Compression is many things. Pivotal. Necessary. Underused. Overused. Misunderstood. Ignored. But at the end, compression is one thing above all else: essential. It can be tempting to think that in EDM, with all it’s mechanical parts, you wouldn’t need compressors. It is, however, just as crucial to great EDM mixes.
There are a staggering number of choices for compressor plugins available today. Dance Music Northwest has done a great deal of the leg work for you! We’ve hand-picked 6 of the most essential compressor plugins available today. Squash, smash, and perfect the levels of every signal with these tools, and share any others you love in the comments!
Note: Pretty much every DAW comes with its own stock compressor plugin. Don’t be afraid to utilize these, recent updates to the Logic Pro and Ableton Live core compressors make them excellent choices for basic dynamics control usage.
1. Waves H-Comp – $150
The bummer about most “vintage” compressor plugins is also their best part – they’re modeled after real vintage compressors. They’re useful for their purpose, but not always versatile. Waves’ H-Comp solves this problem by adding some decidedly modern features to a compressor modeled on transistors and tubes.
In addition to being able to control the style of analog fluctuation, the H-Comp has two powerful controls: Punch and BPM Sync. The Punch knob allows the initial peaks of a signal to avoid being compressed. Nothing new, but the pairing with analog style is extremely smooth and effective. There’s also a Wet/Dry control for easy parallel compression.
For EDM producers, the BPM release sync can be a lifesaver. Engaging this function forces the compressor to release in sync with your track. While this function isn’t always necessary, sometimes it’s the key to transparent dance compression. H-Comp also supports external sidechains for sync to key equipment.
2. Sonalksis Über Compressor – $40
It doesn’t get much simpler than this. If you want to smash, bash, and crash your sound into utter oblivion while still maintaining its character and quality, look no further. Über Compressor has been engineered to ride far past the normal limit and still thrive. Much like the ubiquitous Sausage Fattener, Sonalksis’ dream compressor smashes and pulls sounds straight forward.
Three settings: Ratio, Timing, and Bias. In order: how hard, how fast, how filtered. It’s simple beauty that’s made even better when you engage the Fierce and Noise buttons. Like overdrive in a jet, these buttons add noise and harmonics to an already wonderfully dirty signal path.
Don’t let the simplicity fool you, this is a workhorse. But don’t use it when you want to breathe new life into a sound. Use it when you’re ready to shock it with the paddles until it wakes up screaming.
3. Stillwell Audio The Rocket – $49
Then sometimes there are compressors that manage to have their vintage vibe while displaying speed that even most digital compressors can’t touch. Stillwell Audio’s The Rocket has been engineered with an advanced read-ahead and sample analysis algorithm to identify (and squash) signals after 20 microseconds! To date we’ve never experienced a faster compressor.
You might think such digital wizardry would sound cold or harsh, but The Rocket shines with vintage mojo. A big contributor to this is the Impetus knob, which allows you to dial in harmonic distortion during compression. A Decadence switch further increases the quality, but beware: it’s very CPU intensive. Add in the best parallel compression knob we’ve used, and you’ve got a winner.
Try this on your mix buss, and marvel at the combination of speed, natural response, and vibe it imparts onto your mix.
4. Waves CLA-2A – $200
If you had to pick only one vocal compressor, you’d find few people who didn’t choose the Teletronix LA-2A. The stalwart optical compressor has been the go-to for vocals since it launched in the early 60s. Its smooth character is almost invisible even when pushed to the limit. It’s utter simplicity makes it impossible to over-tweak. In short, it may be close to the perfect compressor.
There are a number of LA-2A emulations out there, but the Waves CLA-2A is the only high-end Native plugin. There isn’t much else to say – it’s a very convincing replication of the original. Pipe in your vocal track, ride the Gain Reduction knob, then bring it back with the Output Gain. Waves has, however, added a couple cool touches.
In addition to the ability to add slight analog hum, the compressor’s sidechain can also be filtered slightly. It’s a subtle but sometimes helpful effect. Also, true to its name, the plugin comes loaded with presets from Grammy-winning engineer Chris Lord-Alge (Deftones, Green Day, Muse). But don’t use them. Get your hands on this one, you can’t screw it up.
5. Fabfilter Pro-C – $199
By now you’re getting the idea: all these compressors come packed and ready. The FabFilter Pro-C is no exception. Let’s breeze past all the modes, FabFilter’s phenomenal knob and design structure, and really get into the meat of why you’d use the Pro-C. In a word – innovation.
Many of the plugins here attempt to bring vintage classics into the modern age. The Pro-C is firmly planted in the future. First, the sidechain is incredibly flexible. With high and low pass filters, volume and mix controls for L & R, and even support for M/S compression, you can sidechain any way you want. There’s also MIDI Learn functionality and what FabFilter calls Smart Parameter Interpolation. Essentially, automation sounds smooth and natural.
Then there’s the display. Unlike most compressors with a Gain Reduction meter, Pro-C goes all out. Below the controls a waveform constantly passes through the viewer. This viewer shows the signal entering the compressor, and a bouncing red line of the amount and knee of the compression. Trust us when we say – you didn’t know you needed this until you’ve used it.
6. Cytomic The Glue – $99
Once upon a time in the 80s, there was a recording console called the SSL 9000 G. While it was an incredible console all around, it has a feature – the Master Buss Compressor. Designed to compress the final output of the console to tape, it did more than just master compress. The G Master Buss Compressor transformed mixes. Its magical “glue” is so renowned that even today producers will travel to find one just to run their signal through it.
Not all of us can afford to travel to AIR Studios, so many companies have taken on the challenge of modeling it perfectly. Cytomic’s The Glue has two advantages over the other “official” simulations. Because it isn’t licensed, creative additions can be made. Second, its far less expensive while not sacrificing quality.
In addition to the original’s controls, Cytomic have added a few key features to The Glue. First the Attack control has been modified to allow faster attacks for modern music. There’s also a Range control that allows you to reduce the amount of compression without changing any other controls. This allows the character of the compressor to be retained while decreasing its effect. Roll in a sidechain filter, and you’ve got a winner.
7. PSP VintageWarmer2 – $149
Let’s start by saying, VintageWarmer2 is not a compressor per se. It’s a compressor, tape saturator, EQ, and brickwall limiter in one neat and tidy package. Much like Cytomic’s The Glue, VintageWarmer2 is meant to sit at the end of a mix (or buss) and meld your mix elements together. As you might guess by the massive “Drive” knob, VintageWarmer2 puts the emphasis on punch and fuzz, where The Glue aims to faithfully reproduce.
Be prepared for some work with this plugin. The interface is straight out of 2001 (when the plugin was first released), leaving some users scratching their heads about which knobs do what. It’s useful to remember that knobs like “Speed” aren’t tied to attack time, but to the speed of analog tape. For those of you who never cut your teeth on a Studer or Otari tape machine, think of tape speed like sample rate — the higher the speed, the better the quality. Only in the case of analog tape, lower speeds mean more analog grunge…which might just be up your alley.
Like The Glue, it can be tempting to throw a VintageWarmer2 on every individual track. Don’t do it! Not only is the plugin a bit of a resource hog and latency destroyer, but this plugin shines best when marrying many tracks together. It’s a much better option than that Ultramaximizer we all know you’ve been using. Think Sausage Fattener with significantly more control.
What’s your favorite compressor for EDM and why? Let us know in the comments below!