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Best compressor plugins: Tame your dynamics without hardware

There are a lot of great free compressor plugins available. But it’s a worthwhile investment to have some paid versions in your library. It’s not always about budget either. When investing in the best compressor plugins you usually get support from the manufacturer, patching updates, and access to their official knowledge base.

Since compressors are all designed to provide something different, we picked some from each category. These are far from your only options, but they’re a great place to start.

Best compressor plugin overall: FabFilter Pro-C 2

fabfilter pro c2
Best Compressor Plugin overall
FabFilter Pro-C 2
A great upgrade to the first version, this is a clean compressor that works with the signal source to make the attack and release more accurate.
Great for clean compression, but it can also add vibe
No latency, 64-bit processing
Multiple metering views
Program-dependent attack/release
Not the best choice if you need a color compressor

There are times where you want a compressor that adds flavor, but just as often you’ll find yourself reaching for a model that’s designed to be clean. Building on their popular Pro-C first generation, you get three different and equally useful compression styles in the second iteration.

The attack and release time constants are program-dependent, but the GUI provides control over them for even further fine-tuning. It has an external side chain as well as high and low-pass filters for cutting out what you don’t want. And with no latency, 64-bit processing you don’t have to worry about using it during tracking. The meters have multiples ways to view them, ensuring you have your levels right always.

There’s a lot to unpack with the Pro-C 2’s features, so it might take you a bit longer to expertly factor it into your workflow. But don’t worry, FabFilter has a great knowledge base to get you going. It’s a powerful, versatile processor that supports all plugin formats. It works in mono or stereo and even supports MIDI learn.

If you’re looking to add one of the best compressor plugins to your arsenal, you can’t go wrong with the Pro C-2.

Best SSL-style compressor plugin: Waves Audio SSL G-Master Buss Compressor

waves audio ssl g-buss compressor
Best SSL-style Compressor Plugin
Waves Audio SSL G-Master Buss Compressor
SSL bus compressors are revered by some of the best mix engineers in the world for providing a clean, fast, accurate sound.
Fast and clean
Modeled with SSL to provide ideal accuracy
Perfect for adding “glue” compression to buses
Not as “vibey” as other options

SSL compressors changed the game when they were released. They’re renowned for having very fast time constants and imparting a clean sound to the source signal. For a while the issue was how expensive they are, meaning not everyone could have access to their great sound. Plugins changed that. And make no mistake, for bus work this is far and away one of the best compressor plugin choices.

This option from Waves Audio is based on a favorite from the 4000 G console. It accurately models two of the elements that make the hardware so great in modeling the IC input and dual VCA gain-reduction amplifier sections of the circuit.

It’s renowned for how well it glues a bus together, providing the perfect finishing touch on any track grouping or master section. It’s easy to dial in and even has a mix control for easy parallel compression techniques.

This particular plugin was created in direct partnership with Solid State Logic, meaning this isn’t just an approximation – it’s the real deal. You even get included presets from Chris Lord-Alge, one of the most accomplished mix engineers of all time and an avid SSL user.

Best 1176-style compressor plugin: IK Multimedia T-RackS Black 76

t-racks black 76
Best 1176-style Compressor Plugin
T-RackS Black 76
The Black 76 is an affordable option that covers all types of signals. It’s just as good on single sources as it is on others.
A great take on the 1176 with some modern features
Covers mono, dual mono, and stereo sources
None if you’re looking for the 1176 sound

As one of the most popular compressors of all time, you have no shortage of options for compressor plugins that are styled after the 1176. Some are as basic as the original units, and some offer features that are almost required in modern digital audio. The Black 76 is the latter.

The 1176 circuit was meticulously modeled to create the application. This includes the beloved “all buttons in” setting. Another appeal is the options it provides to process the signal. It can be used in mono, dual mono, stereo, and mid/side. So no matter what type of source material you’re working with you can give it true 1176 FET compression flavor.

