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Pro Audio: The Best Compressor Plugins

In this Pro Audio Series article, I’ll introduce you to a few popular hardware compressors along with my favorite plugin emulations. Almost every plugin in this post is available as a demo, so don’t just take my word for it. I’d recommend that you download them all and compare them to see if one stands out for you. Whether you’re an experienced engineer or just getting started, this is all about personal taste. There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s dive right in.

UREI / Universal Audio 1176

First introduced in 1967 by UREI, the hardware 1176 Peak Limiter was the first peak limiter with all solid-state circuitry. There have been approximately 10 revisions of the 1176 over the years, with the 1176LN being considered a major step forward thanks to the addition of low-noise circuitry. As one of the most iconic compressors ever created, you can find the 1176 in just about any major commercial studio in the world. They are great on a variety of sources thanks to their flexible attack and release times. I personally love to use the 1176 on bass and vocals. I find it particularly effective when a vocal performance is lacking energy. Now that you know a little about the 1176, here are some of the best plugin emulations available.

UAD 1176

UAD 1176 Limiter Collection

The UAD 1176 Classic Limiter Collection is arguably the standard by which all other 1176 plugins are measured. It’s also the most expensive and requires UAD DSP hardware. UAD’s offering provides you with three emulations of the most popular releases of the 1176 including Rev A, Rev E, and AE (Anniversary Edition). If you already own UAD hardware, you should be able to demo the collection with a free trial.

Waves CLA-76

Waves CLA-76

Although the CLA-76 by Waves is the oldest 1176 plugin on this list, it is still quite useable. I don’t think it captures all the nuance and depth of the original hardware, but it can still bring a sense of urgency to your sound and that is a hallmark of the 1176.

Black Rooster VLA-FET

Black Rooster VLA-FET

As one of Black Rooster’s newer releases, the VLA-FET is a formidable recreation of the 1176 Rev F, giving it a different character compared to the UAD collection. Modestly priced at $99, the Black Rooster crew has once again delivered a great plugin and a great value. Demo it and see how you like it on vocals or bass.

Slate Digital FG-116

Slate FG-116

Full disclosure, I have only used the Slate FG-116 a handful of times. I included it on this list because it is part of the “All-Access” membership from Slate, which gives you a ton of plugins for just $14.99 per month. I would probably reach for this before I went for the Waves CLA-76, but I also think the other plugins do a better job recreating the iconic 1176 sound.

Overloud Comp76

Overloud Comp76

The Comp76 plugin by Overloud offers three versions of their 1176 recreation: Rev A, Rev D, and Rev F. By emulating these three units, each with their own distinct tones, you can create an “original” warm sound (Rev A), the classic “low-noise” model (Rev D), or a tight, modern sound (Rev F). I generally find Overloud plugins to be excellent and often rival the best in the industry, though some can be demanding on your CPU.

API 2500

The API 2500 Stereo Compressor is a versatile compressor that can be configured as a single stereo compressor or two mono compressors with the same compression setting. Like the 1176, the API 2500 provides selectable ratio, attack, and release times. Additionally, it includes API Thrust, which is a switchable high-pass filter before the detector circuit. This can be useful if you’re using the 2500 as a mix-bus compressor and don’t want low-end signal (like a kick drum) to trigger compression. Another useful feature is the auto-makeup gain which helps the user automatically maintain a consistent output level regardless of how much compression is being applied to the input signal. Here are three popular API 2500 plugin options.

Waves API 2500

Waves API 2500

Unlike the 1176 plugins, I find that the Waves API 2500 is pretty close to the UAD API 2500 plugin in some applications. Depending on the source material, you might find that the Waves API 2500 is not quite as warm and thick as the other plugins in this category, but it will really depend on the scenario. In other instances, you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference if you were blindfolded. It’s currently $69 as of this article, so it’s the most affordable option for an API 2500-style compressor.

UAD API 2500

UAD API 2500

You’ve no doubt noticed by now that UAD is a leading contender for emulating almost every classic hardware audio processor that exists. The UAD API 2500 is no exception. The Waves API 2500 is very good, but the UAD solution seems to be a bit better at adding warmth and depth to almost any source. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the $299 price tag and if it’s $230 better than the Waves recreation.

Acustica Audio Pink3

Acustica Audio Pink3

Ah, Acustica Audio is back at it again with Pink3. As expected, the user interface is gorgeous, and Acustica Audio has actually gone beyond the other API plugins in this section and modeled API compressors, EQs, and preamps in one offering. At $199, it’s not inexpensive, but Pink3 is very powerful and offers the warm tone and detail you’d expect from an API piece of gear.

Teletronix LA-2A & LA-3A

The LA-2A and LA-3A are another family of levelers often found in commercial studios around the world. While both are optical compressors/limiters, there are two significant differences between them. First, the LA-2A is tube-based while the LA-3A is all solid-state. As a result, each offers a distinct sound that may be uniquely desirable (or not) on a given audio source. Second, the LA-2A has slower attack and release times compared to the LA-3A. You’ll often find the LA-2A suitable for vocals, bass, and a variety of other instruments that don’t generate big transients, while the LA-3A may work best on transient-heavy electric guitars, piano, and drums. Here are my favorite plugins for the acclaimed LA-2A and LA-3A Levelers.

