We’re currently living in the age of digital audio, and in-the-box mixing within a digital audio workstation is commonplace. Plugins are, therefore, invaluable assets for the modern audio engineer. Compression is considered to be one of the most important tools in the audio engineer’s toolbox.
So then it makes sense how there are so many compressor plugins on the market. Though some compressor plugins aim to emulate analog compressors and even specific hardware compressors, there are plenty of digital compressor options to choose from. In this article, we’ll consider what I believe to be the top 11 stand-out digital compressor plugins.
What is audio compression? Dynamic range compression is the process of reducing the dynamic range of an audio signal by attenuating the amplitude of the signal above a set threshold. A compressor can be software or hardware and performs compression on an audio signal (digital or analog).
For more information on compression and compressors, check out my in-depth article The Complete Guide To Audio Compression & Compressors.
The top 11 best digital compressor plugins for digital audio workstations are:
- Fabfilter Pro-C 2
- Sonible smart:comp
- Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov GE
- MeldaProduction MCompressor
- DMG Audio Compassion
- u-he Presswerk
- Audio Damage RoughRider 3
- Sound Radix Powair
- Boz Digital Labs Manic Compressor
- JST Gain Reduction 2
- Klanghelm DC8C
It should go without saying that any “top X” article is subject to bias. I would expect the next person’s top 11 to be different than mine but hope that there would be plenty of overlap.
That being said, I believe these plugins to be the best digital compressor plugin options today. The criteria I used to judge these plugins include the following:
- Sonic performance: how does the digital compressor plugin sound subjectively/objectively?
- Graphic user interface (GUI): how does the digital compressor plugin look when loaded in the DAW?
- Ease-of-use: how user-friendly is the digital compressor plugin?
- Functionality: how many different functions does it serve and/or how many parameters are available for the digital compression?
- Accessibility/compatibility: how easy is it to acquire the digital compressor plugin and what are the system requirements?
Let’s discuss each of the top 11 best digital compressor plugins in greater detail to learn why they made this list.
Fabfilter Pro-C 2
The Fabfilter Pro-C 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a high-quality digital-style compressor plugin, offering eight different, program-dependent compression styles with all the functionality of a professional digital compressor plugin.
The FabFilter Pro-C 2 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite, AU and VST formats.
From subtle mastering compression and bus “glue” to deep EDM sidechain pumping, the Pro-C 2 delivers superior results over its competition. Choose between 8 different compression styles, including Clean, Classic, Opto, Vocal, Mastering, Bus, Punch and Pumping.
In addition to all the standard compressor controls (threshold, ratio, attack time, release time, makeup gain), the Pro-C 2 provides several advanced features. These parameters include smooth lookahead, up to 4x oversampling, intelligent auto-gain and auto-release, a variable knee, hold, range, external side-chain triggering, variable stereo linking and mid/side processing.
For more information on these compressor controls, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Dynamic Range Compression: What Is The Threshold Control?
• Dynamic Range Compression: What Is The Ratio Control?
• Dynamic Range Compression: Attack & Release Controls
• Dynamic Range Compression: What Is The Knee Control?
• Dynamic Range Compression: What Is The Makeup Gain Control?
• Dynamic Range Compression: What Is The Lookahead Control?
The range setting of the Pro-C 2 allows users to input a maximum gain reduction limit. The compressor’s sidechain signal has a beautiful sidechain EQ section complete with a customizable high-pass, low-pass and parametric bell/notch filter.
To learn more about sidechain compression and the aforementioned filters, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• The Complete Guide To Sidechain Compression In Audio
• Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
• Audio EQ: What Is A Low-Pass Filter & How Do LPFs Work?
• Audio EQ: What Is A Band-Stop Filter & How Do BSFs Work?
Process audio with the stereo or mono version of the plugin. Variable stereo linking and mid/side processing are possible with mid-only, side-only, M > S and S > M processing.
All of this and more is made available in a gorgeous Retina user interface with real-time displays, making this highly functional plugin look as great as it sounds. Between the animated level/knee display, level meters, circular sidechain input meter and large sidechain EQ controller, this compressor represent what it’s doing visually with the utmost clarity.
In typical FabFilter fashion, the Pro-Q 3 comes with interactive MIDI Learn, undo/redo and A/B switches, Smart Parameter Interpolation, “Help” documentation with interactive hints, sample-accurate automation, double-click text entry of parameter values and more.
I could go on and on about this awesome compressor. Other impressive features include:
- Mix setting
- Small, Medium, Large and Full-screen window sizes
- Hold (up to 500 ms)
- GPU-powered graphics acceleration
- Optional MIDI triggering
- MIDI Learn
- Supports common Pro Tools hardware control surfaces
- Up to 4x oversampling
- Undo/redo and A/B comparison
- Audition Triggering option
- Extensive help file with interactive help hints
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Fabfilter Pro-C 2 user manual.
