What Compressor Plugins Are the Best on Vocals?
- LA-2A. You can almost never go wrong with an opto-compressor like the LA-2A on vocals and all the LA-2A plugins made by the major audio companies are great.
- 1176. Just like the LA-2A, you can rarely go wrong with an 1176 on vocals. An 1176 is likely to excel at compressing fast vocals (think Eminem freestyling; an LA-2A’s attack and release times may not cut it on such a track).
- Waves Renaissance Compressor. The Waves Renaissance Compressor is nice. It’s also a studio staple.
- LA-3A. This is my personal favorite for vocals. Like an LA-2A, it has the perfect attack and release for most vocals, but it tends to be a little clearer. If you’re going for a vocal with more shimmer, the LA-3A is probably a better bet than an LA-2A.
- Your DAW Stock Compressor. If you’re using Cubase, ProTools, or any other major DAW, your software comes packaged with a damned good compressor. If you can’t afford an expensive compressor plugin, you should take the time to really learn to use what you have.
- Waves V-Comp. This is a darker, vintage sounding compressor. If you’re recording a rock or jazz vocal that needs a dose of vintage vibe, this plugin will deliver.
This post is going to start off by talking about the importance of compression on vocals, then get into the different types of compressors that there are, and finally, the best plugins for vocal compression.
The Importance of Compression on Vocals
Your vocals are probably the most important aspect of your recording, yet the hardest to get right. When it comes to compression, it is as easy to squeeze the life out of your vocal performance as it is to have it sound like the singer recorded while hopping in circles around the mic.
Compression does help to tame the quick loud parts of your performance, which allows you to raise the overall volume of the track, but it actually does a lot more than that.
Compression Adds Color and Musicality to Vocals
Since the first compressors came out, producers have used them to do much more than simply control the dynamic range of a vocal performance. The unmistakable attack and release as well as the color that is provided by some compressors have become desired effects in and of themselves.
The slow attack and release of a compressor can even be musical, adding to the rhythm of the vocal by affecting the volume in sync with the tempo of a track.
Today, we use compressors to add color to vocals. With all of the advancements that digital recording has provided, there have been persistent complains about digital recordings being “sterile-sounding.” This is largely a result of the lack of saturation and its accompanying harmonic distortion. Software companies such as Waves, Universal Audio, and Native Instruments have addressed this complaint by producing plug-ins that model of the harmonic distortion created by hardware units such as the LA -2A, 1176, Fairchild 670, and other classic compressors.
Whether you are using an outboard compressor or a plugin model of an outboard compressor, one of the reasons why you are probably using it is that you wish to include some minor levels of harmonic distortion into your vocals as well as adopted the EQ curves that these units place on the sources they process.
The Various Types of Compressors
There are tons of different types of compressors. The most common ones that are used on vocals are based on FET compressors and opto compressors.
FET stands for field effect transistor. This is the type of compressor that replaced the original tube compressors in the late 1960s by using emerging transistor technology.
This type of compressor preserves transients better than an opto compressor does, which is why it is often used on fast vocals. FET-style compressors have a specific sound to them; there are even producers that use these units solely for the sound quality is they impart on vocals, not even using them to control the dynamics of the track.
What Are Some Commonly Used FET Compressors?
The most well-known of all of the FET compressors is by far the 1176. It is a staple of the recording studios all over the world and it sound has become synonymous with vocals in some genres such as rock.
When Should You Use an FET Compressor like an 1176 on Vocals?
Think of a rapper such as Eminem that has many rapid-fire, short syllable sounds in his recordings. An opto compressor will likely squash most of the track since it will not have the time to reduce the compression and time for the next word to come out.
An FET compressor will not have such a problem. This type of compressor will be able to release in time to allow the initial impact of the audio source to come through, resulting in a punchier recording.
How Opto-Compressors Work
Opto-compressors get their name because they rely on a photosensitive cell, known as a T4 cell, inside the unit. As the audio signal is passed through the compressor, part of it goes through the cell which allows it to attenuate the volume of the signal as it increases.
Using Opto-Compressors on Vocals
The first and most famous opto-compressor was the LA-2A by Teletronix. Teletronix released this compressor in the early 1960s, revolutionizing recording and broadcasting.
Optical compressors such as the LA-2A have attack and release times that are particularly well suited for compressing vocals. Their average attack time is 10 milliseconds and their typical release time is about 60 ms for 50% release and 0.5 to 5 seconds for full release.
Optical compressors are not particularly well suited to allowing transients through because of their slow release time. Sources such as drums and other types of caution are rarely well suited for this compressor.
Opto-Compressors and Digital Recording
As I mentioned previously, the biggest complaints that sound engineers had when Digital recording became common place was its “sterile” sound. Digital recordings had a hi-fi sound that was entirely lacking in any sort of saturation or harmonic distortion.
