Your DAW’s built-in compressors
Forgive us for stating the obvious, but before you go throwing money at fancy aftermarket compressor plugins it makes sense to master the fundamental techniques using more basic tools. There was a time that the standard compressors bundled into most DAWs were decidedly lacklustre – poor sound quality and awkward user interfaces were all too common – but those days are largely over.
As an example, let’s take a look at Logic’s built-in compressor. Until version 10.1, it was a capable but dull affair, with a typically drab interface that was unlikely to win it many friends. Recent GUI updates have finally brought the compressor up to date and earned it some of the attention it deserves. That might sound shallow, but in many cases the interface is just as important as the sound itself. What many Logic 9 users didn’t realise was that the biggest strength of the compressor plugin was hidden within the Circuit Type drop-down menu. The new GUI makes it much more obvious: selecting options such as Classic VCA and Vintage FET completely changes the behaviour and character of the compressor. As Federico Pepe explains, each of these compressor models is loosely based on a hardware unit, with the options including emulations of such classics as the Universal Audio 1176, DBX 160 and Focusrite Red 3. Effectively, the plugin is seven effects in one, representing most of the classic flavours of compression. They might not be painstaking emulations like, say, their official UAD equivalents, but they’re more than capable of doing the job in most cases and a great way to learn about the different sounds compressors can offer.
Until recently, Logic's compressor was a capable but dull affair, with a typically drab interface that was unlikely to win it many friends.
The story is similar in a lot of other DAWs. Ableton’s Compressor device, for instance, might not look particularly pretty, but it’s a very versatile effect (note that the Activity view in Compressor is an excellent learning tool, providing a real-time visualisation of the effect’s impact on your signal). DAWs’ built-in compressors rarely get much praise, but these days they deserve to be treated with respect.