FabFilter is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
The Sonible smart:comp (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a super powerful and transparent intelligent compressor capable of determining and applying the perfect amount of compression to the audio signal. It can also be used manually as a superb compressor in its own right.
The Sonible smart:comp is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Sonible’s smart:comp offers intelligent parametrization with a single click, finding the optimal parameter settings for beautifully balanced and transparent spectral compression. In only a few seconds, this plugin can analyze the audio and offer professional-level compression automatically.
The plugin does so by continuously analyzing the input signal across more than 2000 bands. Sonible designed its smart:comp with its proprietary smart:engine, an A.I.-based, content-aware system designed based on psychoacoustic principles and extensive hands-on mixing experience. The plugin is effectively an intelligent multiband compressor that works dynamically to quickly tame tonal imbalances in the signal, only ever applying compression where needed.
Of course, the user ultimately controls the final outcome of the compression, having access to all essential compression parameters and sidechain. Speaking of sidechaining, the sidechain ducking can be set to frequency-dependent narrowband sidechaining (like that of the de-esser effect) or spectral broadband sidechaining, which will duck the entire signal when triggered to do so.
On top of the superior sound and compression capabilities, the smart:comp also features parameters such as A/B comparison, parallel compression/mix control, auto-gain and more.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the smart:comp specifications at Sonible.
Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov GE
The Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov GE (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a wideband dynamics processor combining high-fidelity dynamic range control with deep musical flexibility.
The Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Drawing inspiration and design philosophy from its successful TDR Feedback Compressor product family, Tokyo Dawn Labs has produced a highly versatile compressor plugin with it Kotelnikov. Its powerful high-precision algorithms make it a transparent option for practically all compression applications.
This original compressor offers a superb control panel with all the necessary parameters. In addition to the essentials, users benefit from the intuitive resizeable interface. Other parameters include individual release controls for peak and RMS metering modes, equal loudness workflows, frequency-dependent ratio control, sidechain high-pass filtering and more.
To learn more about peak and RMS compression, check out my article Peak Vs. RMS Dynamic Range Compressors In Audio.
Advanced stereo linking options make the Kotelnikov a perfect choice for stereo bus compression. The plugin also offers 10 additional user preset slots for quick and easy access to go-to compression settings.
Other noteworthy features of the Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov include:
- 64-bit multi-rate processing
- “Delta” oversampled signal path
- Delta preview (the difference between compressed and original signal)
- Latency compensated parallel bypass (i.e. processing not interrupted)
- Extensive documentation
- Inertia timing mode
- Left/Right sensitivity
- Gain reduction limit control
- Yin/Yang modes (manipulates the compressor’s own distortion behaviour)
- Additional quality modes “Insane” and “Live” (low latency)
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov GE user manual.
The MeldaProduction MCompressor (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a wonderfully flexible compressor plugin with a fully adjustable compression curve shape and crystal clear sound.
The MeldaProduction MCompressor is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
MeldaProduction’s MCompressor gives us all the standard compression controls and much more. It’s a truly refined compressor, featuring an adjustable compression shape, allowing users to draw in the ideal compression curve, whether it be a standard shape or something completely original.
The advanced GUI of the MCompressor is as impressive as its sonic performance. Personalize the freely resizable user interface with various colours and styles to best suit your personality. GPU acceleration makes the plugin graphics super-fast, and HDPI and Retina support offer superior resolution.
Within the GUI are the classic meters and time graphs along with parameter controls and, of course, the flexible compression curve visualizer. Input, Output, Stereo width, Loudness, Waveforms, Bands, Gain reduction and Sidechain, and more are all easily read from the user interface.
From mono and stereo signals (including mid-side capabilities) to 8-channel surround and even 64-channel 7th-order ambisonics, the MCompressor performs miraculously well. It’s a super-useful tool for everything from voiceover to music and movies to virtual reality.
I could go on and on about this incredible compressor. To learn more, consider reading through the MeldaProduction MCompressor user manual.
Other noteworthy features of the MCompressor include:
- Adjustable up-sampling 1x-1024x
- Automatic gain compensation
- Safety limiter
- Smart randomization, subtle randomization and complete randomization systems
- MIDI controllers with MIDI learn
- Global preset management and online preset exchange
The A/B comparison featured is also remarkably advanced with the MCompressor. It feature 8 instances (A through H) that can be quickly and easily switched between. The first 4 slots (A through D) can even be morphed between via an X-Y pad, allowing for a unique interpolated blend of various compression settings.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the MCompressor support page at MeldaProduction.
