The Best Hardware Compressors

The Best Hardware Compressors

Make your sound warmer and more smooth with the right punch with the best hardware compressors on the market.

Quick answer:

Warm Audio WA-2A is our top choice for value for money, being one of the most popular among music producers and sound engineers, as well as it’s well-known for its smooth character and long attack time.

Tube-Tech CL 1B is a great choice for someone who is looking for a go-to tube compressor that gives you rich, warm, smooth, and transparent compression. It’s also one of the top choices in the industry.

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Table of Contents


About Our Top Choices

Tube-Tech CL 1B Tube Optical Compressor

Tube-Tech CL 1B Tube Optical Compressor
See price @ Sweetwater

More details…

Tube-Tech CL 1B is a great choice for someone who is looking for a go-to tube compressor that gives you rich, warm, smooth, and transparent compression. It’s also one of the top choices in the industry.

Pros
  • VU meter
  • Variable attack and release time
  • Clickless bypass switch
  • Unique low distortion gain-reduction element
Cons
  • Not exactly budget-friendly

Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Optical Compressor

Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Optical Compressor
See price @ Amazon / @ Sweetwater

More details…

Why the majority of the top studios choose Warm Audio WA-2A because it’s great value for money, and therefore it’s the most popular among music producers and sound engineers. Also, it’s well-known for its smooth character and long attack time.

Pros
  • Branded tubes
  • Silky and smooth character
  • Great value for money
  • Faithful recreation of legendary LA-2A
  • Warm Audio’s 1-year warranty
Cons
  • None

Top 7 Best Hardware Compressors

  1. Tube-Tech CL 1B Tube Optical Compressor
  2. Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Optical Compressor
  3. Empirical Labs EL8
  4. Manley Variable Mu
  5. Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR
  6. Warm Audio Bus-Comp
  7. Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET

Best Hardware Compressors Reviews


Tube-Tech CL 1B Tube Optical Compressor

Tube-Tech CL 1B Tube Optical Compressor

Pros
  • VU meter
  • Variable attack and release time
  • Clickless bypass switch
  • Unique low distortion gain-reduction element
Cons
  • Not exactly budget-friendly
See price @ Sweetwater

There is no wonder why Tube-Tech CL 1B is the top choice of many musicians and top studios around the world. It’s a well-known industry standard, and it’s a go-to compressor for bass and vocals. It’s loved because of its velvety-smooth, musical-sounding compression while still giving you clear sound.

Best features and specs

What differentiates Tube-Tech CL 1B from other compressors except for being an absolute best is that it’s very simple in usage, and it offers individual control over threshold, attack, release, and ratio. Also, it’s operated by a sidechain amplifier which provides you with an opportunity to use fixed time attack and release, manual variable time control, or fixed/manual.

User impressions

Users are impressed by the ability of Tube-Tech CL 1B to give exceptionally smooth and warm compression. Also, users say that it’s very versatile and always provides you with lots of color irrespective of instrument or vocals you use it on.

What we think

What we like about Tube-Tech CL 1B is the transparency that it gives you. Especially the fact that when we dial in lots of compression, there are no audible artifacts. We agree with many more sound engineers, music producers, and musicians about the fact that it’s definitely the best compressor available.

Bottomline

Tube-Tech CL 1B is a great choice for someone who is looking for a go-to tube compressor that gives you rich, warm, smooth, and transparent compression. It’s also one of the top choices in the industry.


Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Optical Compressor

Warm Audio WA-2A Tube Optical Compressor

Pros
  • Branded tubes
  • Silky and smooth character
  • Great value for money
  • Faithful recreation of legendary LA-2A
  • Warm Audio’s 1-year warranty
Cons
  • None
See price @ Amazon / @ Sweetwater

Why the majority of the top studios choose Warm Audio WA-2A because it’s great value for money, and therefore it’s the most popular among music producers and sound engineers. Also, it’s well-known for its smooth character and long attack time.

Best features and specs

Warm Audio WA-2A has really easily understandable front panel where two knobs of Peak Reduction and Output Gain are placed. Output Gain gives you a range of +40 dB, and you have 40 dB of gain reduction. Also, you can easily calibrate the VU meter as it has a separate knob. Pre-emphasis knob lets you adjust side-chain audio that manages the optical module to compress.

User impressions

Users like Warm Audio WA-2A because it’s a versatile, mighty workhorse, and it offers warm sound on various instruments and vocals.

What we think

What we like the most about Warm Audio WA-2A is the sound that it gives. No words can describe that outstanding warmth and smooth sound character. The compressor does its job so well that it somehow subdues hissing sounds but still gives a silky high end.