It’s a simple GUI, closely resembling the authentic hardware units. And at under $100 you can affordably add this classic style of compressor to your collection.

Best optical compressor plugin: Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A

universal audio teletronix la-2a
Best optical Compressor Plugin
Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A
LA-2A plugins don’t get any more accurate than this. It covers three different versions of the original Teletronix circuits.
Perfectly modeled plugin version of the LA-2A
Great complement to other types of compressors
Optical compression might not be aggressive or fast enough in certain mixing situations

Sometimes the best option is a compressor that’s more gentle than something like the 1176. Optical compression is perfect for this. And just as well, it makes a great compliment to other types of compressors for serial compression.

When it comes to LA-2A  plugins, it doesn’t get more authentic than this. You get access to three different, carefully modeled Teletronix versions. Each provides its own distinct tone. You can track with the plugin in real-time if you’re using a UA Apollo series interface too.

The GUI closely resembles the original unit, with just a few simple controls. Optical compressors aren’t meant to be overly complex. But they’re useful on a lot of sources, and pair well with other compressor models.

Best Distressor-style compressor plugin: Slate Digital FG-Stress

slate digital fg-stress
Best Distressor-style compressor plugin
Slate Digital FG-Stress
The Distressor is one of the newer types of compressors, but it’s very powerful. No matter what type of compression you need it’s here, and it’s a great emulation of the original hardware unit.
8 compression styles
Fully-licensed 1:1 emulation of the original hardware
Comes with multiple professional presets
Requires iLok 2 to install and use

It might be one of the newer compressors, but for a while the Distressor was only available as hardware. So who better to be the first plugin company to digitize it than the masterminds at Slate Digital?

The FG-Stress is billed as eight compressors in one, and if you’ve ever used one you know how much of a Swiss army knife dynamics tool it is. It’s a fully-licensed, 1:1 emulation of the Empirical Labs hardware. This means whether you need a tube sound, optical, VCA or something more extreme you can quickly dial it in.

It’s just as good at clean, light compression as it is at totally smashing things. It comes with multiple professional presets to get you going right after install. It does require an iLok 2 to function, but this is hardly a dealbreaker once you understand everything it’s capable of. All of these things make it a serious contender in the best compressor plugins conversation.

Best free compressor plugin: Analog Obsession Comper

analog obsession comper
Best free compressor plugin
Analog Obsession Comper
This freeware compressor offers three styles of compression. The GUI is laid out logically, and it’s easy to dial in.
Covers VCA, FET, and optical compression
Works on mono or stereo signals
None – it’s free!

It’s hard to break the best free category into just one selection. The reason we’re going with Comper here is because of how versatile it is. It offers multiple compression types including VCA, FET, and optical. This means depending on how you dial it in you get compression characteristics of some of the most popular models of all time like the DBX160A, 1176, and LA-2A.

You can even select multiple styles at once, allowing you to create entirely new compressor sounds. And it’s just as good on a bus as it is on single tracks. You can even use it on the master. Making it even more useful is the ability to simply run signal through it at a 1:1 ratio to give your tracks vibe without adding any actual effect.


What is the most transparent compressor plugin?

You have a lot of options if you’re looking for a transparent compressor. We chose the FabFilter Pro-C 2 as our choice. It can get dirty, but it provides extensive control over the ADSR of the signal and don’t color the sound too much – even though it does have some thicker settings.

An LA-2A or optical style is also a good choice for a more vintage type of transparent compression.

What is the best compressor plugin paid?

Most manufacturers offer multiple models. Look into companies like Waves Audio, Slate Digital, Universal Audio, or freeware companies like Analog Obsession and Klanghelm.

Which is the best compressor plugin?

This is an open-ended question. It really depends on what type of compression you want and what the source material is. Optical compressors are more gentle, FET-styles like the 1176 are more aggressive. These aren’t the only two kinds, but they’re generally the most popular.

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