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The 7 Best Vocal Compressor Plugins & Tips (With 3 Free Picks)

We all love a nice crisp and upfront vocal tone. Unlike other instruments, mixing vocals and regulating their dynamics can be a real challenge since they occupy the most significant part of a song more often than not. It's important to use the right compressor plugin for your vocal tracks to get the best out of it, which is why in this article we stress-tested the best vocal plugins over a number of weeks to help you get better results when compressing a human voice and hopefully find the best vocal compressor plugin for your tracks.

What Compressor Is Best for Vocals?

There is not a single best vocal compressor, the best choice is the one that solves the problem. Typically, the best thing to do is to use multiple compressors to address different problems and get the desired compression without destroying the vocal performance.

Here is a list of the best compressor types for vocals and when to use them:

  • VCA – Good for an extremely dynamic vocal track due to its fast attack and release settings, although it's not a good choice to average out the levels, but rather to control and tame intense peaks.
  • FET – Good to make your vocals sound punchy and warm. This type of compressor is universally used for tonal and dynamic shaping. The UAD 1176 is the best and most famous example.
  • Optical – Great to average out vocal dynamics. Since an optical compressor is usually a lot smoother for being program-dependent, they're a really good choice to combine with other compressors and pretty much round up overall dynamics in a more natural way.
  • Variable Mu (Tube) – Good to equal the dynamics rather than controlling transients. These type of compressor tend to add tube-like harmonic distortion which can be very helpful with thin vocal recordings.
  • Limiting – great as a transparent compressor for extremely quick compression and transient suppression. Also increases loudness of the vocals.
  • Upward compression – Great to bring forward details of the vocal performance. Upward compression algorithms are also really good to enhance harmonics helping to achieve a nicer, fuller tone for your vocal.

What Are The Best Vocal Compression Plugins?

Here's the complete list of the best vocal compression plugins & compression tips:

  1. Waves PuigChild
  2. Waves CLA76/Waves CLA 2A – CLA Compressor Pack
  3. Tube Tech CL 1B Bundle
  4. Softube FET Compressor
  5. UAD Distressor
  6. SSL EV2
  7. FabFilter Pro C2
  8. Using Limiting as a Compressor
  9. Gain Clip Automation
  10. Multi-band compression

1. Waves PuigChild

Compatibility: Win10+, macOS 10.15.7+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit
Price: $349 (usually on sale for $35.99)

waves puig child analog compressor

Pros

✅ Warms up your vocals with subtle harmonic distortion

✅ It has a transparent compression curve that preserves dynamics and enhances the vocal performance

✅ The right compressor plugin to use at the end of the chain to bring a vocal signal forward

✅ Besides mixing vocals, this is a great compressor plugin to use for bus compression

Cons

❌ It might not be the best choice for excessively dynamic vocal performances

Waves' Puigchild is an emulation of the Fairchild 660, a valvular compressor often referred to as the holy grail of hardware compressors. It was the first intelligent automatic control limiter and was built by Rein Narma as a request from Les Paul in 1959.

This Vari-Mu compressor plugin is amazing to use at the very end of the vocal chain to warm up the tone, add presence, and improve the overall quality of the recording. This is great to use on a lead vocal to place it closer to the listener in a very natural way.

Notice how the lead vocals cut through the mix a lot better, sounds bigger, and feels more balanced after the Puigchild.

Bypassed

Engaged

2. Waves CLA-76/Waves CLA 2A

Compatibility: Win10+, macOS 10.15.7+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit
Price: $249 (CLA-2A is usually on sale for $39.99 and the CLA-76 for $29.99)

1176 and LA2A vocal compressor emulation

Pros

✅ Control and even up dynamics preserving a natural sound quality

✅ Sounds incredible every time with any vocal

✅ Makes the vocals pop without damaging the dynamic range

✅ CLA 2A can add some high-frequency harmonics and increases clarity

Cons

❌ This model of the LA2A can be too harsh at times

If there'd be a formula for perfect vocal compression, it'd be the legendary 1176/LA2A combo. The combination of these two legendary compressors is perfect for vocal recordings with large differences in volume.

