of the very highest quality.


ADHD Levelling Tool

What’s even better than an affordable compressor plugin? A free one! ADHD offer their Levelling Tool at ‘name your price’, even if that price happens to be £0. And, considering the price, or lack thereof, it’s a very impressive optical compressor plugin.

It offers lots of control options for threshold, attack and release. Its inspiration from classic compressors is very tastefully done. ADHD describes it as ‘the ideal compressor for vocals’, and it does, indeed, do a fine job of getting vocals in line. Not only that, but imbuing them with character and ensuring there aren’t any over-the-top peaks in your mix.

Discover more great free plugins, here.


Softube CL1B

The Softube CL1B is like a digital chameleon, mimicking Tube Tech's tube-infused take on the optical LA-2A design with great accuracy. This pro compressor plugin brings you all the oomph, weight, and tube-driven warmth you'd find in the original hardware.

What makes the hardware CL 1B so cool is its quirky gain reduction element, which isn't your typical semiconductor. It's got low harmonic distortion and none of the usual semiconductor quirks. You can flip between manual and fixed attack/release settings or even blend them. In the mixed mode, the attack and release controls play a fancy game of cat and mouse with your audio, creating dynamic program-dependent release time slopes. Fast peak? You get a fast release. Vice versa. It's like your music's secret weapon.


Digital Compressor Plugins

Do you find the lovers of analogue gear a bit cultish, and aren’t all that bothered about trying to replicate the sound of analogue compressors? Well, there are lots of options for compressor plugins that fit more into the digital mould.

They are the perfect style of compressor when you are after the cleanest, most transparent compression that doesn’t add colour to your source audio. In other words, when you don’t want that roughneck analogue charm, these won’t add any of those hums or purrs. Here are the best digital compressor plugins to look at.

Klevgrand Korvpressor

Meet Klevgrand Korvpressor, your trusty sidekick in the world of the best compressor plugins. This flexible and transparent compressor plays nicely with any sound in your session. What sets it apart? Well, it's got a lovely visual representation of gain reduction that makes understanding your sound's dynamics nice and simple.

Korvpressor keeps it simple with user-friendly attack and release controls. It's got some fancy tricks up its sleeve, like lookahead and maximizs. So, whether you're a compression newbie or a pro, it's here to make your life easier. You can now find Klevgrand Korvpressor in LANDR Studio, the ultimate package for producers. It's got all the mastering, distribution, and plugins you'll ever need.


Fabfilter Pro C-2

Tony Maserati, the undisputed legend of music engineering, says “The way the Pro-C shows you the compression is ingenious.” Very, very high praise indeed. A truly fab plugin, several things make it one of the best compressor plugins out there; it sounds stunning, and the interface is so user-friendly that even the most advanced compression applications become much simpler.

The Pro-C 2 has eight compression styles with wonderful sound. Besides the classic compressor controls, there are up to 4x oversampling, intelligent auto-gain and auto-release, external side-chain triggering, and lots more. Outrageous value.


TDR Kotelnikov

And just for good luck, here is a free compressor plugin in the digital department. TDR Kotelnikov is a fantastic plugin, considering it costs zilch. It harnesses the power of digital compression, with deep control potential and clear and transparent sound.

It’s a wideband dynamics processor with some lovely features such as the individual release control for RMS and peak content. Also, its immensely powerful algorithms would leave many willing to pay a high price for what they’re getting.


FET compressor plugins

The FET compressor-style delivers a very fetching sound. It stands for “field effect transistor”, most famously seen in the UREI 1176 compressor. It’s a piece of kit that can be seen in many of the world’s most famous studios. If you love a vintage sound, FET compressors should be knocking on your door. They pack a lovely punch of saturation, especially when you push them.

Commonly used on vocals, percussion, and other sounds these fast and aggressive compressors complement brilliantly. Here are the compressor plugins of this variety that you’ll want to make note of.

UAD 1176 Collection

Originally designed by Universal Audio founder M.T. “Bill” Putnam, the original 1176 from the American audio wizards represented a big moment in the compression stakes. It was the first compressor to feature solid-state circuitry and its super-speedy 20 microsecond FET gain reduction. As such a pioneering piece of kit, it ended up being on some of the world’s most famous records.

UAD couldn’t be more renowned now for their brilliant plugins if they tried, and it's wonderful to see the 1176 recreated in this collection.


Plugin Alliance Lindell 7X-500

If you’re after an affordable compressor plugin of the FET variety, look no further than the Plugin Alliance Lindell 7X-500, which you can scoop for just $29. It’s not much money at all for an excellent recreation of the 7X-500 series and a great starting point for FET compression.

