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Software compressor plugins might be great, but if you want authentic, rich analog sound, you need an external vocal compressor. While you can never go wrong with some of the classics, there are also a ton of exciting new compressors to choose from. In this guide, we'll help you zero-in on the best vocal compressor on the market right now – and what to look for when buying one.
UA LA-610 Mk II
- Warm, rich sound
- Classic, recognizable compression
- Analog; built to last
UA Teletronix LA-2A
- Constantly popular for decades
- Unbeatable warmth and richness
- Great build quality
GAP Comp3A LA-3A
- Value for money pricing
- Reliable, warm compression
- Great for home studios
Vocal compressors: every serious producer needs one.
Sure, you can use stock plugins and VSTs to emulate quality compressors, but they can never deliver the warmth and richness of a hardware compressor.
I would even say that the single biggest difference between a professionally produced track vs an amateur one is the quality of the compression. Professional studios usually have access to a range of hardware compressors – something home studios rarely have.
Vocal compressors can be a little tricky to buy. Although there have been a range of new releases over the last decade that, on paper, perform better, most producers tend to go back to the old classics, simply for the warmth and familiarity.
In this guide, I'll help you make sense of vocal compressors. I'll also share my picks for the best vocal compressor to buy in 2020 depending on your budget and needs.
The Best Vocal Compressor
Opinion is usually divided among producers when it comes to vocal compressors. There are some who believe you should stick to the classics like the LA-2A compressor. There are others who believe you should be willing to experiment with newer compressors, including some of the increasingly popular “all-in-one” units.
I fall somewhere between the two camps. While I acknowledge that classic compressors have an analog warmth that newer digital and software compressors can't match, I also understand that these classics are extraordinarily expensive.
We cater mostly to home producers on this blog, and my pick of the best vocal compressor shows that. While I appreciate the classics, my top options are cheaper, more versatile units that can fit a serious home producers needs.
Let's take a closer look:
Vintage vocal compressors are slowly making their way back to studios around the world, and the LA-2A is Universal Audio’s response to this trend. The company, with the LA-610, already has a vocal compressor on this list of the best vocal compressors on the market right now. This isn’t very surprising considering that the company is known for the high quality of its products. The LA-2A is an analogue classic plug-in that delivers some truly excellent overall performance.
The original plug-ins from Universal Audio are over a decade old and have started to show their age. Therefore, it is great to have a new set of plug-ins to rejuvenate the line. This unit takes advantage of the improved technology of recent years to deliver impressive vocal compression for a relatively low price.
Design-wise, this is a pure-vintage unit. It looks great though, and Universal Audio have made it in different optical versions so that you don’t have to choose that which of the classics; you can have them all! It combines three different versions: Silver, Gray version, and a ‘Legacy’ version.
With this product, Universal Audio has taken three of the most popular LA-2A versions and mixed them together to birth this new version. It takes giant strides in performance over predecessors as it utilizes the UAD-2 systems and their truly incredible processing capabilities.
Interestingly, all three versions come with similar controls. They are known for their ease of use, and fortunately, this latest iteration is no different. It comes with several knobs and buttons that are clearly labelled and easy to reach. For instance, you have the Peak Reduction knob, which serves to reduce the threshold and help you set compression levels. You also get a Gain knob that, as the name implies, makes up the output gain. I also observed that there is an Emphasis feature that helps in rolling off low frequencies.
What I don’t like:
There is much to love about this unit. However, I did not appreciate the default gain differences. It also comes with default 4dB gain boost.
Best Vocal Compressor for Home Studios: UA LA-610 Mk II
- Variable impedance switching
- T4 opto compressor
- High/Low frequency shelving EQ
- Bill Putnam 610 tube mic
Despite the improvements in vocal compressors over the years, many folks are still interested in vintage compressors and audio preamps. The reason for this is unknown (although you will find many professionals arguing that the vintage units offer better overall performance). Universal Audio is a renowned name in the audio product industry, and the LA-610 is one of the best products from the manufacturer.
