The Best Vocal Compressors for Studio Quality Type Audio

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Written By Tanya

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The most confusing piece of studio gear is the Avocal compressor. Each piece of equipment in your signal chain can have an effect on your overall quality but none will get you closer to what you hear on TV, radio, and CD’s than a high-quality compressor. This is why I will repeat it again:

Without a compressor, you will not be able to achieve a mix and recording that is comparable to professional releases.

You already know this if you are reading this. What many people don’t know about compressors is how they work and how to control them.

This topic is so confusing that even the sentence itself is confusing. However, I will simplify it so that you understand what makes a good vocal compressor more than others.

Before you jump to the reviews, I recommend everyone to read the top section. It gives a quick overview about compressors. We’ll break them down into price ranges and highlight the best products within each category.

These are just a few of the many things we’ve been able to hear. It’s worth the effort to make sure it’s included in this list.

You don’t need to know everything about these amazing machines. Just read the following section to get the details. If you are unsure about what type of compressor you need or need some guidance, this section will help you make an informed decision.

What does an Audio Compressor do?

Audio is an electrical signal. Mixing and recording studio audio is all about how we capture it and how we process it to create a clear and enjoyable listening experience. The compressor is an essential component of balancing the various amplitudes and removing some dynamics.

This means that a compressor lowers the volume of louder parts of your recording to make them more in tune with the quieter parts. This allows all the details to be heard by increasing the volume.

It can be used to create or conceal specific details in the signal. For example, if you want to make sure that the initial smack or snare is heard, or to hide the ear-piercing sounds like sibilance or plosives. You can use compressors as noise gate and limiters.

DO THESE ARE THE SAME AS LIMITERS AND GATES?

Yes. They are the same thing. They can be labeled with three different things depending on the purpose of the compressor, but they all work the same. These differences are mainly due to how you set the threshold and ratio.

A limiter would set the threshold at the highest amplitude and with the highest ratio. The limiter prevents the signal from exceeding the threshold and limits the volume. The noise gate is the exact opposite.

Your signal cannot pass through if it is below the threshold. You would set your threshold at the noise floor when using a gate. It simply mutes all ambient and static noises that cannot be heard without the singer’s vocal.

What is this sidechain that people talk about?

Sidechaining is a method of compressing your main signal using information from a second signal. When the second signal exceeds a threshold, it applies compression the main signal. Here are some examples and a diagram.

Sidechain compressors can be used to “ride” the fader of background music and sounds in TV, radio and theater productions, where the singer or speaker is the main attraction.

This is ducking. When the vocals are being played, you’re “ducking” (turning down volume) the background noises to make it easier for the singers to hear them.

When dealing with kick drums, a common practice is to duck your bass when the kick kicks off. It is a simple way to ensure that the kick can be clearly heard since they are in the same frequency range.

Although equalization is not a good idea, removing the bass from the kick’s attack can make it easier for the listener to latch onto the kick. You can do this with any compressor, provided it has an insert input/output.

PARALLEL COMPRESSION: WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Another advanced mixing technique requires a compressor. Many music genres require varying dynamics to maintain an emotional flow.

This is where parallel compression comes in. Parallel compression (sometimes known as New York Compression) is the solution.

A mixing engineer will split the signal in two and compress one or all of them. He or she will then aggressively compress the second version.

The two signals will be re-balanced so that only the most important and quietest details can be heard, while the original take can still be heard.

What does each knob on a studio compressor do?

The following is just a brief summary. A complete book could be written. If you are interested in digging deeper, please visit our complete exploration of compressors.

There are four settings that you can choose from:

  • Threshold
  • Ratio
  • Attack
  • Release

Threshold This knob allows you to adjust the volume of any recording material, from tape to digital hard drives to tape. The threshold is the limit of volume. The threshold is the point at which the signal exceeds the limit of compression.

Ratio This is how much compression will be applied. This can be anything from 1:0 (no compression), to 25:1 (“limiting”) Let’s take, for example, a 5 to 1 ratio for vocals.

This means that only 1 dB is allowed through for every 5 dB signal that exceeds the threshold. Based on the same ratio, if the signal exceeds 10 dB, it will be reduced to 2 dB.

Attack This refers to how quickly the compressor responds to a signal that jumps over the threshold. This can be anywhere from 0.2 millseconds to 300 ms. You can choose to have the instrument respond immediately or slow down so that the initial transient is visible before the compression clamps down.

