About 3 years ago I posted about my top 10 compressors, but things have changed a lot since then, so I thought it was time to post an updated list. Many of the entries haven’t changed, but a few have (especially on the software side).
This list is a combination of hardware and software, since most of us live in a DAW world these days. Also, the ranking is somewhat arbitrary based on my personal usage. Okay, here we go.
1. Universal Audio 1176: I don’t care which version you use, the 1176 is about as close to a desert island compressor as you’ll get due to its versatility. I like to use it on kick, snare, guitars, bass, vocals – just about anything. It can be aggressive or smooth sounding, but nothing pulls an instrument out of a mix in the same way.
2. Teletronix/Universal Audio LA-2A: Once again, I don’t care which version of the hardware or software you use, the LA-2A has a sound and feel all its own. It can work pretty well on most instruments, but it stands out on vocals, and is dead easy to use. I rarely use a lot, as I like the sound of 2 to 3 dB of gain reduction in most situations.
3. Universal Audio LA-3: Perhaps the ultimate electric guitar compressor, I’ve used it successfully on piano and keyboards as well. Nothing works quite the same with electric guitars in a mix.
4. UAD Precision Limiter: This is a plug that I use on every mix. It doesn’t really try to emulate anything else and it doesn’t have to. It can sit there and be very transparent while putting an absolute ceiling on the peaks of a mix (the way I like to use it), or you can set it to be really aggressive and squeeze every last drop of dynamics from the mix, if that’s what you’re looking for.
5. PSP Vintage Warmer: I don’t know what it is but the Vintage Warmer makes a mix sound better just by being in the signal path. I hardly ever adjust it much, but it always seems to pull the mix together. I like to use it as the first thing on my stereo buss and feed it into an SSL buss compressor, then the Precision Limiter.
6. SSL Buss Compressor: This is the sound that made so many pop and rock records in the 80s and 90s, and it still works great in those genres. I once worked in a studio that had the buss compressor on their 9k labeled as “The Good Button.” Why? Because no matter how your mix sounded, once the SSL buss compressor was engaged, it sounded better.
7. JST Finality: Joey Sturgis is a clever guy and his Finality is a great example of a new take on a classic design (the 1176). The Finality sounds great on drums and bass, doesn’t cost much and doesn’t take up too many system resources. Very cool.
8. dbx 160: I just love the 160s; any of them. For a punchy drum sound, you can’t beat the hardware 160X’s (or even the A model). In software, the UAD 160 sounds great. My favorite for aggressive kick and snare, but it will pull a piano or acoustic guitar up front as well.
9. Fairchild 660/670: When it comes to buss compression, the Fairchild 670 stands is king of the hill for many kinds of music (especially retro or acoustic). It just adds a glue and warmth that you have trouble getting any other way. Just a little bit (a couple of dB) seems to work a lot better than a whole lot. The 660 is the mono version of the more widely known 670, and was the sound you heard on many of The Beatle records (Ringo’s drums, for instance).
10. Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor: Few modern compressors have caught on so widely as the Distressor, and that’s because there are few that are as versatile. I like to track with it on vocals to keep the peaks under control, but there are few compressors that are as effective on room mics, especially when it’s set to “Nuke.” I’m so happy that there’s now a plugin version as well.
Honorable Mention. Pro Tools Native Digirack Compressor/Limiter: I personally think this is one of the most versatile compressors that you can find. It can sound transparent and it can sound aggressive, and since it doesn’t take up much in the way of systems resources, you can use a lot of them in a big mix. Don’t overlook it.
Once again, my top 10 compressors are what I always use, so this is a clearly personal opinion. There’s lots of great compressor out there (especially in software), but I’ve come to rely on these units because I know what they’ll do in most situations.
What are your favorites?