The result is a very smooth compression that makes sound more even. This is a neat trick to use when you mix vocals, particularly with lead vocals because it helps them cut through the mix and stay consistent.

To do this trick, you should first set up the 1176 so that only the loudest parts of the performance are compressed. Set up a medium/ fast attack and release times and tweak the input knob to adjust the gain reduction.

Then, you add the CLA 2A and set the peak reduction knob to only take away a couple of dBs. The 1176 will control the loudest parts and the LA2A will even things up.

Before

After

3. Tube tech CL-1b Bundle

Compatibility: Win10+, macOS 10.13+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit
Price: $149

tube tech CL1B vocal compression

Pros

✅ It's particularly transparent, which makes it perfect for overly dynamic performances

✅ It has modern features such as the headroom meter, sidechain, high-pass, and phase inversion besides the original tube tech cl 1b knob controls

✅ Suitable for parallel compression

✅ It's capable of going above 10dB of gain reduction and still sounds clean

Cons

❌ Couldn't find any

This is probably the most used compressor for both hardware and plugin use across the music industry for vocals. The CL 1B has become almost an industry standard because of its tone and the very special way it reacts to high and mid frequencies.

This an amazing optical compressor plugin for vocal processing even for the most dynamic performances. It's perfect to achieve an incredibly transparent compression, even when compressing over 10dB of gain reduction, which not many plugin or hardware compressors can do.

Due to its ability to apply such a smooth compression, you can use two separate instances of the CL-1B when you mix vocals to differentiate verses from choruses.

With a ratio of 2:1, you can set up a faster attack and slower release time for verses and a slower attack with fast release during the hook. This action will choke the verses a little more in comparison with the hooks, creating an impact when it switches to the other instance of the compressor.

Additionally, the slower attack time and faster release during the hook will allow more transients to pass, making vocals more dynamic and exciting.

4. Softube Fet compressor

Compatibility: Win7+, macOS 10.11+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit
Price: $29

Pros

✅ Great to manage highly dynamic performances

✅ Ideal compressor plugin for aggressive hip-hop and rock vocals with a lot of transients and peaks

✅ Unlike other compressors that emulate the 1176, this one offers much more control over the compression settings

✅ More ratio options to achieve a cleaner compression

Cons

❌ It can easily squish your vocals and make them pump if used too hard

❌ The plugin's GUI looks a lot more complex than others

FET compressor is an emulation of the classic compressor UAD 1176. Besides being a pretty faithful recreation, the plugin features many more parameters than the original hardware, handing more control over the audio signal.

This compressor plugin is ideal for extremely dynamic performances thanks to its faster attack and release times. And is especially good to enhance transients and make a voice sound more percussive and aggressive.

Use the FET compressor when you mix vocals for genres like hip-hop, reggaeton, and trap to make the vocal performance feel more percussive. If you set a 3:1 ratio, with a mid-to-slow attack time and a relatively fast release, the compressor will let the transients pass and even up the overall audio signal.

If you have a spikey vocal recording, this compressor plugin is capable of picking up very quick transients, which can help even things up and make your vocal sound more consistent.

5. UAD Distressor

Compatibility: Win7+, macOS 10.11+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit
Price: $299

Pros

✅ The detection filter feature is great to keep unwanted noises and sibilances from triggering the compressor

✅ You can choose whether adding tape, tube, or no distortion at all, which is greatly helpful

✅ Amazingly high-quality compressor plugin, which doesn't ruin your audio even at extreme settings

✅ Great to use when recording vocals to enhance dynamics

Cons

❌ It could be too aggressive for some vocals

The Distressor is probably one of the best vocal compressors out there, especially for rap vocals. It's a classic of analog compressors, and it's amazing to introduce compression and distortion to any track.