Release This is the time that the compression continues after the signal drops below the threshold. It can be set to immediate in milliseconds, or it can stay on for several seconds. You may feel a strange pumping sensation if you set it too fast. You’ll end up with constant fade-outs if you go too slow.

You also have Gain, which controls the volume of your final signal leaving compressor, and Invert which flips the phase of the signal, which can be useful for stereo recording. To maintain proper gain staging, the gain must be added to the volume you have reduced.

What types of hardware compressors are available?

There are five types of compressors:

  • Desktop
  • Rackmount
  • 500 Series
  • Channel Strips
  • Software Plugins

Software plugins are not what we’re going to be discussing. They attempt to mimic hardware compressors. Each hardware type performs their task in a different way. For example, optical compressors convert electrical signals to light and control the intensity of light. Pure electronic ones do the same thing.

Since most of these are electronic, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. As mentioned, the only thing you should be concerned about is the form factor.

We won’t go into detail as we have done it before but the main point is that your compressor should be in the form you prefer. A single channel desktop box, which fits right on your desk, may be the best choice if you only plan to buy one compressor.

If you plan to purchase a lot more studio gear than the standard 19-inch rackmount, then you might want to consider the 19-inch rackmount. You can also screw it into a cabinet with all your equalizers and preamps. The 500 Series can also be screwed into a small rack called a lunchbox.

You can carry your lunchbox or mount it to a rack. If you need to capture and compress stereo signals, rackmount compressors typically have one or two channels. 500 Series compressors, on the other hand, can only feature one channel.

Finally, there are compressors that fit inside channel strips. Channel strips come in rackmount form, but may be taller than rackmounts and will require more rack space.

These include a preamplifier and compressor as well as an equalizer in serial format. This allows you to clean up and mix one signal live before it is sent into the computer or P.A. Live shows can use this system. The Avalon VT–737sp Channel Band

The Avalon VT737sp is an example of a high-quality compressor that also features one of the most powerful mic preamps.

FAQs about the Best Vocal Compressor

There are many common questions and answers about how to use a compressor in the studio or live. Most likely, you might be asking one or more of these questions. Let’s get through these questions quickly.

HOW DO I CONNECT A COMPRESSOR WITH THE REST OF MY EAR?

If your preamplifier is a standalone unit, you will output your signal to the compressor using a TRS cable. The signal will then be sent to an equalizer or converter.

You should check to see if the interface features an insert. This allows you to insert your compressor (using a TRS-cable) between the converters and preamp.

Although not all interfaces include inserts (a inexpensive audio interface will), you can route from the output to a compressor, and back to the next line-in input. This allows you to avoid this situation.

SHOULD I COMPRESS DURING a LIVE RECORDING TASK?

Although I do it most of the time, many people will tell you to not. You can’t reverse the effects of compression once the signal has reached the computer. If you have limited headroom, the reason to do so is to dial in higher gain staging.

To ensure that there is no distortion or surprise clipping, I apply some compression to vocals. Then, I will add more compression later.

WHY IS A COMPRESSOR FOR HARDWARE BETTER THAN A SOFTWARE PLUGIN?

It is? Technology is so advanced that they both do their jobs perfectly. Software plugins are not capable of compressing signals before they have passed the converters. This means that you cannot protect against clipping. They work fine for mixing, but it is less fun than mixing through hardware.

One license for a plugin gives you unlimited access to all of its features. Multiple instances of the same plugin can compress multiple tracks simultaneously. Hardware requires a separate compressor for each channel. This can be costly.

It doesn’t matter who you are, but I recommend at least one hardware compressor to your vocals. This is for the reasons I mentioned about clipping. If you are interested in mastering and summing the mix bus, you can have it later.

CAN I GET BY WITHOUT A COMPRESSOR?

No. Pro’s have tons of compressors… Here’s why you need at least one!