UAD LA-2A & LA-3A

UAD LA-2A and UAD LA-3A

The UAD LA-2A Leveler Collection comes with three models: LA-2A Silver, LA-2A Gray, and the LA-2. Each version has its own set of unique tonal characteristics and behaviors. It’s arguably the most complete LA-2A plugin(s) available on the market.

By contrast, the UAD LA-3A is one of the few plugins I don’t love. I think there are two other plugin developers on this list that offer a more authentic recreation of this studio staple. The UAD version of the LA-3A feels a little long in the tooth and doesn’t offer the signature depth for which UAD is renowned in some of their newer plugins.

Black Rooster VLA-2A & VLA-3A

Black Rooster VLA-2A and VLA-3A

Black Rooster has taken its unique component-based circuit emulation and applied it to the development of its VLA-2A and VLA-3A. These are both excellent recreations of the classic hardware leveling amplifiers. While I personally reach for the UAD LA-2A on most mixes, I generally reach for the VLA-3A when I am in need of an LA-3A recreation. If you don’t already own UAD DSP, I would highly recommend both the Black Rooster VLA-2A and 3A. They are a great addition to any plugin arsenal. You can own both for less than the UAD LA-2A Leveler Collection.

Overloud Comp LA

Overloud offers its take on the LA-2A and LA-3A with COMP LA. Not only do their emulations sound great, but they have some modern features not found on the original hardware, including harmonic control and mid-side processing. Having control over the amount of generated harmonics is a particularly useful feature when compared to the other LA-2A and 3A plugins. At $109, I think it’s one of the best deals out there.

Waves CLA-2A & CLA-3A

Waves CLA-2A and CLA-3A

Much like the CLA-76, the CLA-2A and CLA-3A are older plugins. And much like their CLA-76 sibling, they are still quite useable. I don’t find them to be as convincing when put up against the other emulations I’ve previously mentioned, but that doesn’t mean they sound bad, just different.

Neve 33609

The Neve 33609 is a versatile two-channel compressor that’s ideal for a wide variety of applications including mix busses, mastering, and individual instruments like drums, vocals, or piano. With a compression ratio as low as 1.5:1, you can achieve a remarkably transparent sound, or adjust the ratio to 6:1 for more attitude and bite. There aren’t too many plugin emulations out there, so the choices are limited — here are three for you to check out.

UAD Neve 33609

UAD Neve 33609

The UAD Neve 33609 Compressor is hands down the best 33609 plugin out there. In my opinion, nobody else even comes close. At $249, you’re paying for what you get here. Try it on your mix bus, piano, strings, or synths. If I had a desert island plugin list, this would be on it.

IK Multimedia Precision Compressor

IK Multimedia Precision Compressor

The user interface of the IK Multimedia Precision Compressor is clearly inspired by the Neve 33609. I have found that the IK emulation doesn’t quite live up to the real thing or the UAD version. However, it’s roughly half the price of the UAD 33609 and I think that’s probably a fair ask.

McDSP 6030 Compressor

McDSP 6030

The McDSP 6030 is the most unique feature-rich plugin in this entire article. While we’ve mostly covered individual compressors and their associated plugin emulations, the McDSP 6030 offers a whopping TEN compressors in one plugin and at an extremely reasonable price of $129. Included is a recreation of the Neve 33609. I would say it’s more of a Neve-style than a true emulation, but Neve 33609s are hard to come by in the digital realm. Try the demo and you’ll be able to check out their take on the 1176, LA-2A, and more.

Demo Time!

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about some compressor plugins and the hardware that they are based on, it’s time to start playing with the demos these developers offer. Listen carefully when you experiment — how does each plugin react when you push the input? What if you crank the gain reduction knob? What is the harmonic content like? How do similar attack and release settings sound across different plugins based on the same hardware family? For example, slap some different LA-3As across rock piano and listen to the transients. Does one speak to you more than the rest? The more you play with the demos, the more you’ll begin to zero in on what you like. As always, I hope you have fun with it!

Josh Sularski
the authorJosh Sularski
Josh Sularski is a lifelong musician and audio engineer with over 20 years of experience. He is currently a producer and mix engineer based out of the Indie Room at Covert Station in Brooklyn, NY.
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4 Comments

    • I’ve used the BF76. It’s older, but still very useable. It can definitely be useful in a mix — I think some of the plugins that were developed with newer modeling technologies are perhaps more true to life by comparison though. But, the BF76 doesn’t sound bad by any means.

  • My new favorite is not on this list. It is the SPL IRON comp available from Plugin Alliance. Pure magic on bass, kick drum and vocals.

    • Hey Alan, Iron is indeed a great plugin! It’s only not on this particular list because I focused on emulations of some of the more ubiquitous classic, conventional compressors. Speaking of Plugin Alliance, they are having some crazy sales right now via their voucher program if you’re not on their mailing list.