DMG Audio Compassion
The DMG Audio Compassion (link to check the price at DMG Audio) is a fully-featured dynamics processor design with remarkable flexibility.
The DMG Audio Compassion is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU, VST and RTAS formats.
DMG Audio’s Compassion is a perfect tool for practically all dynamic range compression processing. This plugin unifies several compressor styles into one highly functional digital compressor and offers an incredible variation of each compressor type, even beyond the original models.
Choose between the Advanced mode fine-tweaking and the Main mode for fast usage. Dial-in the perfect parameter values for your application. This plugin can blend various compressor topologies for experimental results or focus on the characteristics of a single gain reduction circuit topology.
Use the plugin for compression, expansion, upward expansion or upward compression. Mix the wet and dry signals together at the output for fast parallel compression. Access dynamic EQ/multiband compression with the Linear Phase Split EQ mode. This plugin does it all.
To learn more about upward compression, check out my article What Is Upward Dynamic Range Compression In Audio?
Even the detector paths are completely configurable with sidechain EQ, and the option between peak and RMS metering. Process mono, stereo or mid-side audio with ease with the low-CPU, zero-latency beast of a compressor.
Pushing the design even further, DMG had included the following features into the remarkable Compassion plugin:
- Mods system for rapid configuration
- Transient Shaper and Clip Limiter modules
- Oversampling mode for alias-free operation
- Large, intuitive waveform/gr display
- Knee and Response graphs
- Configurable VU, supporting K-metering and variable ballistics
- 8 banks of A/B
- Full preset management system
- Clip LED
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the DMG Audio Compassion user manual.
The u-he Presswerk (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a beautifully musical compressor drawing sonic inspiration from high-performing analog compressors and affording features only possible in the digital realm.
The u-he Presswerk is compatible with Mac OS, Windows OS and Linux OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
u-he’s Presswerk has been programmed to emulate several superb analog designs without emulating any particular hardware. It’s a powerful yet easy-to-use compressor plugin with superb features and remarkable musicality.
Presswerk offers 6 special views for improved workflow. In this single plugin, users have access to Drum Compressor, Vocal Compressor, M/S Program Compressor, Easy Compressor, Bus Compressor and Limiter “modes”. This plugin also makes Dual Phase Rotator (DPR) easy to achieve for that bassy radio-style compression.
In addition to creative sidechaining and internal parallel compression, this analog-style digital compressor also allows for simple soft clipping and saturation. These analog characteristics give this plugin its superior musicality over other more sterile digital compressors.
This compressor plugin also offers variable detection topologies. Choose feedback or feed-forward-style compressor or blend the two topologies for a unique style of detection.
To learn more about feedback and feed-forward compressor topologies, check out my article Feedback Vs. Feed-Forward Dynamic Range Compressors In Audio.
Other noteworthy featured of the u-he Presswerk include:
- Dual-channel (stereo) or 2 independent channels
- Compression ratio from 1:1 to 20:1, adjustable linearity and knee, auto-makeup option
- Capable of internal sidechaining, with bipolar delay, low cut and high cut filters (6 or 12dB per octave)
- Dry/Wet mix controls with high-pass filter, downward expander option
- Global preferences page
- MIDI learn page and editable list
- Resizable UI from 70% to 200%
- Skinnable UI
- Over 120 factory presets for common compression tasks
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the u-he Presswerk user manual.
Audio Damage RoughRider 3
The Audio Damage RoughRider 3 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is an extremely user-friendly compression plugin designed to quickly add superior “punch” to the mix. The best part is, it’s free!
The Audio Damage RoughRider 3 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Audio Damage’s RoughRider is one of the best freebie plugins out there, beyond just compressor plugins. It’s a super-simple compressor and a fantastic choice for beginners looking to understand compression and professionals looking for fast and easy results.
The plugin features the essential parameters: Ratio, Attack, Release, Sensitivity and Makeup, and a Mix control for parallel compression. It also offers an external sidechain input (with a high-pass filter) and accurate metering.
If simplicity is what you’re after, the RoughRider 3 is a perfect choice. With a warm sound and minimal controls, it combines sonically-pleasing compression with an easy workflow.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Roughrider 3 at Audio Damage.
Sound Radix Powair
The Sound Radix Powair (link to check the price at Sound Radix) is versatile, natural-sounding compressor with notable transparency and control.
The Sound Radix Powair is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Sound Radix is known for its cutting-edge audio technology. The Powair is exemplary of such dedication to pushing audio technology forward. This intelligent dual-stage loudness leveller/compressor/limiter is powered by a novel, proprietary compression engine, which provides greater transparency and control than ever before.
