Compression is an integral part of getting a drum to sit well in a mix… it can make your mix, or it can destroy your mix completely.
And for this reason, many engineers are understandably fussy about the kind of compressors they wish to use.
And since this is a rather subjective matter, we’ve taken the time to research the most recommended and best compressors for drums to get you on the right track with your mixing … (no pun intended).
Quick answer: FabFilter’s Pro-C is the top choice for many in our research and experience.
Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors is also another favorite that many professionals stand by.
If you’re on a budget, Waves Audio Renaissance Compressor is the cheapest in this list, even at the original price (and a steal when it’s on sale)
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Drum Compressor Overview
- Best Compressors for Drum Plugin
- Final Thoughts – Which to Get?
Find more great guides here:
- Bass Compressor Plugins
- Waves Mastering Plugins
- Tape Emulation Plugins
- EQ and Compression Techniques for Drums
Drum Compressor Plug-In Overview
A compressor is a hardware device or a software-emulated circuit that compresses the dynamic range of an audio signal.
By flattening out the peaks and boosting the low levels, compressors result in a smoother and more consistent signal.
When it comes to drums, compressors may also be used to a more punchy sound, and to make the individual elements of a drum kit stand out better in a mix.
You can read more about how a compressor works in our previous article, which goes into more juicy details.
Features to Look for in a Drum Compressor Plug-in
Good attack control is absolutely essential for drum compression.
This is obvious, as drums are one of the most transient heavy instruments out there.
While you may be able to do without user-adjustable attack or release controls for other applications, drum processing relies on these controls to let the initial transients pop out.
Another useful feature is a ‘knee’ control, which determines how abruptly the compressor circuitry clamps down on the signal. With a an adjustable knee control, you will be able to set your drums to cut through a mix with clarity and precision, or make it lay back into a mix if you wish.
Read more about how to use a compressor (and EQ) with drums to get good results.
Choosing The Best Drum Compressor
When choosing a compressor plug-in for drum processing, vibe and attitude are almost always the top priorities.
Save the transparent compressor for your vocal or piano tracks. With drums, you want a compressor that can punch and squash with the best of them, with coloration or pleasing harmonic distortion generally considered welcome bonuses.
With that said, let’s take a look at a few good options.
Best Compressors For Drums (Software Plugins VST/AU/AAX)
As of this article, the FabFilter Pro-C 2 is the latest version of the compressor plug-in that comes with the much-celebrated FabFilter suite. It’s quite innovative and forward-looking as the other plugins in the collection, and has a impressive amount of features and functionalities, with on of the best user interfaces out there.
Included in the features are eight different compression modes to intelligent auto-gain and auto-release, variable knee to external side-chain triggering, and quite a bit more. Let’s take a look…
Specs and useful features
- Eight compression styles, which of which are new to version 2: vocal, mastering, bus, punch and pumping
- Range setting for limiting the maximum gain change
- Animated level knee display
- Accurate peak/loudness metering
- Mix setting scales gain change from 0% to 200%
- Side-chain EQ with customizable HP and LP filters
For users weaned on hardware compressors and vintage emulations in plug-in form, FabFilter’s Pro-C 2’s user interface could seem a bit intimidating. Although slick and ergonomically-designed (clearly designed with the modern laptop producer in mind), the ultra-modern look does seem to cause a fair bit of confusion among traditional users.
That being said, those familiar with the FabFilter line definitely appreciate the availability of so many features, and how easily they can be tweaked to do their bidding. It also helps that a detailed info box pops up when you mouse over the controls. This feature can be turned off after you have familiarized yourself with the various features of the plug-in.
Some feel that the real-time graphs are too large and too distracting. However, there is no denying that they are essential for helping new users learn the intricacies of the Pro-C.
FabFilter Pro-C 2 boasts of an ultra-modern user interface that is about as far as you could get from the vintage emulations that dominate compressor market. If there is anything negative that could be said about the Pro-C, it is that it is easy to mess up your drum tracks if you aren’t careful. However, this could just as easily be a testament to the awesome power and immense tone-shaping capability of this supremely versatile plug-in.
Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors (VBC)
The Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors (VBC) is a set of plug-ins designed to emulate the characteristics of three vintage compressor circuits: the SSL 4000 G-Series Buss Compressor, the Focusrite Red 3 Compressor/Limiter, and the Fairchild 670.
All the idiosyncrasies of these legendary devices have been recreated in the VBC suite, giving you the rich, warm, and punchy tones that you have heard on classic recordings over the years.