There aren't many digital compressors that are as good to use when mixing vocals. We suggest using it whenever you need your vocal tracks to be aggressive and upfront, especially for genres like hip-hop, rock, and modern pop.

What's amazing about the Distressor plugin is that you can squeeze the heck out of your audio and still keep a natural tone, making it the perfect choice for overly dynamic vocals if you don't really have the time to set up different compression stages on your vocal bus.

Another interesting thing that Distressor can do for your vocal track is adding tube or tape-like distortion. The plugin has two distortion modes, one labeled as “Dist.2”, which introduces second-order harmonics (tube-like distortion), and “Dist.3”, which brings second and third-order harmonics, similar to tape machines.

Combining the tube-like distortion with mild compression (4:1 ratio, moderately fast attack, and slow release) is a fantastic way to get a richer fuller tone after applying EQ.

6. Waves SSL EV2

Compatibility: Win10+, macOS 10.15.7+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit
Price: $249 (usually on sale for $39.99)

Pros

✅ Has a beautiful pre-amp knob that injects an amazing warmth to vocal signals.

✅ The EQ section gives you a lot of tonal shaping possibilities after compressing

✅ Natural and faithful recreation of the SSL 4000 and SSL 9000 channel strip compressor

✅ The noise gate is incredibly clean, combined with the compressor stage it can make your vocals tighter

Cons

❌ This compressor is very aggressive with peaks, and it's easy to squash the performance

❌ The attack times are prefixed and only have two options, which doesn't allow much precision

❌ Extremely heavy CPU usage

The SSL EV2 is a digital emulation of the SSL console's channel strip by Waves Audio. This is a remake of an older plugin (and one of their first) based on the classic SSL 4000.

Even though it's a channel strip, is also one of the best compressor plugins to use on vocals when you need to make them pop. If you're mixing vocals for rap, reggaeton, trap, or pop music, this is the best way to go.

An easy way to make your vocals sound awesome with this compressor plugin is setting up a very low ratio, then switching the attack to fast with a relatively fast release, and lowering the threshold until you hit around 6dB of gain reduction. That'll make the vocal punchier and tighten it up.

We recommend using the SSL EV2 after corrective EQ and combined with another compressor plugin. That way you can round up dynamics and enhance the tone with the brown EQ next to the compressor of the channel strip. The result is a radio-ready vocal sound.

7. Fab Filter Pro C2

Compatibility: Winvista+, macOS 10.12+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit, 32-bit
Price: $169

fabfilter pro C2

Pros

✅ Among its compression styles, it brings one specifically optimized for vocals

✅ Internal sidechain brings you the possibility of isolating which frequencies you want to compress, which is amazing to avoid compressing unwanted noises or sibilances

✅ The lookahead gain reduction helps for a more transparent compression

✅ It's incredibly visual, so you can actually monitor what the compressor is doing

✅ Allows mid/side compression, which can be game-changing for backing vocals

Cons

❌ Couldn't find any

Pro C2 is a transparent digital compressor with eight compression character styles, lookahead gain reduction, 4x oversampling, stereo link/unlink ability, and has one of the most incredible interface designs plugins we have seen.

There are a million ways to use Pro C2 on vocals, but one of our favourites is using the internal sidechain (below the advanced menu), and isolating the mid-range of the vocal to exclusively compress the tone without bringing forward any low rumble or harshness.

After that, setting up the “vocal” algorithm with a relatively fast attack and the release around the middle. The result is something like this:

Before

After

Notice how the vocal is now more prominent after compressing exclusively the mid-range

The Audio shows an error at playback

The only downer about ProC2 is that similarly to other FF plugins, some of these controls, particularly attack and release, have their values expressed in percentages instead of milliseconds. FYI, higher the percentage, the faster the attack and slower release.