The first stage of the Powair is a K-weighted loudness leveller that adjusts the input signal level. This leveller will smoothly ride the audio signal(s) to the target level thanks, in large part, to machine learning-based perceived loudness auto makeup gain compensation.
The second stage is a compressor with an innovative gain detection and reduction engine with superior transparency, ultra-low distortion and an adaptive response to the source material. The Powair’s compression engine allows for transparent dynamics shaping, all while maintaining the timbre of the original audio, even at rather extreme compression settings.
Unique Punch and Adaptive Compression features further enhance the performance of this great plugin.
The Punch feature enables full control over the transients’ levels during the attack stage. At the same time, the Adaptive Compression maintains an average compression action, adding intensity and glue while keeping the natural dynamics of the recording.
Choose between L/R stereo and M/S processing with variable stereo linking capabilities. Utilize band-pass and band-stop filters in the sidechain signal path to really dial in the compression and try the tempo-synced recovery time for perfectly timed sidechain pumping.
To learn more about band-pass and band-stop filters, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Audio EQ: What Is A Band-Pass Filter & How Do BPFs Work?
• Audio EQ: What Is A Band-Stop Filter & How Do BSFs Work?
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Sound Radix Powair user manual.
Boz Digital Labs Manic Compressor
The Boz Digital Labs Manic Compressor (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a powerful and versatile multi-model compressor plugin.
The Boz Digital Labs Manic Compressor is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU, VST and RTAS formats.
Boz Digital Labs’ Manic Compressor is extremely versatile, offering 6 unique compression models: Clean, Sheer, Gritty, Digital, Vintage and Smooth. Switch between modes easily without changing settings. A/B comparison further improves the user’s ability to judge which style will work best in any given circumstance.
Mix the wet and dry signals with separate faders for simple parallel compression and engage “Loud Relief” for beautifully transparent compression.
Set the “Beef” switch to Thin, Neutral or Thick settings to change the compressor’s response to an input signal and utilize 2 EQ sections to adjust the sidechain EQ and program pre/post-EQ before or after compression. The sidechain can be internal or external, and there is even an option to listen to the sidechain input to understand the compressor-triggering signal better.
Dual Mono, Stereo, Mid, and Side operation is also made easy with the Manic Compressor.
Adjust the knee to make the compression more or less program-dependent and utilize the Drive control to add analog saturation to the output.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Manic Compressor at Boz Digital Labs.
JST Gain Reduction 2
The JST Gain Reduction 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a super-simple compressor design specifically to tame the dynamic range of vocals.
The Boz Digital Labs Manic Compressor is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
JST’s Gain Reduction 2 may be simple, but its sonic performance earns it a definitive spot on this list. If you’re looking for fast workflow, particularly when it comes to compressing vocals, the Gain Reduction 2 is an outstanding choice.
Start by choosing between heavy or light compression modes to best suit the production style.
Next, make adjustments to the creatively-named controls to dial in the desired amount and style of compression. These parameters are:
- Clarity: Remove harsh unwanted frequencies from your vocals
- Breath: Intelligent control of breathing in between syllables
- Slay: Set the exact amount of compression you desire
- Sibilance: Decide exactly how much “ess” you want in the signal
- Body: Control the exact amount of low-end and low-mids
- Air: Add air to your vocal and make it float on the mix with ease
Add parallel compression with the Mix knob and saturation with the Warmth knob to achieve the perfect output.
Use the contextual visualizer to see exactly how the compressor is working according to the set parameters.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Gain Reduction 2 at Joey Sturgis Tones.
The Klanghelm DC8C (link to check the price at Klanghelm) is an in-depth and flexible compressor plugin offering plenty of different compression styles.
The Klanghelm DC8C is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Klanghelm’s DC8C is an in-depth compressor with a beautifully laid-out user interface. If you understand all the basics of compression or you’re looking to learn about all the intricacy of the process, the DC8C is a perfect tool.
The DC8C has been defined as clear, smooth, open and distinct. It’s a transparent compressor by default but allows for varying amounts of colouration if needed, thanks, in part, to the two saturation models and four operational modes.
This super versatile plugin offers tons of flexibility. Let’s consider a few list items to understand such adaptability:
- Internal or external sidechaining
- Peak or RMS detection
- Feedback or feed-forward topology (with blend control)
- Positive or negative ratios
- Compression or zero-latency brick-wall limiting
- 2 different attack and two release curves
- 3 different compression curves
- Optional soft-clipper at the output
This compressor plugin can be customized to be more or less program-dependent. It has hold control for enhancing external sidechain pumping effects, true zero attack time (0.0 ms), automatic gain compensation, GUI resizing, a comprehensive preset browser, and much, much more. It’s a truly remarkable digital compressor plugin.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Klanghelm DC8C user manual.