Bottomline

Warm Audio WA-2A is a great choice for someone who is looking for a faithful recreation of a legendary LA-2A that is a very versatile and mighty workhorse. It’s affordable and offers you amazing smooth and warm sound.


Empirical Labs EL8

Empirical Labs EL8

 

Pros
  • Advanced sidechain EQ
  • Eight unique curves
  • Switchable 115/230 volt operation
  • Three audio modes of distortion
Cons
  • No output level meter
See price @ Amazon / @ Sweetwater

Empirical Labs EL8 is another compressor that is well-known due to the fact that many famous musicians, including Steve Vai, use it in their work. The Distressor offers you to add 2nd and 3rd-order harmonic distortion to the signal, imitating tape saturation and the legendary tube compressor sound of the 60’s and 70’s.

Best features and specs

Empirical Labs EL8 presents advanced sidechain EQ, Empirical Labs’ exclusive “Binary Stepped Interface,” and 8 unique curves while offering over a hundred options with a few control settings. Also, Distressor gives you a warm vintage-flavored sound that is highly valued.

User impressions

Users say that Empirical Labs EL8 is their choice whenever they decide to compress the vocals as they can get up to 5 different compressor styles. Also, users say that it’s the most versatile tool that they have in their arsenal and this compressor offers the sweetest distortion.

What we think

What we like about Empirical Labs EL8 is that it’s made by the Empirical Labs founder, Dave Derr. Mr. Derr had an aim to create a versatile unit that would produce the most powerful energy and sound which earlier the tape machine was offering and be good to apply on any instrument.

Bottomline

Empirical Labs EL8 is a great choice for someone who is looking for a versatile and well-built compressor that comes from a reliable and famous manufacturer. This compressor offers a lot of options that can be controlled by a few knobs.


Manley Variable Mu

Manley Variable Mu

Pros
  • Flat frequency response
  • Recovery 5 steps
Cons
  • On the pricey side
See price @ Amazon / @ Sweetwater

Manley Variable Mu is another favorite of many music producers and sound engineers around the world. It has an adjustable attack, release, and threshold that is just perfect for mixing, mastering, and tracking and its highpass sidechain offers you more flexibility.

Best features and specs

Manley Variable Mu is a well-built and versatile compressor. In Compress mode, it gives you a soft-knee 1:5:1 ratio, while the sharper knee Limit mode gives you from 4:1 to 20:1 ratio. Also, it has a flat frequency response, Recovery in 5 steps, and Variable Attack.

User impressions

Users like Manley Variable Mu because it makes any mix sound pleasant, sweet, and bright. Users add that they really like the sound of everything that they put through this compressor, it sounds more than just better.

What we think

What we like about Manley Variable Mu is that it has individual controls for output, attack, release, and threshold. Also, we like the sweet sound that we get when we put this compressor on the stereo bus in the mastering mode.

Bottomline

Manley Variable Mu is a great choice for someone who is looking for a workhorse of a compressor and a sound-shaping tool that makes everything sound sweeter and better. Note, though, that it’s rather on a pricey side of things.


Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR

Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR

Pros
  • Oxford mode compression tracking
  • Ultra-fast attack and release time
  • Versatile sidechain filtering options
  • Easy-to-operate
Cons
  • None
See price @ Amazon / @ Sweetwater

Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR offers you compression tracking that works in “Oxford mode,” which means that the loudest signal controls the compression. Also, it offers the true stereo operation on single controls with matched gain cells for a tight right/left tracking and almost no offset between channels.

Best features and specs

Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR offers you a variety of features, including the Blend control for instant parallel compression. Also, the compressor adds authority, grith, and warmth to any sound source resulting in the sweetest compression ever.

User impressions

Users agree that Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR has an outstanding build quality and sounds absolutely incredible. Some users say that they were pleasantly surprised by a feature that lets them choose between two frequency ranges, which turns this device into a powerful de-harsh processor / de-esser.

What we think

We were pleasantly surprised by the way that Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR delivers its compression. Also, we can intuitively operate it and easily set up controls for any level that we require at the moment. We like that there are plenty of things to discover in the way it operates.

Bottomline

Heritage Audio SUCCESSOR is a great choice for someone who is looking for a versatile and powerful compressor that is incredibly well-built and intuitive to operate.


