Last Updated on August 18, 2022.
Compressors come in a lot of different varieties and flavors, and some of them may be more suited for processing instruments, such as drums, while others are better suited for vocals, and this is what I’ll be focusing on today.
In this article, I will provide you with a list of the Best Compressor VST Plugins for vocals currently available starting with the one I consider to be the absolute best, and then I will also provide you with a short list of the best Free Compressor plugins for vocals as well.
Fabfilter Pro C-2
Most Powerful compressor on this list but with a steeper learning curve than most.
In-depth tweaking and a very powerful compressor overall for only $44!
Waves CLA 2-A
Easiest Compressor to use since it only features a handful of knobs!
So, without any further ado, let’s get started!
How to Choose a Compressor VST Plugin for Vocals
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of compressors out there, which clearly means that there is no one size fits all solution. So, how do you choose which one to get?
I think that there are three main things you need to look out for:
Functionality: Of course, processing just the vocal track doesn’t require the compressor to have a lot of features, but getting one with sidechain capabilities to duck other frequencies when the vocal needs to be present is actually really useful.
Cost: Generally speaking, the more features and functionality a compressor has, the more expensive it will be, but don’t just buy the most expensive one because it’s “better”, but rather consider if you really need it.
Ease of Use: This point is especially true if you’re an absolute beginner, but using a compressor for the first time that comes with a lot of built-in features and functionality can really make you waste a lot of time and not really provide the results you need.
Best Compressor VST Plugins for Vocals
I’m going to be kicking things off with the plugin that I like the best and then move on from there. It’s worth noting that I will try and put them in order: So, the best plugin first, the second-best plugin next, and so on.
Most Powerful Compressor Currently available!
The FabFilter Pro C2 is by far the best Compressor VST Plugin currently available, be it for vocals, drums, bus compression, and more, it’s truly the most sophisticated compressor you can get.
Featuring multiple different presets each meant for a specific purpose, such as mastering, vocals, bus compression, punch, and more, the C2 easily lets you affect the sound quickly and in great detail.
In addition to this, it comes with all the typical compression controls such as Threshold, Ratio, Attack, and Release, while also featuring Makeup Gain (which can be set to Auto or you can adjust it manually).
Two very distinctive features of the C2 are its Look Ahead control, which allows for the compressor to engage slightly earlier making the attacks softer, and the Hold control, which will delay the release stage fractionally (this feature is actually quite common in Gates, but not so much in compressors).
Last but not least, the Fabfilter Pro-C2 also features Side-chain compatibility with built-in stereo link capabilities where you can link or unlink the stereo and mid images to process them separately or together, keeping unwanted frequencies in the section from poking their head out and making it feel more glued together.
User Interface: The interface on the C2 looks absolutely stunning and modern and you can choose between a compact interface that looks more like a traditional compressor, or even a full-screen mode with a spectrum analyzer, gain reduction curve, and much more.
Character: The C2 doesn’t really add a lot of its own personality to the mix, or in other words, it doesn’t color the sound as other compressors do but rather allows you to go from a very gentle compression when using the Mastering Preset, to a more drastic compression when using the Punchy preset, for example, and all of this without coloring the sound at all.
One thing I’d like to mention also is the Makeup- or Auto Gain function which works better than in most other compressor plugins since it also takes into account attack and release times which also affect the level of the signal, and if you set it to “Auto” you will never have the need to adjust it.
- Oversampling (2x and 4x).
- Look Ahead control.
- Hold Control.
- Multiple Interface options (more limited, full screen, etc.).
- Side-chain compression with built-in stereo link capabilities.
- MIDI Learn.
- A/B Switching.
Uses: Not only is the Fabfilter Pro-C2 an excellent compression plugin for getting a more upfront lead vocal, but it’s essentially the most versatile compressor out there since not only can it be used to add “sonic glue” to your mixes, make the drums punchier, etc., but it’s also a great mastering Plugin since it certainly works well on the master bus as well, especially when using the “Mastering” preset, and it’s sidechain capabilities are extremely powerful.
Lastly, this compressor also includes interactive MIDI Learn, undo/redo and A/B switch, and more.
Most Cost-efficient Compressor (Harder Learning Curve)!
Contrary to most compressor plugins in existence, the TDR Kotelnikov GE doesn’t try to emulate any existing hardware compressors and rather focuses more on fidelity.
The Kotelnikov is a program-dependent compressor, meaning that it can vary its response depending on the frequency content or amplitude of the signal allowing you to tweak these dependencies and add new features at the same time.