Specs and useful features
- Three compressors modeled after classic hardware units: the SSL 4000 G-Series Buss Compressor, the
- Focusrite Red 3 Compressor/Limiter, and the Fairchild 670
- Accurate reproduction of saturation characteristics of the original hardware
- All compressors can be combined in the FG-Rack
- Mix and side-chain high-pass filter knobs
Users with a taste for the decidedly vintage have nothing but praise for the Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors. One user reported relegating his prized Neve 33609 to the closet after less than a minute of tinkering with the RED module!
For many users, the plug-ins impart an almost magical quality that goes beyond anything that could be explained via technical processes. Citing their ability to focus kick drums and make them tighter, some users feel that the VBC trio brings out subtle qualities that cannot be achieved via EQ, distortion, compression, or any combination thereof. One particularly ecstatic reviewer in fact claimed that simply adding the FG-Rack to the chain enhanced the sound perceptively.
The VBC suite isn’t the most expensive option in this roundup, especially when you consider that you actually get three plug-ins for the money. But they are definitely classy. For the money, you get a pretty impressive array of compressors that could give your bland drums tracks a new lease on life.
Waves Audio Renaissance Compressor
The Waves Audio Renaissance Compressor is a now-classic compressor plugin that is still capable of producing great sounding tracks.
Many consider it highly effective at making drums stand out and be more present in the mix. It pumps and heaves with the best of them, yet eases back into near transparency if necessary.
A standard tool for drum compression tasks, the Renaissance Compressor is also an effective sound sweetener for guitar, bass, and even vocals.
Specs and useful features
- Vintage Opto and modern Electro modes
- Internal brickwall limiting
- Auto Release Control (ARC) for higher RMS levels
- Double precision bit resolution processing
- Up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution
As one of the venerated classics of the Waves selection, the Renaissance Compressor has had its share of fans and detractors over the years. Remarkably enough for a plug-in of its age, the latter seem to be in the minority, as the Renaissance still finds its way to numerous tracks to this day.
Many users especially appreciate the Renaissance Compressor’s ability to squash drums and bass tracks in a very musical way. Transparent it may not be, but the special sauce that it slathers all over anything it touches makes for a pretty heady sonic brew.
Some users do feel that the user interface of the Renaissance is in dire need of an update. Nevertheless, those that are more concerned with sound than visual aesthetics generally agree that this is one versatile and reliable compressor that still punches well above its weight years after it was released.
As the cheapest plug-in in this lineup, the Renaissance Compressor is even more of a no-brainer than the Waves API 2500. You probably won’t want this to be the only compressor plug-in in your arsenal, especially if you are doing more than processing just drum tracks. Nevertheless, there will undoubtedly be times when you have an itch for that distinctive “compression/sustainer”-type squish, and the Renaissance will be the only one that soothes it.
Waves Audio SSL G-Master Buss Compressor
The Waves SSL G-Channel is a combination compressor-EQ-filter plug-in that draws inspiration from the legendary SSL 4000 mixing console channel strip. It was modeled under license from Solid State Logic (a company that’s been dominating the pro audio world with their consoles since the 1970s), so you should expect it to deliver the same dynamic response and versatile tonal shaping qualities of the original hardware circuit.
With features such as pre-boost dip, pre-cut rise, and broad Q, the SSL G is a great buss compressor that can work wonders on any drum track.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after the SSL G Series console strip
- Developed under license from Solid State Logic
- Ideally suited for adding punch to drums
- Distinctive EQ and dynamics
- G-Equalizer enhances any sound source
It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t like the Waves Audio SSL G-Master Buss Compressor. One of the rare negative comments have to do with the tendency of the sound to get “clicky” on percussive transients, but this is by no means a common consensus. For most users, the Waves SSL G is a quick way to add some polish to drum and bass tracks.
Some users have managed to bring out its more aggressive character on snare drum tracks, although it is generally used for more subtle applications. With its ability to enhance the midrange, the plug-in could get equal action as a drum, bass, electric guitar, and even piano compressor.
The Waves Audio SSL G is a pretty reasonably-priced offering that works especially well for adding gritty midrange to most any audio material. Although you would probably want to augment it with other more transparent compressors, the unique character and reasonable approximation of the classic SSL channel strip makes it a worthy addition to your set of studio tools.
Softube FET Compressor
This plugin has gotten quite a bit of mentions in some of our other plugin guides, which is a testament to how good it is. The Softube FET Compressor, which is modeled after the iconic Urei 1176, is a versatile plug-in that can add loads of rich and natural distortion to anything you pumped through it.
The aggressive sounds seem to be its stock in trade, although it’s capable of easing back a touch when needed. Once you hear the characterful and explosive sound it imparts to drum tracks however, you will probably want to keep pushing it to the extreme.
