There is no easy answer to which is the best audio compressor. Compressors, like microphones, have been around for many decades, so there are many options out there. Each audio compressor, while having the same goal, has a different outcome to the sound that you will hear. This is what makes compressors my favorite topic to discuss. In addition to compressors, there's a very similar topic which is limiters. Before we dive into the what the best audio compressor/limiter for your needs will be, let's first talk about what an audio compressor and limiter is.
What Is Audio Compression?
An audio compressor lessens the difference between the loudest sounds and quietest sounds that are produced from the sound source (instruments, vocals, drums, etc).
What Is An Audio Limiter?
Very similar to compression, but where compression brings up the quiet levels, a limiter only stops a level from going over a certain amount helping with spikes and peaks.
Audio compression and limitation is the difference between a weak recording and a powerful recording. Let me state that there are some very nice compressors and limiters available that will break a bank account in half. These are the legendary ones that you will see in a commercial recording studio, but most home studios wouldn't have them. With that in mind, lets look at the best audio compressors and limiters on a budget (The following products contain affiliate links, meaning that at no additional cost to you, I will get paid if you click through and make a purchase).
The Best Audio Compressor On A Budget
Warm Audio WA76
The Warm Audio WA76 is modeled after the famous 1176. I personally tend to use the 1176 style more on percussion instruments and sometimes guitar. The 76 cool feature is that if you push all buttons in, you can get a super punchy sound.
Last checked price is $599
This dbx compressor is great to learn the ropes as it is very affordable, and it does a good job. It also has 2 channels. Frequency range low is 35 Hz, therefore the downfall of this compressor it isn't good for bass instruments.
Last checked price is $150
Tips For The Best Audio Compressor Purchase
When you do purchase your first compressor, give it a try on several different instruments to see what you find has the best sound to your ears. This will help you decide when to use it. For example, I am a big fan of the LA-2A sound on bass guitar and bass drum, but I do not tend to use it on guitar as I feel it gives too funky of a sound for my rock genre tastes. Having the best audio compressor for your needs will add to your recording tricks that will make your mixes better. Also keep in mind your budget. There are some great compression plugins out there that will give a cheaper alternative. For more on plugins, check out our article here. However, I will say that I like to use the hardware compressor when recording, then add the compressor plugin when I am mixing. If you do these both and don't over-compress, you can have a great outcome!
Different Parts And Knobs Of An Audio Compressor
It is important to understand what the different knobs of a compressor to do so you know how to use the best audio compressor to your advantage in the studio. Let's take a look at the different knobs on a compressor:
- Ratio: This is the proportion of how much of a change you want to have between the input to output.
- Threshold: This is the level at the point where the ratio takes effect with the signal
- Attack Time: The amount of time that it takes for the compressor to start its compression once the threshold has been reached.
- Release Time: The amount of time that it takes for the compressor to reach its normal level after the signal has dropped below the threshold.
- Output Level: Because you are lowing the volume by compressing it, you can increase the overall level of the signal after it has been compressed.
If you have a quicker release time and lower ratio, the signal will appear to be louder. If the ratio is really high with a very short release time, the compressor will pump, but if the release time is longer, it will smooth out the signal. An interesting fact, if the release time is extremely long and the attack is extremely short, you can give an illusion of the sound going backwards.
Compression Tips and Techniques
To get the most out of your compressor and make it truly the best audio compressor for your recording rig, we have highlighted some methods to compressing different instruments. These should be a starting point as every signal is going to be different.
It is suggested for drums to use a ratio of 2:1-3:1 or use 4:1-8:1. Both the attack and release should be fast, and the threshold should be set to 4dB-6dB or 6dB to 8dB. If you use a longer attack time on drums, it will lose the effect that drums give to a mix. Keep the release times short and a large-gap ratio to keep the drum sound.
Start with a ratio of 4:1 to 6:1. Both the attack time and release time should be medium. The threshold should be 3dB to 5dB. A medium compression on guitar can add a lot of strength behind it, but do not use too much as a guitar can quickly over dominate the overall mix.
Use a ratio around 4:1 on bass guitar. Both the attack and the release should be set medium. Threshold should be similar to what is used on guitar, somewhere between 3 dB to 5 dB. Do not compress too much to where you get distortion from the bass. It majority of cases, you will want a smooth sounding bass.
This one in particular should be used primarily as an example. With such a huge variation in the signal from vocalists and its uses, it is difficult to give a starting point. However, use a ratio of 3:1-4:1. Both the attack time and release time should be medium-fast, while the threshold should be somewhere in between 2dB-6dB.
Considerations For Audio Compression
I have always found it best to over compress first so I know exactly what the compressor is doing to the signal. With the many different compressors out there and they have such different effects on every instrument, it is difficult to have a one-size-fits-all technique. Therefore, I over compress first to hear if I even like what the compressor is going to do to the signal.
Once I figure out the compressor I want to use, I set the threshold to the max, the attack and release right in the middle, and the ratio around 3:1. Then I make subtle changes to find the right level, and continuously bypass the compressor with every change to make sure I am not making the signal sound worse.
One lesson I would like to suggest with compression is that I was always taught that less is more with it. Subtle compression can make a well-balanced, smooth mix. Over compressing can end up making your mix sound like there's too much going on, and will seem tiring to your ears.
Compressor Plugins Vs Compressor Hardware
There is an ongoing discussion over which is better between hardware and plugins. This is not an easy question to answer, especially when it comes to compression. However, it does make a difference when trying to help you select the best audio compressor for you.
Hardware has a cool nostalgia with it and gives a true recording experience. That being said, they are also going to be more expensive than a plugin is. A major pro of hardware compressors is that you can use them in combination with your microphones to get a good sounding mix from the get-go.
Plugins are typically going to be more affordable, and they can also be adjusted once the signal is recorded giving you more freedom when recording. When actually recording the signal though, you cannot have the compressor plugin in use. In other words, at the time of recording you have to do more of a guess-and-check.
Personally, I like to use both hardware and plugins and use the subtle compression on both that I mentioned in the previous section. This will give more control to you as the producer, but It is not the the least expensive route to take. To more on plugins, check out our article here.
Final Thoughts About The Best Audio Compressor
You might be able to see now that it is deeper than what the best audio compressor is, it is more of what the best audio compressor is for what you are wanting to record. If you have any troubles at all picking out the compressor you want to get, we are always there to help! We can be contacted through our contact us page found here.