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.
Just one amp stage on the LA-2A, and the program/frequency dependence gives a somewhat scaled knee and ratio. Cool stuff! Great list.
How could you leave out the Distressor?!?!?! It’s the most used compressor on the planet now a days. Yes, it emulates several of the classics, but it’s still amazing on its own. It’s probably #1 on my desert island list. LAME
@knowitall: page 16, are you blind?
Nobody calls the all four button mode on an 1176 “Brit Mode” except journalists.
@knowitall: it’s at number 5: “…the Distressor is a modern-day desert island compressor”
I find it odd that a Waves digital limiter made it to the llist but not TC Electronic ‘s Finalizer??
Still Love my LA-4s 🙂
Wha? No Shure Level Loc? For when audio destruction is the goal.
You forgot Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor!
The UBK Fatso slays half the boxes on this list, it’s always fat, can be super dirty, kinda like a Studer and stereo 1176 in one box. Massive ups to the Dynamite as well, not nearly as versatile but delivers serious smack!
this is superb, PLEASE PLEASE could you do one for EQ’s, mic preamps, and perhaps even delays and reverbs, but esp. the former….PLEASE PLEASE
synths and mics, also if poss….
Ian, how could we resist a request like that? We’ll see what we can do…
Have you checked out our features on the most underrated synths and our favourite drum machines?
Very nice list. Not that I know even half the manufacturers names mentioned above, but lists like this let me know whats around and experiment with them.
Keep up with the good work! All the articles are getting me some serious producer munchies 😉
Elysia Alpha should really be there along with the MPressor.
An outstanding achievement and the best mastering compressor for electronic
dance I’ve ever heard.
The MPressor is more of a drum-buss comp. The Alpha has the best fast attack,
completely unachievable in software.
Charter Oak, is the best compressor !
Nobody thought Focusrite Red should be up there?
3630? Not a chance !! The 3630 is rubbish through and through. Just because they sold like hot cakes doesn’t make it good. It sold so much because it was cheap. I would never use one of these unless there was just no alternative. Also, where’s the Distressor, or the Fairchild? Both of these are incredible compressors!
@bhang – um, distressor, page 16, fairchild page 18.
Can you set up a contest in which the winner can get all 20 of these compressors? Thanks! (:
We’ll pencil it in for our 20th anniversary 😉
Pye, Pye, Pye….
agree, agree, agree………. 😉
Any relation? 😉
I was anticipating Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor at the top. LA-2A came in as a surprise !!! Also, seeing The Holy Grail of compressors Fairchild 670 at #3 was a bit indigestible. I appreciate your hard work of investigation in putting up these great compressors in one eminent list but according to me the rankings of the compressors do need a solid revision. I beg for an apology if my criticism sounded destructive.
hi there, rather pleased to have at least ticked some of the boxes in my compressor collection, TG1, LA 2A, dbx 160 plus the ‘crazy uncle’ end of things with the dbx 163X that just has one slider that says ‘MORE’ and even a couple of old altec1612B’s that are limited, but HUGE fun. I’m now looking for a bus comp and wondering if a pair of old pye 6392’s might be the go. cheers!
Electrodyne CA-700… rare beasts and I’m lucky enough to have a matched pair!
I agree that the RED3 should have earned a mention. I mean 3630 and no RED3. : (
Pye, Valley Dynamite…I guess the list could go on. ; )
What about Summit Audio? I use DCL-200 and love how it sounds very much! Not so popular, but exellent.
I just bought a CL1b compressor, I am excited to hear what this hardware compressor can do for vocal tracking, This is my first compressor to own and I think for hip hop it has earned its spot for sure listening to vocal takes from pro audio engineers around the globe. I was going to get the EURI 1176 REV D but its hard to find. Ceoss my fingers this piece will fit my signal chain well(U87AI-1073N/Avalon M4/UA610 Solo-Apogee Symphony I/O – all cabling by Stefan Audio Art and vibration control by The Mapleshade Store)
@Grip Loc Entertainment – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I loved the plugin version and the real thing is sublime. Have fun 🙂
Good list notwithstanding some notable omissions that have already been acknowledged…. It’s good that people have been chiming in with their own suggestions creating even more interest, debate and knowledge. I return to the list and the comments every now and then and after almost a year I think it’s about time I should give props to the Overstayer VCA Stereo Comp. Boutique quality, highly versatile and OUTSTANDING value for money IMHO.
The urie 175 and 175b. also so very nice, built for ever.
Alesis?!? Maybe you want to talk about something that looks like as Drawmer or DBX?