The Top 10 Reasons You Should Buy the Best Vocal Comppressor You Can Afford

  1. You are recording and you want to avoid clipping.
  2. Recording live can be done reel-to-reel or cassette. A single mistake can ruin everything for the entire band.
  3. Live shows require you to be involved. The sound guy should be able to communicate with the audience in a way that is easy for them to understand. Live, you don’t want to peak!
  4. It looks great on stage and in the studio. It will impress people, and marketing is important!
  5. Mixing hardware outside the box is a good idea. It’s hands-on and can lead to better results.
  6. Mix in-the-box, but you want to bounce stem group through one for some glue or saturation.
  7. Recording sources at unpredictable levels can be difficult. You need to manage the volume to make it listenable.
  8. Record tame sources in environments with lots of noise that you want to block out, or background tracks that you need to duck out.
  9. You already have G.A.S. and you want to get another toy! This is a legitimate reason.
  10. This is a non-negotiable. To produce high quality recordings and mixes, you need one. You want the final product to be what people hear.

The point is made. This is like driving a nail into a board with a hammer and nail gun. Good luck!

The Best Vocal Compressors

You now have all the information you need to make the right choice for your studio or band. This will be broken down into budget ranges, so we’ll start with the most affordable. We’ll end up looking at the top-tier, where quality is more important than price.

To view more information and to read user reviews, click on the image or hyperlinked name.

As you go through the list, you will see that all of them are easily accessible. Other lists and conversations often praise old comps that you can reach.

This is mostly about bragging rights and higher entry barriers. These can be picked up immediately, rather than waiting 12 months for one to appear used and praying that it isn’t broken.

Best Vocal Compressor under $200

The majority of people searching for a compressor in this price range care about vocals. However, the following works for all other functions, without any questions.

FMR REALLY NICE CORESSOR

The FMR NNC is by far the most affordable entry-level compressor. It also compares well with other compressors in the $500 price range. FMR reduced costs wherever they could by using plastic for the chassis and placing electronics in 1/3rd rack size.

This should not be taken as a deceit. The “Really Nice Compressor”, like their preamp, is more than just really nice. Funklogic faceplates are also available if you wish to mount them in your rack with an RNC, RNP, or RNLA.

The single-channel compressor has all the features you would expect from a professional compressor. However, it also includes a second path of electronics called Super Nice. The Super Nice mode sends your signal to three compressors at lower levels. If you send a crazy dynamic signal, this ensures that no strange transients are allowed to pass through.

This is why I put it first on the list. It is a transparent compressor which means it does not add any flavor or color. It faithfully reproduces your signal.

There are tons of compressors available, but my RNC is still my favorite for tracking. I also love it for mixing heavy compression. The RNLA is a similar product.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON As faithful and true as those who pay twice the price…

DBX 166XS

The DBX 166xs , a lower-cost, two-channel version of their 16 series, is the . You can either record stereo signals simultaneously or two mono signals simultaneously. The expander and gate are also included in this one.

An expander works in the same way as a compressor, but it is inversely. If you prefer to boost your signal below the threshold, an expander will do that instead of over-compressing louder parts. If you want to get a truly smashed signal, rather than crushing the louder portions, you can mix both.

This compressor is one you will be glad you bought, even if you decide to upgrade to a higher-end model. These compressors are great for keeping around when you need to record drums live. It can be difficult to find compressors that are affordable and not needed for drum tracks or other instruments.

Another thing that is cool is the ability to use a separate limiter in addition to the compression. This allows you to track dynamic sources in real time without needing to compress too much. You won’t clip any audio that is too loud or difficult to hear.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

Mono or Stereo Compression Plus Limiter…

FMR REALLY NICE LEVELING AMPLIFIER

The FMR RNLA (FMR RNLA ) is their leveling amp version. The FMR RNLA uses a different compression algorithm and doesn’t respond as fast to transients (note the attack/release values around the dial), but it works great on vocals and bass.

It wouldn’t be a good idea to use it on drums, as I have many other options. However, you could certainly use it for the initial transients. This is a lot more transparent than the RNC.

The RNLA’s compression adds a warm coloration to the signal. This refers to its ability to glue tracks together. This would make it feel that the stems are more connected if you applied it to a group of them. If you’ve never heard it, it’s difficult to explain. Mixers often seek this effect.

This compressor will give your vocals the warmth and R&B sound you remember from records of the 70’s. This is a great addition to the digital age’s crystalline brightness.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON The RNC’s Warmer, Smoother Version…

Best Studio Compressor Under $500

You can still choose the RNC and RNLA in this price range and be satisfied, but here are a few other options that have been widely praised. If you are concerned about looking more professional, they’re also visually better.