This particular unit is an amalgamation of two of the most popular products from this maker; the Teletronic LA2A compressor and the Putnam 610 preamp. This alone is enough to make any audiophile heavily interested in this particular product.
The design of this unit is vintage yet impressive. All the parts are mounted in a rack mounting case. The panels of the unit are covered in vintage knobs and buttons. You will also find that it has some really impressive audio transformers.
At the rear panel of the unit, you will find a trio of XLR connectors. There is also a fuse holder which can actually be inverted so that you can use the unit with 115V or 230V current. The main action, though, lies on the front panel. Here you will find preamp controls, compressor controls, a VU meter, a power switch and a power indicator. In all, it looks really impressive, and it is arguably the best looking product on this roundup.
Performance is where this unit truly shines. The preamp section, for example, comes with big rotary level control. This control works excellently. Setup is really easy. I imagine that most folks will not have any major issues setting it up.
During use, I observed that it delivers a really large and open sound of impressive quality. Using the right accessories, you will likely absolutely love the character of this vocal compressor. During testing, I coupled it with a complete mix, and I was blown away by the results. I noticed that this unit retains a clear sound and a presence; even without resorting to tweaking EQ on the console.
When I opted to test the compressor with an electric guitar, I noticed that it gives life to an otherwise dull sound. It adds character, and I believe that this is where you will really appreciate the equalizer feature on the vocal compressor. It produces a better sound than what I expected and works extremely well to control the bass sounds.
What I don't like
There is almost nothing to dislike here. However, if I have to nitpick, two things do come to mind. First, I observed that it can be somewhat hard to see where the toggle switches are. I was also bummed by the lack of side-chain linking capabilities.
Best Budget Vocal Compressor: GAP Comp3A LA-3A
- T4 electro-optical attenuator
- Gain and Peak Reduction
- Output transformer resistors
This unit is a vintage style vocal compressor or leveller from Golden Age. It is a single channel option that offers really impressive performance; especially when you consider the relatively low cost. It comes with several features that make it higher rated than many other options on the market right now. Let’s consider some of them.
First, it comes as a single channel/ single path option that utilize only discrete components. Some of these components utilized include capacitors, transistors and resistors. Due to the technology it uses, I discovered that it comes with transformer balanced input and output. Interesting, each of these (input and output) is powered using separate transformers. This separation surely improves the efficiency of the unit. Hence, the output and input is fully optimized for performance.
The separate transformers powering the input and output might sound familiar, especially if you used vocal compressors before the creation of integrated circuits. This separation used to be the standard way of creating audio components, and the technology makes a comeback in this vintage unit.
Performance-wise, there is almost no beating this unit, especially when compared with similarly priced options. Suffice it to say that the sound is incredible. A high point for me is that it doesn’t take plenty of work to get the desired sound.
Design-wise, it looks great. The front panel is not cluttered and comes with only the essential controls. It comes with the ratio switch on the front panel, which is honestly great.
While new technology is often better than older versions, it seems to be the reverse in this case. Integrated circuits are nice because of their size and the ease of incorporating it into designs. The problem with them is that they don’t deliver optimal sound quality. They tend to lose the “character” of the sound.
For most folks, the sound quality from older components is just right to the ears. This interesting situation is made even more pronounced, considering that the sound quality when the sounds are recorded by digital audio equipment is markedly different.
It is definitely because of this that you have many manufacturers dusting the shelves to reproduce some of the iconic vintage vocal compressors. It is also the main reason why vintage vocal compressors are more expensive than their modern counterparts.
In this product, the circuit is built using a vintage design. It is controlled via an electro-luminescent panel and a photoelectric cell. This combination gives the unit some of the best sounds that you will hear via a vocal compressor at this price. Personally, I very much enjoyed the character and punch the new sound has.
Another reason why I love this budget option is that it is truly easy to set up and use. It comes with a pair of controls which control everything to give you the sound that you want.
What I don't like
It comes with an in-line wart PSU which I did not like.