I do Miss the Vertigo vsc 2
It seems the Neve 33609 is missing…
Where is Joe Meek??
Vertigo VSC-2 my best! 😉
what about the good ol, hand on fader compressor? the HOF 9000 is really a work of art
Glad the fatso got a mention but its really more than just a comp, wonder if any of the modeling on it is designed to create tape compression into the bargain ?
There are so many great comps – it’s hard to define the Top 20 as each Comp has it’s own niche in music. The Aphex Compellor & Dominiator, Pye, and Valley People Dyna-Mite didn’t make the list. Several Neve compressors didn’t make the list either. Then there’s Tom Scholz/Boston who uses the dbx 166 on his albums – so that’s worthy of mention as well. As is the dbx 165. They are all excellent compressors.
What about the Innovonics 201? Oh and he’ll you mention the Alesis 3630. And you don,t mention the ART Pro VLA? This list is more a list of your favorites in my opinion .
So, Chameleon Labs 7802 is not even a good contender?
Brillant work, I think the original Joe Meek SC2 and SC3 deserve a mention here. They helped shape a sound made famous by The Prodigy in the early nineties and add a lovely optical colour to all things digital.
The Joe Meek is an honourable mention, but i really feel the Crane Song Trakker deserves a place in the top 10. Behaves all the different ways like a Distressor, but just sounds better. The Distressor is wonderful dynamically, but it can make fat sounds just a wee bit thinner. As soon as i used a Trakker, it surpassed the Distressor as my ‘desert island’ dynamics.
LA-2A Rulez! I Agree…
No Purple Audio MC-77?? The Alesis 3630 is a joke. I’m sure that Daft Punk had a few $$$$$$$$ compressor running through their stuff as well. That’s just jive talk or an urban legend that won’t die.
Gotta agree with Twhack a ho and some others above. The UBK is amazingly versatile to my way of thinking…like having 7 compressors in one and the tape saturation turning digital icepicks to butter makes it a cost effective alternative to tape. The Charter Oak SCL-1, wow! How it homogenizes a mix and enhances the midrange is just plain classy. Since I got these two, nothing hits my converters without going through both of ’em. So far, the Buzz Audio SOC 1.1 is my alternative to the LA 2,3 and 4, Glad to have found this magazine and had a chance to read some of the extremely interesting and well-written offerings here. Great stuff!
A good concise list…. some of these devices you hear about but never know what they are “good ” at…. a good read.
Ok what about VSC 2 Vertigo ???
I was prepared to be upset, but I think you pretty much nailed it. A couple of these I’d never used and most of the rest I’ve only used the plugin version, but I think I would have changed the order. The Neve should have been way higher on the list (the DBX maybe too) and the Distresser is wayyy over-rated (not just by you).
great list, and I love the little extra technical tidbits thrown in.
however, no love for Stillwell’s Rocket in the 1176 entry? SHENNANIGANS
useless list, next time compare apples with pears! mastering and mixing compressors…. but why l2 lol? 3630 is great if u know to use it but this list is a joke… and most comments too.
hmmm neve 33609, pendulum vari-mu, avalon 2044, no wait…alesis rules the world. does crane song suck? how about shadow hills, summit, ? who wrote this article anyway?
Millennia TCL-2. They are the primary 5.1 analog mastering chain at Bob Ludwig’s Gateway Mastering, Galaxy Mastering’s 5.1 chain, and in just about any serious classical music or analog scoring work.
I think that the order is justified and am glad that the Fairchild 670 is not the no. 1 as it is correctly represented. I find it a bit strange though that the Vertigo VSC2 and the Charter Oak SCL-1 didn’t make the list. While I agree that the Elysia Alpha is the ultimate compressor, it’s a mastering tool, and not half as creative fun as the mpressor. You guys made the right choice.
The person who wrote this article has put UREI and UA in the same category… these don’t sound the same AT ALL. CLASSIC FAIL….. try a real LA2a and a real 1176 especially a blue stripe again the new ones…
The Mpressor, 3630 and L2 make the list but you leave out the UA-175, 33609, Pye, Compex and BA-6A? What a load of unadulterated horse-puckey. Credibility = 0.
This is an excellent article. Excellent.
Crane Song STC-8??
TL Audio C1 very cool on voices
Thank you so much. This knowledge all in one place is simply gold. I’m hooked on your site now.