Features such as Parallel Inject, sidechain filtering, and ultrafast attack settings make this an essential plug-in for drum compression duties.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after the Urei/Universal Audio 1176
- Great sounding input and output stage distortion
- Extremely fast attack time
- Look-ahead mode for even faster attack time
- “All buttons in” mode
- Continuous ratio (can be set to fixed ratio)
- Parallel compression
- Detector low and high cut filters
- External side chain
- Stereo with synchronized gain reduction
Many users that have experience with both the Urei 1176 and the Softube FET Compressor feel that the plug-in measures up quite well to its hardware counterpart. Glenn Rosenstein, a producer and engineer that has worked with Madonna and U2 among others said that the FET Compressor “just sounds right.”
Another avowed Urei 1176 user, Koen Heldens (Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Timbaland) feels that the plug-in in “in a league of its own”.
For still other users, the FET Compressor sounds just as analog as the hardware unit that it is designed to emulate.
The Softube FET Compressor isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s undoubtedly a formidable sonic tool that can stand proudly even among the most revered hardware compressors of old. Equally effective on the drum buss as it is on drum room mics and overheads, it has a way of making even the tamest drum tracks big, loud, and explosive. And with its Parallel Inject control and sidechain filter, it is a lot more versatile than any compressor plug-in typically used for drum processing duties.
Boz Digital Labs +10db Compressor
The Boz Digital Labs +10db Compressor is modeled after yet another iconic piece: the ADR F760X Compex compressor-limiter-expander. It aims at replicating the sound of dozens of classic tracks through the decades, so you’ll find that it oozes with vibe and character, making massive, stomping behemoths out of even the most anemic-sounding drum kits.
If you’re wondering just what kind of sonic magic the +10db can impart to your drum tracks, think of the bodacious, in-your-face quality of John Bonham’s drum sound, and you’d be halfway there.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after the ADR F760X Compex compressor-limiter-expander
- Created in collaboration with producer/mixer David Bendeth
- New features added
- Same iconic sound as the original
“Big”, “open”, and “punchy” are only some of the most favorable adjectives used when describing the sound produced by the +10db Compressor. Longtime users of the F760X Compex (after which the plug-in is modeled) are especially taken with how the software version is able to accurately reproduce the sound and dynamic response of the original.
Other users feel that the enhancements that Boz Digital Labs has added make the plug-in even more versatile than the original. For these users, the ability to perform parallel compression right within the plug-in is essential for New York-style compression on drum tracks.
The Boz Digital Labs +10db Compressor is a very capable mid-priced compressor plug-in that can easily handle most compression tasks. Remarkably similar to the F760X Compex in tone and attitude, it is especially effective as an expander and gate for drums. Take a look at a few other options if you must, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself yearning for the distinctive flavor of the +10db!
Waves Audio API 2500
Three compression modes, three variable filter types, and an array of useful controls. That’s what you’d be getting in the Waves Audio API 2500. It’s versatile, but it’s surprisingly easy to use. You can get the rich analog character to shine through even at more moderate settings. And it’s versatile enough, like mentioned before, to be used on the master buss and as an insert for a whole plethora of instrument tracks.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after the API 2500 stereo compressor
- Developed in association with API
- Switchable 3-position Thrust high-pass filter
- 3 variable link filter types
- 3 compression modes: soft, medium and hard knee
- 6 release settings: 5 fixed, 1 continuous
The API 2500 has been around for a number of years now, and has its share of fans. Although most people use it as a buss compressor for gluing individual tracks together into a cohesive whole, there are those that swear by it for adding the finishing touch to drum tracks.
Fans of the API 2500 especially like the simple and straightforward interface and the general efficiency of the plug-in. When used for processing individual drum parts, it has the amazing ability to really make transients pop out with its fast attack.
For what the Waves Audio API 2500 is going for these days, it is almost criminal not to have it in your studio toolbox. A great mix compressors that also works magic on drum tracks, this is one plug-in that truly shows off the best qualities of the hardware device that it is emulating.
Final thoughts – Which to Get?
With so many fine compressors all gathered in one place, it is quite hard to pick one that qualifies as “the best.”
Even so, the FabFilter Pro-C 2 simply has that combination of modern features, functionality, and great sound that make it a winner all around.
Of course, we would be remiss in not mentioning the other plugins in the lineup, all of which are excellent in their own right. The Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors are especially deserving of mention, if only for their ability to replicate the sound and response of vintage compressor circuitry so well.
The same goes for the Waves Audio API 2500, the Waves Audio SSL G-Master Buss Compressor, the +10db, and especially the Softube FET Compressor, all of which we would be proud to have in our ever-expanding plug-in collection.
We would even have to give props to the Waves Audio Renaissance Compressor, which still sounds great despite its age and somewhat lackluster graphics.
The bottom-line is that you can’t go too far wrong with any of these plug-ins. Choose your price point and take your pick, and get ready to inject new life into your drum tracks.