DBX 160A

DBX have been around forever and they are constantly updating their models with new letters at the ends. It is difficult to keep up. The DBX 160A was designed to match the classic 160X/XT models of the 70’s.

You will find additional features on higher-end compressors that you won’t find on cheaper models. You can change the knee’s curve from OverEasy or Hard Knee. The compression ratio is the speed at which the knee reacts to attack, not the speed of the compression.

The slower it takes to transition from compression to the knee the softer it is. It does not wait as the attack setting says. The process starts instantly, but it is more smooth if you choose to use a soft knee (more transparent).

Insert options are available if you wish to sidechain an EQ in order to de-esser it. You can also choose “INFINITY+”, which helps you ride the gain and prevents you from reaching peaking (versus simply limiting). This is useful for live mixes at concerts. This faceplate is minimalistic, which allows for more LED’s to show your gain reduction.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

The Classic with a lot of options…

ART PRO VLA II

The ART Pro VLA II compression option is very popular. You get two separate mono channels, which is like having two compressors in one! You can also link the channels by pressing a single button to achieve stereo compression.

You can see the VU meters at the top and the expected loss reduction lights at the bottom. If you want to impress your clients, it is impressive to see them flickering back and forth.

This optical compressor has a hard-coded soft leg. The compression is transparent and real, but it adds a nice color to the signal. This coloration is more apparent the harder you drive the signal. This is something mixers will look for. These flavors are subtle and not something you should worry about if in doubt.

Transparent compressors, both solid state and transformerless, are common. This compressor, along with others that have vacuum tubes, will add subtle saturation of harmonic distortion to what we call “color”.

One of these comps, the VLA II in particular, is great for general compressor use. It can also be used to record vocals, bass and drums. Because of the value it offers, this comp is a great buy.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON Beautiful optical compression with subtle saturation…

DAKING COMP 500

The Daking Comp 500, the first 500 Series option, is a transparent, fast and accurate compressor that can happily be kept in your lunchbox alongside your smaller toys. Rackmount options are also available from Daking, but they tend to be more expensive than the Comp 500 which allows you to get in on their game for a much lower price.

The simplicity of the compressor is what I love. This compressor doesn’t make it difficult to analyze your sound. Many of the options can be referred to as “this or that”, rather than dials. You can choose between Fast and Slow, for example, when you select your attack or release.

That’s it. With a push of a button you can toggle to Limiter mode and inspect both your gain reduction as well as your output levels.

You can adjust your compression ratio or your make-up gain at output. But even then, the labels are only Less and More. Daking is not insulting you intelligence by assuming that you know about compressors. But, more importantly, this prevents you from mixing with your eyes instead.

You can’t just use 5:1 when the labels are abstract. Your mix will benefit greatly if you actually listen.

CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

AVALON VT 737SP

The Avalon VT737sp I believe is one of those pieces every studio should own at least one. It can be used with any source and it works well. It is a channel strip with a preamplifier and compressor as well as an equalizer.

We ranked the preamp at number one on our list of best pre-amps, and are now featuring it here. Two solid pieces of gear can be combined with their excellent EQ.

Although there are many versions, including a Babyface and black versions, they all work the same. Your signal will first pass through the preamp electronics, which have four vacuum tubes and two more in the compressor.

We mean warm when we use the word. This is a great source of music, but this guy shines in the vocals and bass.

It can be linked with another to create stereo. Cooler is the fact that the EQ can be used with the compressor to de-esser the sound with the sidechain switch, or you can leave it in 4-band mode. This is a great choice for vocalists who are looking for a compressor but don’t yet have a high-quality preamp.

It will be hard to believe the difference when it is paired with any microphone, and especially a high-quality mic. It’s not as expensive as you would expect for such an amazing piece of engineering and art.

This should be a top choice for R&B, Pop, and Rap singers. It’s the ultimate channel strip and vocal compressor.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

You Heard It On Your Favorite Records…

This is the Best Vocal Compressor…

We have outlined the basic functions of compressors as well as how to use them to get the sound you want. This is where you will see that a compressor is not an option. It really comes down to buying the best compressor for your budget.

We presented you with the top options within a range of budgets, and then we showed you the best, regardless of price.

You now have all the information you need in order to make a decision. Don’t think too much! You can be confident that you will be getting the best vocal compressors by choosing one of these models.

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