In this definitive run down of the world’s top hardware compressors both ancient and modern, a superlative-drained David Felton rolls out the adjectives to identify the 20 best compressors ever constructed.

You could be forgiven for assuming that high-end hardware compressors aren’t really relevant to the majority of dance music producers. They’re expensive, tricky to use and less convenient than software, right? That might sometimes be true, but we still think there are very good reasons to know about the classics in our list (and, for the record, not all of our choices are actually that expensive).

OK, so the chances of most of us rushing out to drop a small fortune on a Fairchild are pretty slim, but even the most exotic, overpriced vintage classics have a direct influence on the tools we all use to make music. Plenty of budget options are available which offer watered down versions of the classics.

Likewise, almost all compressor plugins take direct inspiration from the sound and features of hardware from the 60s and 70s.

Even more importantly, with just a couple of exceptions, most of the compressors on our list have been modelled and emulated by software developers over recent years. If you like the sound of one of them, chances are you can go out and buy a plugin which will sound almost identical to the real thing.

Here we run down our selection of the best dynamics tools ever made. We’re taking a broad approach to compression here: compressors, limiters, levelling amps – all are fair game.

We begin our countdown with an unlikely house classic…

20 – Alesis 3630

This innocent enough looking box – famously named after the street number of Alesis’s headquarters – is, according to Alesis anyway, “the most popular dynamics processor ever made”.

Best selling? We can believe that. Most popular? No chance!

Although it offers both flexibility (dual channel VCA-based peak/RMS compression plus two independent noise gates) and an entry-level price point, the 3630 has been the bane of many producers’ lives since its introduction two decades ago. There are numerous common complaints. It introduces distortion. It has a nasty habit of making everything sound dull and lifeless. The channels are often badly matched, rendering them useless for stereo applications. It adds noise.

So why does it make the list? Because it basically defined the pumping sidechain compression sound which became a trademark of French house in the late 90s and conquered the world shortly afterwards. Since a handful of stars revealed their surprising love for the 3630, it’s been something of a cult classic. For all its failings, this is the compressor which Daft Punk claim defined the sound of Homework and Discovery and which Stardust used to make ‘Music Sounds Better With You’.

Will it make your tracks sound as good? We doubt it. But the 3630 is an interesting little footnote in the history of dance music – and a worthwhile reminder that it doesn’t take expensive gear to make great records.

The good news is that if you’re considering buying one, they’re very very cheap. You should have no problem picking one up for £50. However, we’d recommend the updated 3632, released at the beginning of this year. It retains the character of the original while solving most of the problems.

Author David Felton
13th November, 2012

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