It offers the typical compressor controls such as Threshold, Ratio, Attack, and Release, with individual controls for Release Peak and Release RMS, as well as a Knee control, but it also lets you adjust the Gain Reduction Limit which essentially allows you to manually restrict the maximum gain reduction so as to not go overboard with the effect.
The GR Limit really comes in handy when you found the perfect settings for most of the track but in very specific sections the compressor just clamps down on the signal too hard. Setting the GR Limit to that “ideal” threshold means that the compressor won’t “over compress” those sections anymore, resulting in an overall better sound that requires less tweaking.
It also features a “Peak Crest” control which can go from “peak” all the way to “RMS” detection, and this knob essentially allows you to control how the compressor reacts to peaks, either by quickly reacting to them and compressing them (turned all the way to the left), or by averaging the input signal allowing for a smoother reaction (turned to the right), and you can use the Peak Crest knob to blend the two.
Another feature is the “Low Freq Relax” that allows you to configure a high-pass filter for the side chain, which makes the compressor react less to those lower frequencies such as kick and bass.
In other words, when using the “Low Freq Relax” feature, you are effectively lowering the threshold on the lower frequencies.
The Ying and Yang controls, which can be found on the bottom of the plugin, add harmonics to the lower and higher frequencies respectively, and there’s also the “inertia” button which allows the compression to slow down during low gain reduction and to speed up during high gain reduction (Option+Clicking Inertia does the opposite).
Another feature found at the bottom of the Plugin is FDR, which stands for Frequency Dependent Ratio. This ratio lets you adjust how much the compressor will affect specific frequency ranges and you can adjust the shape, frequency, and more.
User Interface: The user interface isn’t as friendly as the one on Fabfilter’s C2 and it also isn’t as “visual”, but it’s still a simple-enough plugin to navigate and get the hang of.
Character: Kotelnikov focuses mainly on audio fidelity and not so much on adding color or character, which is why it’s considered by many to be one of the best mastering compressor plugins, but this is also something that makes it stand out as one of the best vocal compression plugins.
- Low Frequency Relax (High Pass Filter on the Sidechain).
- Frequency Dependent Ratio.
- Peak and RMS detection.
- Stereo Compression (Mid and Side separately).
- GR Limit (Limit the gain reduction).
Uses: Kotelnikov is mainly designed for Bus Mixing or Mastering, but it can definitely be used to process individual tracks as well, and with its incredibly in-depth features you should be able to compress vocals, drums, any instrument, full mixes, etc. with ease and achieve great results.
Lastly, Kotelnikov allows the processing of the stereo channels and it gives you the option to only process the Sum or Difference channels, otherwise known as the Middle or Side, and you can even use two instances of this plugin to compress the Mid and Side independently.
What’s funny is that I haven’t even mentioned ALL of the features Kotelnikov has to offer because it’s that many, but considering the price, how well it performs and all it can do, it has to be the most cost-efficient compressor out there!
Get TDR Kotelnikov GE Here: Pluginboutique.
Best Overall Bundle that includes a multiband Compressor!
Price: $199 (Whole Bundle)
The Dynamics module of the Ozone Plugin Bundle is a Multiband Compressor that allows you to enable up to four bands that you can manually adjust to process specific frequency ranges, and what’s even more interesting is that it features the “Learn” mode which automatically sets the crossover frequencies (basically, sets every band where it should be) depending on the track’s characteristics.
Note: A Multiband compressor essentially works by separating the audio into different “bands”, say from 0Hz to 200Hz or from 200Hz to 2000Hz, allowing you to process only the audio signal within those bands. This lets you, for example, compress the high end of an acoustic guitar without affecting the other frequencies.
Of course, it can be used as a regular compressor by just not splitting up the frequency spectrum into different bands.
In addition to this, Ozone Dynamics offers sidechain capabilities that can be used to, for example, duck the bass when the kick drum hits since both of them occupy the same area in the frequency spectrum and often mask themselves, plus it’s also a limiter, and both the limiter and compressor sections have their own Ratio, Attack, Release, and Knee controls.
The reason Ozone Dynamics is so great for vocal compression is that it lets you compress specific frequencies in one way while applying different amounts of compression to other areas and it also lets you move competing frequencies of other instruments out of the way to make room for the vocals.