8. Using Limiting as a Compressor

using limiter as vocal compressor

Pros

✅ Can easily help your vocals cut through the mix without any crazy processing

✅ When used parallel it's great to enhance the vocal quality

✅ It's great to regulate dynamics, and combined with dynamic EQ it can be a game changer

✅ If used onboard, can be beneficial to keep excessively dynamic vocals in line

Cons

❌ It's very easy to mess it up and damage the dynamics of the performance if not used with care

❌ If the quality of the recording is not optimal, it can bring forward unwanted noises and cause distortion

Limiters are not only for mastering. In fact, sometimes engineers use limiters when they mix vocals similarly to how they'd use upward compression.

Limiters are great to bring up details of the human voice that might get lost with the processing, so this helps to even things up. It's also beneficial to use limiters for placement rather than doing any processing at all, as they can be very helpful to bring a vocal to come forth and sit better on the mix.

One really cool trick for this is sending the vocal to an auxiliary track where you isolate the mid-range with a linear EQ to avoid phasing.

Then, you add a limiter and set it up to lift up the signal. We recommend not going too crazy with the threshold to avoid unwanted distortion and keep the output attenuation below 6dB. The result is that your vocal will feel more alive and detailed.

You can appreciate the change in the vocals after inserting a limiter right after Pro C2

Fabfilter Pro C2 only

Shows error at playback

Fabfilter Pro C2 + L1

Notice how the ups and downs are no longer noticeable with the L1

9. Gain clip automation

gain clip automating vocals

Pros

✅ Leads to a cleaner tone

✅ If you use it to control sibilances, you'll get a more balanced vocal and need less processing

✅ Your vocals will sound more natural, which is ideal for genres such as R&B, pop, and indie rock, where vocals have more protagonism

✅ It's a free and very simple way to get a great tone

Cons

❌ It does take a lot of work, and if you don't have the time might not be the best idea

Gain clip automation is another way to make compression cleaner. Now, this won't actually compress your vocals, but it can make your compressors work a lot less and improve the quality of the sound.

There are different reasons why you might want to do this, but one of the most interesting ones is to avoid harshness by automating the gain to attenuate the “esses” of the performance. This is extremely helpful with soulful vocals that need to be as clean as possible.

Another way to apply this, is automating different sections of the performance to stay at a consistent level. That helps compressors work under a lot less stress and the result is a much more even vocal that doesn't feel compressed.

10. Multi-band compression

Pros

✅ It can help you shape the tone dynamically so it's smoother than static eq plugins

✅ It's the best way to go to correct undesired artifacts resulting from pitch correction

✅ Great way to de-ess any vocal line and control problematic frequencies in the spectrum

✅ It's great to use on low-pitched male vocals and high-pitched female vocals

Cons

❌ It can get out of hands if not used with care

❌ As much as it can help your audio, it can still make vocals sound very dull

Aside from dynamic correction, you can also achieve a lot of tonal improvement with compression, more specifically, with multiband compression. Our favourite one to do this is Fab Filter's Pro MB, because it gives you the most control over the signal and frequency spectrum.

A really cool and simple way to use this type of processing for your vocals is to use a combination of downward compression and upward expansion to dynamically improve the timbre of the voice and control problematic frequencies.

What you can do, for example, is expand the mid-range to increase clarity and add harmonics and compress high frequencies to control sibilances.

Make sure to set the compressor thresholds in a way that it takes away no more than 3dB to avoid making the voice sound stuffy.

Like in this sample:

The vocals are a lot clearer after using a combination of downward compression and upward expansion.
fabfilter pro multiband vocal compression

Following up on the vocal chain, you can throw in a dynamic EQ to control the gain boost provided by the upward expansion.

What Are The Best Free Vocal Compressor Plugins?