Warm Audio Bus-Comp

Warm Audio Bus-Comp 2-channel Stereo VCA Bus Compressor

Pros
  • Affordable
  • 5 ratio settings, from 1.5:1 to 10:1
  • Attack times from 0.3 to 30 ms
  • Release times from 0.3 secs to 1.2 secs
  • 30Hz to 185Hz highpass filter
Cons
  • Noise floor could be lower
  • Could have more features
See price @ Amazon / @ Sweetwater

Warm Audio Bus-Comp is an affordable old-school-looking compressor that adds depth and color. This type of compressor is an ideal choice for mix buses because it easily glues all elements in the mix, making it sounds musical and consistent.

Best features and specs

Warm Audio Bus-Comp has the lowest ratio point among others, starting from 1:5:1, which is perfect for soft genres of music which do not require that much compression. Also, it has a Hi-Pass filter that lets to operate the amount of low-end in the compressed signal and it will help with reducing the boomy effect in your tracks.

User impressions

Users are quite impressed with Warm Audio Bus-Comp as it’s amazingly versatile and it glues everything together really well. Users say that the compression is really transparent and smooth. Users add that sometimes this compressor lets a tiny bit of artifacts be present in the sound, but it’s compensated by a very nice color and great depth of the signal.

What we think

What we like about Warm Audio Bus-Comp is that it has Engage Transformers button, which lets you change the output circuitry. Also, the sound is modified by 2 other transformers so that it has an amazing harmonic distortion and a round bottom-end.

Bottomline

Warm Audio Bus-Comp is a great choice for someone who is looking for an affordable, versatile, vintage-looking compressor that adds nice color and depth to the sound.


Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET

Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET

Pros
  • Big and Air modes
  • Analog VU meters
  • Robust build quality
  • Parallel compression
Cons
  • Hard on CPU
  • Crowded front panel
See price @ Sweetwater

Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET offers you a 3-band compression that is so good that you’ll miss it the next time around. It’s possible to compress 3 variable frequency bands individually, which results in more accurate and precise, and natural-sounding results.

Best features and specs

Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET helps you with getting rid of the boominess of your instruments without suppressing the highs or, on the contrary, making your mix explode in the face. Parallel compression is easily achieved thanks to wet/dry control.

User impressions

Users like Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET for bringing out a nice sonic character and giving an excellent sound quality. Users also like that this compressor can be used as multiband EQ as it’s capable of improving the dynamic errors of the track.

What we think

It’s no wonder why many music producers and sound engineers decide to choose Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET, as it’s the absolute best choice if you’re really into mixing, mastering, and recording. The fact that it’s possible to use this compressor as an EQ only adds benefits to the equation.

Bottomline

Drawmer 1973 Multiband FET is a great choice for someone who is looking for a 3-band compressor that will help you easily get rid of the boominess of your track. Also, it’s possible to use it as an EQ.


Hardware Compressors Buying Guide

What is a hardware compressor?

A compressor is a hardware device that applies compression. Compression is an operation during which the volume of loud sounds is reduced and the volume of quiet sounds is amplified.

Why would you need a hardware compressor?

If what you do is mostly recording, then obtaining a hardware compressor is what you should do. If you’re recoding dynamic vocalists, using hardware compressor after mic preamp counts as a lifesaver. The hardware compressor helps you to get a fatter sound even before you press the record button.

Important features

When choosing a hardware compressor, you might want to pay attention to your budget, controls, and circuit type.

Budget

How much money you can spend on a hardware compressor is a tricky question in which nobody can help you but yourself. Though, generally, if you are on a tight budget, it would be a good idea to choose accordingly.

Controls

Standard go-to controls that almost every compressor has are Threshold, Attack, Release, and Gain. Some compressors may add Side Chain Filter, Blend, Highpass Filter, Peak Reduction.

Circuit type

Among our list, we have Tube, FET, and VCA compressors that all perform compression a bit differently. Tube compressors are based around a vacuum tube, and they have the soft knee, program-dependent ratio, slower attack and release times, fewer parameters control, small harmonic distortion, and feedback sidechain circuit. FET compressors work based on a field-effect transistor that is based near the core of the circuit and they’re characterized by low-level input signals, very fast attack and release times, more output gain, non-linear compression that adds character, feedback sidechain circuit, additional saturation. VCA compressors work based on a voltage-controlled amplifier that controls the appliance of compression and they have the following characteristics as transparent sound, low distortion, feedback sidechain circuit, and flexible control parameters.

How to choose the right one for you?

When choosing the best hardware compressors for your needs, you should think about which circuitry you want the compressor to operate and which one will suit your music production needs the best. Having all sets of main controls is a must and choose additional ones based on what you want to get as a result. Finally, while choosing a hardware compressor, before making a final decision, check whether you should opt for a budget-friendly option or you can look at something more extravagant.

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