User Interface: The interface of Dynamics is extremely clean and you have access to all of the controls right there (no need to go menu diving). You can see the audio signal that is being played and you can select where to place each of the “bands”, plus it’s really easy to adjust the knee and you can exactly see the shape of it and how it affects compression. Lastly, it’s really easy to see how much the audio is being reduced in the interactive threshold control (it’s a very visual plugin which means that you don’t only need to rely on your ears).
Character: Dynamics, at least after using it for some time, doesn’t really add any color to the tracks and seems to focus more on audio fidelity than anything else (sort of like Kotelnikov).
- “Learn” function for placing the crossover frequencies (bands).
- Mid/Side Processing mode.
- Detection Filter with high-pass and tilt modes.
- Advanced detection circuit modes feature Peak, RMS, and True Envelope detection as well as variable Look-ahead time.
- Adaptive Release mode (Automate Release Times).
Uses: Ozone Dynamics is excellent for controlling the dynamics of specific frequency ranges without actually EQing them (only reduce them when they go over the set threshold), and its sidechain capabilities let you “duck” certain competing frequencies when needed.
The Ozone Dynamics (part of the Ozone Bundle) is one of the best compressor plugins out there for mixing vocals, or any other track for that matter, and even mastering, plus you get a lot more plugins included in this bundle such as an EQ (mentioned later), an Imager, Maximizer, and more.
Simplest Vocal compression Plugin Available!
The Waves CLA-2A is an optical compressor and is considered to be an industry standard when it comes to compression and it’s used by none other than Chris Lord-Alge (Basically the guy mixing most major hits today).
What immediately stands out about the CLA-2A is its simplicity since it only features a handful of knobs and switches, starting off with the Compressor/Limiter switch which simply switches the ratio (about 3:1 when set to compressor and 100:1 when set to limiter mode).
Then you have the Gain knob which isn’t really an “input” level control but rather makeup Gain control, so basically increases the level after compression has taken place, and then you have the Peak Reduction knob which is basically the Threshold.
The metering can be switched from input, output, and VU Display (how much gain is being reduced), and then it also features the “HiFreq” knob which, essentially, works as a Low-Pass filter, making the compressor clamp down only on the higher frequencies, similar to how a De-Esser would work.
Lastly, on the bottom it includes three switches: 50Hz, 60Hz, and Off, and these essentially introduce a bit of analog sound (I always keep it Off), and it also comes with a Mix knob and a Trim Knob.
User Interface: The CLA-2A is by far the simplest compressor on this list since it doesn’t come with a lot of features, making it super easy to learn and use. However, compared to something like the Fabfilter Pro-C2 which is a really visual plugin that lets you not just hear what is going on but also see what specific frequencies are being processed, etc., some might find the CLA-2A to be a bit more “basic”, but the results speak for themselves and every professional music producer uses it.
Character: Since it’s based on anelectro-optical tube compressor, the CLA-2A emulates the original one’s smooth, frequency-dependent behaviors, and this obviously introduces some warmth and character to the sound which makes it an ideal vocal compressor.
- Sidechain frequency filter.
- Modeled after an electro-optical tube compressor.
- Simplest compressor plugin that yields extremely good results.
- Warm analog sound.
Uses: The CLA-2A works really well on guitars and bass, but its main use is for vocals, which is why I included it in this list. Since it’s got a very slow attack, I don’t really think that it can be used to tracks such as drums where you need compression to kick in really quickly, but this is also why it’s such an outstanding vocal compressor.
Out of all the compressor plugins for vocals on this list, I think that the CLA-2A is probably the best one for most people since it’s easy to use and because you can set it up and get a great-sounding vocal in less than a minute, whereas other plugins, such as the first ones on this list, despite being better are harder to learn and use and will consume more of your time.
Best SSL Channel Strip Plugin out there!
The Waves SSL E-Channel is based on the Solid State Logic 4000-series console’s all-discrete design and its Class A, VCA chip, and these SSL consoles are the ones that have been used throughout the years to create numerous amounts of hits.
The SSL E-Channel is divided up into distinct sections: Filters (these come first in the chain) which can be adjusted to cut off some frequencies depending on the track’s needs, then Compression, and then EQ.
The EQ can be moved in from of the compressor depending on how you want to process the sound by pressing the “Channel Out” button.
The compression section only features four controls: Ratio, Threshold, Release, and the F. Attack Switch, which essentially lets you choose between a slow attack and a slightly faster one (none of them are really that fast).