Here's the complete list of the best free vocal compressor plugins:

  1. Klanghelm DC1A
  2. TDR Kotelnikov
  3. Analog Obsession LA-LA

1. Klanghelm DC1A

Compatibility: Win7+, macOS 10.11+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit, 32-bit

DC1A free vocal compressor

Pros

✅ Capable of both downward and upward compression

✅ The “relaxed” mode is really good for cleaner compression if you need to keep a nice dynamic range

✅ Has a nice and warm analog tone that subtly improves your vocals

✅ One of the best audio plugins to enhance harmonics

Cons

❌ Couldn't find any

Klanghelm's DC1A is a terrific compressor plugin with up to four compression modes and a particularly transparent sound. It's one of those free pickups that can quickly become your go-to compressor, especially for vocal mixing.

With this plugin if you activate the “negative” feature, it'll do upward compression. A great trick when you're mixing vocals is to load an instance of the DC1A and set to negative to bring up the details of the performance.

The upward compression will not tame the peaks, but bring the RMS levels forward instead. This will help rescuing the subtleties of the human voice.

Right next to it load a downward compressor plugin, it could be another instance of the DC1A but any compressor will do, since you'll need it to compress the peaks. The result of combining downward and upward compression is the sought-after ; up-in-your-face sound, but with a rich tone that enhances the performance.

2. TDR Kotelnikov

Compatibility: Win7+, macOS 10.11+, VST, AU, AAX, 64-bit, 32-bit

TDR free compressor vocals

Pros

✅ Crystal-clean transparent compression

✅ Control over the stereo image helps you prevent unnecessary information triggering the compressor

✅ Peak and RMS release control can achieve a better-sounding compression without hurting the dynamic range of the performance

✅ Delta monitoring allows you to hear what triggers the compressor plugin, helping you make better informed decisions

Cons

❌ It has a bit of a learning curve

❌ The GUI can look complicated at first sight

Kotelnikov is a transparent and very versatile compressor plugin. It's mostly known as a mastering compressor due to it's transparency and precision, but you can use it on just about anything and it'll always sound great.

Kotelnikov is great to use on backing vocals as your bus compressor. Because you can be very specific about how you want this compressor to pick up the signal, you can set the stereo sensitivity around 30% so that it focusses on the mid image and keep them spread.

Also, set the HPF around 100Hz with a relatively aggressive slope to avoid compressing any of the lower frequencies. From then, you can set the peak crest somewhere around the middle to make sure it picks up both the peak and RMS information.

The trick is to set a relatively fast attack and then set a fast peak release time and a slower RMS release. This will make the compressor attenuate the RMS freeing some space for the main vocals, while spreading the backing vocals and creating a nice and subtle pumping in the middle which can really help in fast-paced songs.

3. Analog Obsession LA-LA

Compatibility: Win7+, macOS 10.9+, VST, AU, 64-bit, 32-bit

Pros

✅ Compared to other plugins that emulate the LA2A, LaLa compressor gives you more control over the tone and compression

✅ The mix knob for parallel compression is an amazing addition that's missing in other compressors that aren't free, like Waves' CLA 2A, and UAD's Teletronix LA2A

✅ The internal sidechain features are ideal to enhance the mid-range of your vocals

✅ Both, compression and limiter mode, are less harsh than Waves' version of this compressor.

Cons

❌ It has a slightly slower attack than usual, which can allow more transients coming through, meaning that you might need an extra compressor to control peaks

Analog Obsession's LaLa compressor is an amazing emulation of the classic LA2A by Teletronix. Compared to other plugins, more specifically Waves' version of this classic, there are a lot of things that Analog Obsession has improved.

With the mix knob you can now use it as a parallel compresor or limiter, opening the possibility of applying different amounts of compression for different parts of the performance with automation.

Furthermore, the addition of a HPF is superb to avoid compressing any unnecessary low frequencies, which can be incredibly beneficial when you mix vocals and want to focus your compression from the mid-range up.

The only downside is that the attack time is lower than usual, which is good to keep the dynamic range in good shape but can be problematic if you're looking to control it, so you might have to load another compressor, say an 1176, and push it harder than you would with Waves' version.