Love the list. The addition of the 3630 shows that the list was impartial. The 3630 is one of those compressors that you get early in your career and often don’t let go. If artist like Daft Punk use it then it goes to the theory about learning your gear and making the most of what you have. I know my peers have been naming some of their personal faves but lets be honest, if you have ever been to various high end studios you are always going to see Distressors, DBX, LA-2A, and 1176.
Thank you so much the list is superb
@Roger Anthony Whiting – I beg to differ. The addition of the 3630 show that he didn’t do his research and make him look stupid. The bottom 3 don’t even belong on the list. I laughed when I saw the Alesis 3630. (It’s not bad for the money just not top 20) They totally missed several other choices that not only kill the bottom three but should be considered above some of the higher rated compressors. I’ve owned a number of the hardware compressors they mentioned and would be quick to take the DBX160 off the list. (This is supposed to be best not most popular) Other possibilities should include the Summit DCL200, Manley Slam and maybe even the ELOP. Shadows Hills, Crane Song and SSL all have compressors worthy of this list. At least they got number 1 and 2 right.
Seems like every studio has at least one DBX 160X/XT
Neve 33609, 2254
The ADR Compex for sure should be in the list. What about mentioning the Urie 1178 in the 1176 section?
Federal Tube Compressor, Gates STA-Level
I missed seeing the CharterOak SCL1 which is a Resolution award winning compressor and the “Monster” Compressor from Looptrotter. Two significant omissions of the highest order.
To add to the DBX 160 and 161 – is the DBX 162 which is 2 160’s put in 1 box ala Stereo version.
Usually found for double the price accordingly. A pretty bang on list! It’s nice to have ANY of these tools .
@David Keller to throw DBX160 off the list would be silly. You say your argument like this – ‘best vs most popular’ but that can mean the same thing. Best in sales? Best in audio versatility? Best in transparency? You have no argument really just an open ended opinion of rhetoric without logic. The article clearly states it is more of an ‘effect’ as it adds something to the sound – while still acting as a utility to compress. And the fact too many (to mentio) professional audio studios utilize it in their chain everyday, is testimony in itself.
So strange to go w/ the early hard-knee dbx and omit (except for a smart commenter or two) all of the superior OverEasy soft-knee designs following.
TFPro is missing 🙂
Looked at your site as a source for info on old compressors for a lecture I’m giving…. of course, secretly I was disappointed not to find my SC2 there…… But nice to see the list and the comments, even if I don’t totally agree with many of them! Compression is highly subjective and there’s a lot of ’emperor’s new clothes’ , but there’s excellent demonstrable reasons in physics why the LA2A, the 1176 and the Altec 436 sound good. (did you forget the Altec?)
We are lucky enough to have a Fairchild recreation in our mastering suite at university and I can confirm its a wonderful piece of gear to work with! 🙂
Seriously, really surprised you didn’t mention the Cranesong STC – 8, it is truly is a contender to any of the ones you have listed.
Nice collection, I’d add there from europe some units with countless numbers of record releases, vinyl cutting and Airplay:
TAB U73 – a truly historic unit – in line with the famed V76 peamp – lucky the one who has access to these units
EMT 257 – comp/limiter and the rest of this series (but don’t tell anyone)
Neumann U473 compressor
Recently in the focus since UAudios Plugin release:
Valley People dyna-mite
nice to find RNCs brother on the list 🙂
How the Alesis 3630 made this list I’ll never understand. Who would take that piece of crap over a Summit DCL 200 which really does belong on the list.
Valley People 610
Rockruepel Comp.One , Knif Vari-MU , Vertigo VSC-2
Where is the shadow hill mastering compressor aka darth vader?
Hey, in tile 5, or list item 16, it says the Waves L2 is the only digital unit “to make the cut”, but isn’t the RLNA digital? Evident in the description of the “Really Nice” feature.
Well the 3630 has a certain grit to it and I don’t see why they wouldn’t have used it that much or even exclusively back then.
Discovery sure is not the cleanest sounding album, is it.
But you are right the Purple is a great unit and belongs in the hall of fame for sure. The aggressive snap it creates is great.
Vertigo is great, but not that much of a character unit. Nobody wants clean anymore 😉
I used the Alesis 3630 for many years. I ran a Karaoke company so it prevented drunks from blowing up my cabs. Never had a single episode explained in the article. It did not alter the sounds at all. But I could see in a recording studio it could have issues.
Spectra Sonics 610 one of my favorites for many years
alesis nano compressor is amazing!!
Sknote also makes a great STA-LEVEL, besides the GTS-39
Almost read this article. But its a click to click pull through instead off an open face article. Made it seem full of dung. Definitely a pain in the neck to go further in,forget it