These engineers began dusting off old Recording equipment to combat the perceived sterility of their recordings.
Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the LA two-way and similar opto-compressors were largely forgotten. There resurgence came as a demand for warmer tracks came; in particular, a demand for “warmer-sounding” vocals and bass.
The Best Plugins for Vocals
The Waves CLA 2A is my go to plug-in for vocal compression, though almost all of the LA-2A plugins out there are great.
What I particularly like about this plug-in is the fact that it allows us to turn on and turn off the noise floor that is inherent to the outward units. I also like that it has a control to manage the rolling off of high frequencies as gain reduction increases. LA-2A units tend to roll off frequencies over 12kHz as they compress more and more. This plug-in allows you to decide how much of your high-end you want rolled off.
Shootout of Different LA-2A Plugins
As I stated before, almost all of the plug-ins produced by the major software companies are great. That does not mean that they are all the same.
Each company models their plug-ins off of the units that they have available to them, and when dealing with 50-year-old pieces of equipment there will certainly be major differences between them. As a result, there are differences in the sounds of the LA-2A compressor plug-ins from different manufacturers.
You can listen to this great shootout here:
Waves CLA-76 Blue
As I stated earlier, 1176 compressors 10 to excel when fast release times are needed. If you’re mixing a fast vocal, you are probably best off reaching for a plug-in based on an FET compressor.
The Waves CLA 76 blue is based on the original 1176 compressor, often known as the blue stripe 1176. This unit is considered to be considerably noisier than the version D blackface model, which is the model most 1176 clones are model after today.
Even though the blue stripe 1176 is a bit noisier, it also introduces a bit more harmonic distortion into a recording. This is considered to be a desirable trait if what you intend to do is add “warmth” into a digital vocal track.
The CLA-76 plugin is great at this. Like the CLA 2A, it allows you to turn off the noise floor. It also models the distortion and EQ curve of the original blue stripe 1176.
Shootout of 1176 Plugins on Vocals
Waves Renaissance Compressor
The Waves Renaissance compressor can be set as either an FET-style compressor or an opto-compressor. This is perfect for a home studio owner that doesn’t have the budget to purchase a large plug-in package. The Renaissance compressor can usually be purchased for under $50 and will deliver the kind of impression that you would typically need separate plug-ins for.
What Does the Renaissance Compressor Sound Like?
I actually use the CLA 3A on vocals more than any other compressor plugin. I found that it has a clearer more hi-fi sound then CLA-2A, but still introduces some low levels of harmonic distortion. I also love it because it is so easy to operate. I’ve never had to spend much time fiddling with attack and release times, just setting it and adjusting the peak reduction and gain reduction to taste.
Like the CLA 2A and the CLA 76, it also allows for the inclusion or exclusion of the natural noise floor of the unit with the “analog” button. I always leave it off, but if I ever wanted to get an authentic throwback sound, I might leave it on.
I do tends to leave the high-frequency attenuation on unless I am going for a particularly clear vocal, but in that case, I probably would not use one of these plug-ins at all opting instead for the Waves Renaissance Compressor or the Waves C1.
Your Stock Compressor Plugins
Let’s be honest, you can get really good sounds out of your DAW’s stock compressor plug-ins. In addition to providing plug-ins to manage the dynamics of your vocals, you also probably have some models of the aforementioned plug-ins such as the 1176 and LA-2A.
I am a Cubase user, and I know that it comes with “vintage compressor” which is a nice-sounding 1176 plugin. If I hadn’t sprung for the CLA cool action a few years back. I would feel entirely comfortable using this plug-in if I felt the vocal needed and 1176 sound.
When it comes to controlling the dynamics of a vocal, you are best off with a combination of automating your volume by raising and lowering gain in the track and some minor gain reduction (-3db to -6db) through a plug-in. You do not need to smash your vocal through a plug-in that you paid $300 for.
Waves V-Comp is the swampiest, warmest, most syrupy plug-in for vocals that I’ve used.
It sounds anything but sterile or hi-fi.
This is a plug-in that I most often use on bass, but if I ever needed a compressor to thicken up a vocal in a retro fashion and I didn’t feel like fighting with EQ, I would definitely give this plugin a shot.
It is based on the Neve 2254 compressor. This is a transistor-based compressor that was used on a number of led Zeppelin album.
Perfect for Vocals
A particularly cool feature of this login is that it also includes a DeEsser. If you have a track with annoying silibance, a DeEsser will come in handy. Like the other plugins, it has noise floor modeling, but instead of having you turn it completely on or off, it allows you to set it at different levels. I tend to turn it completely off.
A Limiter and a Compressor
Another cool, unique feature of this plug-in is that it includes a limiter in addition to a compressor. This can be particularly nice if you are in need of a brick wall limiter on top of your compressor for whatever reason.