Vocal Compression Best Practices

These are ratio, attack, and release values for different ways to compress vocals

1. Use multiple compressors for your vocals

As we mentioned earlier, it's usually better to use different compressor plugins rather than just one.

Most music producers do different combinations to correct dynamics, enhance the tone of the vocal, and bring forward some details of the performance that might get lost in the context of the mix.

Sometimes you run into a situation where the vocalist has very good breath control, but there are other issues, like the voice being too thin, or the vocal being too sibilant/boomy.

In these cases, you wouldn't benefit from multiple compressors.

In this case usually better to combine other compression techniques, like side-chain and parallel compression.

2. Combine different compression types such as parallel and sidechain

Parallel compression is simply duplicating the signal and crushing it to then blend with the clean signal.

It works amazingly to make a vocal more aggressive, and upfront, and to enhance the midrange harmonic information.

parallel compression vocals
sidechain compression vocals

Sidechain compression is basically routing the compressor to react when another signal kicks in.

One typical way to use this is routing all of your instruments into a bus and adding a compressor to tame them down whenever the vocal kicks in.

Compression is also important to use with other effects, like reverb or delay plugins when used parallel to keep them under control.

3. Only add back the gain that you have reduced from the signal

When compressing it can be easy to get stuck in the trap of thinking it sounds better because it's louder. And, many compressors will open with a 2-3db boost straight away, to make you think the plugin is doing wonders to your music.

Do not fall for this trap.

Make sure you are using the gain reduction meter and your ears with constant A/B tests to ensure that the original, uncompressed vocal is at the same volume level as the compressed one.

Having it at the same volume allows you to hear the differences that the compressor is making, rather than being fooled by the sudden volume increase.

This allows you to make a more informed decision on whether your compression is right for this scenario, or whether it needs altering.

4. Use visual meters and look at your waveforms while setting compression settings

Time-stamped video showing this in action.

The goal of compressing vocals is to make the vocal sound as even as possible without destroying the dynamics of the performance. You can do this with compression, however many people overdo it.

The secret lies within setting your threshold and ratio settings properly. If you take a look at the waveform of your audio, you'll notice that some phrases look much bigger than others in terms of amplitude.

If you set your threshold low enough, the compressor will react on both of those sections of the vocal phrase.

Using your metering you can listen and watch, then set your threshold so that the compressor only reacts to the louder part of the phrase. This squashes the louder part of the phrase and leaves the lower volume one untouched, making the compression sound more natural and even.

This compressor is used to nip the high amplitude peaks in the bud so you have an even signal before doing more compression work. You can then apply another compressor in the serial to do more to your signal.

Summary

Compressors are one of the most important and versatile tools in audio production and engineering. When it comes to the human voice, with so many variations that come with the different genres, vocal tones, and personality, our job as engineers is to enhance it and compression is one of the best ways of doing it.

Depending on the specific needs you have, you might want to try out different compressors. For example, if you're mixing hip-hop vocals, you should probably go with a nice 1176 and LA2A combo or a CL1B.

If it's rock music you work on, try combining the Distressor with a Puigchild or a FET compressor.

Finally, if you're looking for a clean sound, Kotelnikov is your best pick, maybe using a little upward compression with the DC1A beforehand to bring up some detail. Keep in mind that the best compressor plugins are the ones that you can adapt the best to solve the problem you have.

To recap, here is the complete list of the best vocal compressor plugins & tips:

  1. Waves PuigChild
  2. Waves CLA76/Waves CLA 2A
  3. Tube Tech CL 1B Bundle
  4. Softube FET Compressor
  5. UAD Distressor
  6. SSL EV2
  7. FabFilter Pro C2
  8. Using Limiting as a Compressor
  9. Gain Clip Automation
  10. Multi-band compression

Here's the list of the best free vocal compressor plugins:

  1. Klanghelm DC1A
  2. TDR Kotelnikov
  3. Analog Obsession LA-LA

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