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Best Compressor Plugins by Waves for Rich Analog Mixes

Feb 20, 2024

Compressors don’t just impart ‘that special something’ on their own. Here we’ll show you what’s special about all the classic analog-style compressor so you get the right mojo dialed into every mix with intention, style and just the right amount of squeeze.

Best Compressor Plugins by Waves for Rich Analog Mixes

The plugin market can be a tricky one to navigate. “Which compressor plugin should I try next in my mix?” you ask… Here, we’re looking into the world of analog-style compressor plugins, how they differ from one another, and the key features and characteristics you need to know when deciding which compressor plugin to invest in next.

In This Article

When Should I Choose an Analog Compressor Plugin?

As if there weren’t enough decisions you need to make when producing music and mixing a track, we’ve got another one for you to think about. An often tricky consideration, one which usually slows down our creative flow, is choosing the best compressor plugin for a particular mix or mastering need. A simple way to make the right compressor choice is to first narrow down your options by style: analog-style compression or digital? Then, the answer should be based on what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

Choosing the right compressors for your mix

Analog-style compressors are renowned for adding color and character to a signal, adding gentle saturation or even gritty distortion to the music when pushed too hard. With analog audio equipment, the adjectives “thick” or “warm” are often associated, and the same is true for real analog compressors and their plugin emulations. Digital compressors on the other hand are considered to be much more transparent, meaning they were designed to alter only the level and dynamics of a signal, not tone or timbre.

Say you want to add a bit of grit or interest to your drums. You may want a sense of warmth or thickness in a vocal, either way, you’ll want to choose an analog-style compressor plugin. If instead you're working with a dialog track or you're mastering a song where precision is vital, you’ll want to consider using a digital compressor instead as these are better at retaining clarity and sound generally more transparent.

Let’s now take a whistle-stop tour of the most essential analog-style compressors ever made, discussing why thousands of top producers trust them, along with suggestions for where and when these work best in mix and mastering productions.

SSL G-Master Buss Compressor: Best for Applying Colorful Mix Glue

Mixing with The SSL G-Master Buss Compressor plugin

The G-Master compressor first found its fame on the SSL 4000 Series console. It’s a stereo VCA compressor that was used on the mixer’s output as opposed to on individual channels. It was quickly recognised for its colorful tone and smooth character. The G-Master Buss Compressor is revered by audio engineers around the world for its ability to gel mixes together into a cohesive signal. If you’re specifically interested in mix bus compressors, we’ve written a bit more about that here.

Modeled on the original hardware compressor and licensed by SSL themselves, the G-Master Buss Compressor gives you the same feature set of the original, but our emulation gives you a little bit more with the added benefit of parallel processing with a Mix dial. You also get control over the Autofade Release functionality, which is great if you struggle dialing in release times and the ability to set an external sidechain for extra compression flexibility. Try the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor now to achieve a solid drum buss feel and to get your mixes glued together with that legendary SSL cohesive sound.

CLA-76 Compressor: Best for Applying Speedy Dynamic Processing

Mixing with super fast CLA-76 compression

This ‘FET’ compressor is heralded as one of the true greats in the audio engineering world. The CLA-76 has been carefully crafted to emulate the same behavior and tone as its hardware forebear, meaning it’s able to apply everything from subtle, transparent level control all the way up to extreme compression.

Its FET-based design means it has a super-snappy response to transients. This makes it ideal for controlling unwanted peaks in signals from drums to vocal plosives to particularly prominent guitar plucks. The hardware original’s “all buttons in” mode is also replicated in the CLA-76. Use this to create an over-the-top crushed effect that the original became known for. Grab the CLA-76 Compressor now for fast, explosive dynamic control that can be set in mere seconds.

API 2500 Compressor: Best All-Rounder

Mixing with a superior API 2500 compressor plugin

API is considered to be one of the big hitters in terms of classic analog hardware. Their 2500 compressor is a popular choice amongst engineers due to its various modes and settings, making it an extremely versatile option.

Alongside the usual compressor settings, there’s a variable release mode, variable left/right linking which can go to zero for dual-mono mode, three Knee curves, plus API’s proprietary Thrust control which inserts a high-pass filter at the input for shaping the compressor’s response to a signal. You even get New and Old modes for even more flexibility. The API 2500 is a piece of audio history, and you can get the official Waves emulation here.