Like the original unit, it boasts its analogue character and fast compression attack. Add it to a drum bus and you’ll get a brilliant, classic rock and roll sound.


Analog Obsession FETISH

Discrete design, Super-fast attack time, and Input and output stage distortion. In other words, this is a fantastic free compressor plugin, if you want to initially do FET for free. There is also input control, selectable ratio and sample rate support up to 192 kHz.


Tube compressor plugins

So, you've entered the world of tube compressors. Sure, you can create compression with vacuum tube circuitry alone, but this is absolute pro-territory we’re discussing here – tricky and not for the faint of heart (or wallet).

That's why true tube compressors, also known as "delta-mu" compressors, are so enormous, and they don't come cheap. The tubes and transformers they need are so impractical that only the most committed audio enthusiasts would consider them.

But hey, all that iron and tubey goodness results in a truly fantastic sound. The good news is that plugin wizards have been working their magic for a while, crafting digital replicas of the Fairchild and other mighty tube compressors since the digital era began.

UAD Fairchild Collection

Behold the UAD Fairchild Collection – it's like a sonic time machine, whisking you away to the heyday of classic audio engineering.

When it comes to crafting digital replicas of analogue gear, UAD is the maestro of the game. But with the Fairchild collection, they've taken it to a whole new level, leaving no stone unturned and no tube unexamined. They've painstakingly modelled every single component, down to the quirkiest and most peculiar elements.


Arturia TUBE-STA

Arturia have established themselves as one of the finest purveyors of affordable music products out there, whether it’s brilliant hardware synthesisers like the Microbrute, or for plugins. And their compressor plugin, the TUBE-STA, replicates the tube style fantastically.

Available right around the £/$100 mark, this is nonetheless a premium compressor plugin that achieves the sound of the beloved Gates STA-Level unit. Which would cost you a fortune, but this Arturia plugin gives you its wonderful sounds and textures at an absolute snip of the price.


Klanghelm MJUC jr.

An honourable mention must go out to another excellent free compressor plugin from Klanghelm and their MJUC jr. offering. Like their other plugins, which are either free or are extremely cheap, this one in particular is the little brother version of the MJUC plugin, which is a paid-for plugin. Both are delta-mu tube-style compressor emulators, and the jr. version is another case of, ‘I can’t quite believe I didn’t pay for this!’


VCA compressor plugins

The ‘70s were famous for things like the Watergate Scandal, disco music, and also VCA compressors. Indeed, these compressors arriving on the scene could achieve gain reduction in a less volatile way, and also made compressors more affordable. This is thanks to their integrated circuits (ICs).

The most prominent of these were the likes of the SSL Bus Compressor and the DBX 160. The former has gone on to be a go-to on the mix bus for innumerable producers.

SSL Native Bus Compressor

If emulating the classic SSL sound is your ultimate goal, then seek solace in the knowledge that SSL themselves have created a compressor plugin that does exactly that. Their Native Bus Compressor plugin gives you the weighty punch of the famous VCA compressor.

SSL themselves love the fact people often describe their plugin as something that “sticks your mix like audio glue.” Put simply, it’s plugins that make your music go from sounding like a ‘track’ to a ‘record’. And they would know, as the hardware and compressor plugin have both been so key to so many hit songs.


Cytomic The Glue

If you need a compressor plugin that leaves a smaller dent in your wallet, enter Cytomic’s The Glue. A very fitting name for the results you will get with your music when using it. It’s also based on the SSL Bus compressor design.

Cytomic utilises some excellent features that include genius algorithms, circuit simulators, and a beautiful user interface. And it’s wonderfully fast.


Ableton Glue Compressor

A quick mention to another VCA compressor plugin in case you like your costs to be zero. Ableton may be best known as being the place producers and electronic music make their beats and have a whale of a time doing so, but built into the DAW is a great VCA-style compressor plugin based on the SSL. If you’re an Ableton user, you may not have to invest as this is a pretty solid option.


How to choose the right compressor plugin

The answer to this question is to experiment with a few of the different types, and with some great free compressor plugins listed above, just go and have fun with it! Particularly trying out plugins from the five varieties listed here.

A lot of this is going to come down to your preferences, and the sounds you like and are trying to achieve. You will quickly learn what these plugins offer in terms of characteristics, their strengths and limitations. We wish you luck and an abundance of fun in your compression journey — godspeed!

Further reading:

Best compressors for vocals

How to compress vocals