Best Entry-Level Compressor: dbx 266xs
- ¼” TRS input with female XLR
- ¼” output with female XLR
- Program-adaptive gates
- LED Displays
DBX is an industry leader in vocal compression and generally compression technology. The company first made waves back in the 70’ with their top-of-the-line VCA compressor. Today, you can find DBX equipment in almost every studio of producers and vocalists worth their salt. The company is known for relatively expensive options. Hence I was slightly sceptical about their 266xs line.
However, I am happy to say the performance it delivered far exceeded my expectations. It is a powerful compressor that delivers incredible performance that rivals even more expensive options on the market today. It comes with several features that make it a truly excellent option to have in the studio. Let’s consider some of these features.
The unit, according to the manufacturer, is a live sound compressor; and its performance proves this claim to be true. When using OverEasy technology from dbx, you do not have to worry about coloration or sound squashing. What this feature does is that it converts your compressor into a unit that will deliver some of the best transitions from uncompressed to compressed sound.
Due to its ‘gating’, it keeps out any non-essential sounds.
When testing this product in the studio, I must say I was impressed by its performance; especially when using it for guitar and bass. Bass guitars notoriously have some wild dynamics, and you need something to rein these sounds in. Adding this unit to your existing setup will help to remove any noises that you do not want completely.
In terms of value, there is almost no other option that does as well as this unit. It offers more than decent performance for a relatively low price. Even if you somehow can’t find a use for it in your stacked studio, adding it to your live gig will improve the performance of your set up.
What I don't like
In the course of my testing, I observed that I experienced some loss of warmth, particularly when I used a tube preamp. Furthermore, it is an entry-level unit; hence you can expect some issues with coloration.
Best All-in-One Compressor: Tascam TA-1VP
- +48V Phantom Power
- Noise gate
- Mic modelling
- 2-band EQ
The penultimate product on our roundup is this excellent product from Tascam. It is one of the most versatile options on the market, and we rate it as the best all-in-one processor that you can find right now. It comes imbued with so many features that instead of asking “what can this unit do?’, we are left asking “what can it not do?’.
Despite the plethora of features and functions at its disposal, this unit comes with an easy to use interface. This interface allows users gain quick access and easily learn how to use the unit. It comes in a design that gives each module its own controls and meters. These are maneuverer via a data knob, and Page or Save controls. With these knobs, you can do plenty of stuff on the unit without plenty of hassle.
To further assist you in setting it up, it comes with an easy to read manual. The first time you use it, you will notice that the presets are directed mainly towards bass, drums, and different other instruments.
Dynamics control on this product is a breeze. I found the gate to deliver really smooth vocals and it helps to eliminate any errant noises. It comes with a variable knee and controls that help to control the dynamics that result from varying singing levels. With a de-essing function, you can even control sibilance and not have to eliminate any highs in the process.
One other feature I found impressive here is the EQ. This 2-band EQ allows you to play around with the compressor.
What I don't like
Although the 2-band EQ is really useful, it could have been better as a 3-band option. I find it difficult to process instruments or manage tonal shaping using just 2 bands.
Best Vocal Compressor for Recording: dbx 160A
- LED Display
- More than 60Db gain reduction
- ¼” TRS , XLR , 2 hot XLR input and output
This unit is the top option for home studios. It is designed to be like the 160X and XT models from DBX. Therefore, it comes with features that you will not find on cheap compressors.
For example, this unit gives the option of switching the knee from the OverEasy to Hard Knee curves.
At first glance, the 160A looks quite different from its contemporaries, as it comes with a modern look. This is further highlighted by the modern-looking switches on the front panel.
Performance-wise, it is a breeze to use. It helps to deliver truly dynamic control during use. I tested it using electric bass, and I must say that it delivers a punchy, yet warm sound.
What I don't like
Well, I observed that it might be too modern for my tastes. The minimalist look means that it lacks a power button, which I just couldn’t get past. Also lacks much needed attack and release controls – can't really do complete justice to the compression without it.
Over to You
Buying the best vocal compressor can be tough. There is almost no middle ground – compressors are either thousands of dollars, or you can buy them for a few hundred bucks. And while I'm still partial to the classics, newer units may have more to offer for home studios – as my list shows.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
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