CLA-2A Compressor/Limiter: Best for Natural but Musical Results

Mixing vocals with smooth CLA-2A compression

Amongst a sea of analog compression superstars, this one is arguably the most legendary. This electro-optical tube-based compressor (known as an opto compressor for short) features very few controls, and its notoriety is owed almost entirely to its frequency-dependent attack & release times and the harmonic saturation that it imparts on a signal.

You get a Ratio choice of 3:1 in Compressor mode, or 100:1 in Limiter mode, plus make-up Gain and Peak Reduction controls. The Peak Reduction’s scale is non-linear, so applying a different balance of these parameters achieves a range of different compression and limiting behaviors with little effort. The CLA-2A is particularly effective on vocals as it tames dynamics in very musical and smooth ways. Grab the Waves CLA-2A now to hear what all the fuss is about.

CLA-3A Compressor/Limiter: The CLA-2A, but Faster

As the successor to the famed CLA-2A, you’d expect it to be like its big brother, but better. On the hardware side, much of the architecture inside the two compressors is the same, but true to their original hardware versions, the CLA-3A responds much faster to dynamic signals.

This makes the CLA-3A far more suited to transient-rich information such as drums, plucked guitars or even particularly enthusiastic vocal performances. You can read more about the differences between the two compressors here, or just grab the CLA-3A and hear the differences for yourself.

PuigChild Compressor: Best Rare Choice

Despite its relatively low price tag when new, the stereo Fairchild 670 is considered to be one of the rarest hardware compressors out there today. With a range of modes including dual mono and mid-side, six selectable attack and release speeds, plus variable-mu tube topology, it was also one of the most versatile compressors of its time.

With a fast attack time and warm open sound, the PuigChild 670 is able to attenuate harshness without affecting the impact of transients thus making it an ideal choice for transient-rich information such as drum and percussion tracks. Pick up the PuigChild 660 and 670 Compressors now and see how both can transform your mixes.

dbx® 160 Compressor: Best for Power and Punch

Designed alongside the manufacturers of the original hardware device, the Waves dbx® 160 Compressor features the same hallmark traits that made it so popular in the 70s. Lightning-fast attack, a transparent sound and straightforward operation make this a popular choice for engineers within many styles of music.

This software emulation adds linked stereo, dual mono, or mid-side modes, input high pass filters and a mix control for instant parallel compression. Get the Waves dbx® 160 Compressor now to fatten up your drums, bulk out your bass or give your mix that little extra edge.

Abbey Road RS124 Vintage Compressor: Most Unique Compression Tone

Mix with the legendary RS124 compressor

The famous Abbey Road studios is known to have had a number of “secret weapons” over the years. This is one of them, a modded Altec 436B compressor. After a couple of decades locked in a cupboard, the RS124 compressor was recovered during a quest to achieve The Beatles’ signature sound.

This plugin version gives you the exact sound and behavior of these historic devices, meticulously modeled to be as true as possible. You also get a SuperFuse mode for extreme compression, a choice of Studio or Cutter Unit Types to replicate the fact that no two hardware units ever sounded the same and other controls such as an input filter and mix control. Download the RS124 Compressor now to get a taste of Abbey Road’s musical history.

PIE Compressor: Best for Applying Transparent Mix Glue

Modeled on the Pye compressor of the 60s, the Waves PIE Compressor is designed to be used as a buss compressor, from drum or vocal busses or even mix busses. Harnessing pulse-width modulation technology, this compressor is lauded for its ability to achieve quick and transparent compression with relatively low distortion.

The quick and simple layout of the plugin makes this a very simple one to chuck on a buss or group and get it sounding good. As with many of the other analog-modeled Waves compressors we’ve mentioned here, you can also add analog noise to the signal for a more realistic compression experience. Find out more about the PIE Compressor and add it to your plugin folder here.

To experience any of these compressor plugins for yourself, simply download a 7-day free trial via any of the product pages or, with Waves Creative Access, you’ll find all of these compressors along with the entire range of plugins we provide for you to make and mix amazing sounding music with.

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