There are many more controllable parameters on this plugin, like the EQ and the Filters, as well as LMF and HMF peak bands, and more, as I mentioned in the beginning, but I won’t go into detail since we’re mainly focusing on the compressor section. Just know that it’s not just a compressor plugin that works really well for vocals, but it’s actually a lot more.
User Interface: The Waves SSL E-Channel is a very simple and straightforward plugin to use and this is mainly because of the interface which essentially looks just like, well, the channel strip of the SLL-4000 console. It only features a handful of knobs and switches and that’s it, and you should be able to use all of its included features in no time.
Character: This plugin does add a bit of character and grit to the signal, which is also why you may want to use it as a second compressor on the vocals (use a transparent one first to tame the vocals and then use the E-channel to add something like -3 to -4dB reduction to further compress the sound and add some color).
- Extremely easy to use.
- Zero Latency.
- Not just a compressor (Includes filters, EQ section, and more).
- Great for vocals, acoustic or electric guitar, basses, and even drums.
Uses: The SSL E-Channel is one of the most versatile plugins out there, especially considering how easy it is to use, which means that you can probably get away with using it on any track (I would highly suggest trying it out as a second compressor when processing vocals). Just remember that it may add some color or grit to the sound.
Plugin Bundle: 5 for the Price of 1!
Price: $199 (Whole Bundle)
Ozone’s Dynamic EQ is both an EQ and a Compressor in a single plugin, and the way it works is by allowing you to EQ specific frequency ranges but only when they exceed a certain threshold, so you are able to correct the area that is causing the issue at the specific moment you want to.
Note: It comes in the same plugin bundle as the Ozone Dynamics Multiband Compressor listed previously.
You can also sidechain in another track so that you’re only applying the EQ when another signal is present (great for moving another instrument out of the way when the vocals need to be more present).
Essentially, with Dynamic EQ you can get finer control over your sound with the precision of an equalizer but it also works like a compressor, and instead of compressing the entire signal, it only does so at the set frequency ranges, sort of like a De-esser but with way more granular control, which is why it’s such a good vocal plugin.
User Interface: All of the iZotope Plugins look and feel fantastic and the workflow is extremely intuitive, and that’s also the way Dynamic EQ feels. You can see the frequencies that are being played in real time and if you also sidechain in another track it will show both (one in a different color) allowing you to see more easily where they are competing, letting you create a ducking effect so that the vocals, for example, always cut through the mix.
Character: Dynamic EQ can emulate classic analog EQs or modern digital models depending on your style, which means that it can add character if you want, or not.
- Mid/Side mode to correct frequencies in the sides of your audio.
- Emulate classic analog EQs or modern digital models.
- Frequency-specific compression (like a De-Esser but with more advanced functionality).
- Adjust Attack/Release times automatically across the frequency spectrum with Auto-Scale mode.
Uses: Since Dynamic EQ is a bit of a mix between an EQ and a compressor plugin, it can work extremely well on basically any track, especially vocals, since it can be used to sidechain in the vocal track when processing the guitar, high-hats, etc., which often sit in the same frequency range, so make room for the vocals when the singer is actually singing.
Recommending a vocal compressor plugin is actually a lot simpler than recommending one in general since it just needs to do one thing well, but since being able to properly hear the vocals also entails moving competing frequencies out of the way, I decided to include compressors on this list that also have sidechain compatibility and allow for ducking of other frequencies when the vocals need to be more present.
This is why my Top recommendation is the Fabfilter Pro C-2 since it does everything and really well.
However, if you’re someone who is just getting started with mixing vocals and want a plugin that is easy to use and simply works, then get the Waves CLA-2A since it only features a handful of controls, plus all the pros use it, which clearly means something.
Consider your DAW’s Compressor plugin
All major DAWs come with their own plugin set and you should always be able to find at least one compressor on there.
Generally speaking, these compressors are rather simple, meaning that they don’t offer sidechain capabilities, filters, etc., but they do allow you to really adjust the compression parameters in-depth, such as the Ratio, Knee, Attack, Release, etc.
So, don’t shy away from giving your DAW’s compressor a try, or any other included plugin for that matter.
Compressors are some of the most sought-after vocal plugins for creating professional quality music. Of course, there are many different compressor plugins out there and they all work completely different or at least come with a whole different feature set, but if you’re interested in music production, mixing and mastering vocals properly, then you need to get at least one high-quality compressor.
Of course, the one that comes included with your DAW will generally be enough to get you started, but I’d recommend getting one or two that sound different or that offer some added functionality.