Establishing your 'go-to' compressors
Scott Fritz, July 2012

There are plenty of great plugin compressors available these days. If you are like me, chances are you have more than you actually remember until you browse through your plugin folders. I do, however, have my staples that I go to for specific duties. When I mix, I like to be able to focus on musicality and know that the tools I use are just that - tools, so over the years I have established my "go-to" sets of plugins for various sources. Since Softube is no stranger to detailed emulations, their arsenal of compressors is a good place to start. So, let's look at some of their plugins and see what uses might make the most sense...

Creative Sidechaining (Keying)

Summit Audio TLA-100A
This compressor is one of my favorites, due to the fact that while having a very simple interface, there are some more complex parameters as well, such as adjustable saturation (great for adding a bit of grit to vocals), low cut filters (useful for keeping some subs in your drum room mics from slamming the compressor too hard), and parallel inject (for balancing the compressed signal with the dry signal, useful for just about any instrument).

The hardware is pretty well known for vocal and bass duties, and this is definitely where I find myself adding it to the "go-to" category in my mixes. Since the hardware unit combines solid state and tube technologies, this is one of those units that can be either really obvious in color or on the cleaner side, depending on how you set the amount of reduction and saturation.

Read more about the Summit Audio TLA-100A Compressor.

Tube-Tech CL 1B
The CL 1B is an opto compressor you see in studios all around the world, and for good reason. It has a very pillowy, thick sound which, in addition to it's compression duties, makes it a great tone shaping tool. I personally have a Tube-Tech MEC 1A, whose compressor is based on the design of the CL 1B, and I LOVE it on direct guitar/bass with a db or 2 of gain reduction BEFORE running into an amp sim plugin, in addition to using it to keep a very dynamic vocal track sitting right in the volumetric sweet spot. It is something I like to use for tonal color almost as much as for it's dynamic control, which makes it another go-to for me since it does more than just one job. It is very CPU friendly as well, so it will usually find it's way onto many tracks in my mixes since I know that it won't nail my processor to the wall.

Read more about the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor.

FET Compressor
This compressor has some very cool features, such as the "all buttons" mode which works wonders on lifeless snare drums, a very fast attack time, which is great for catching quick spikes (again, see snare drums) and the option for lookahead, making it even more suited to quick dynamic blasts. With the low and high cut options as well as parallel inject, this one sits in the "surgical" category for me - it is great for handling problems, and being able to be set (with some practice) to accomplish just about all compression duties.

One of the areas in which I find software compressors will show their limitations is in extreme compression - stereo images can collapse, the very top of transients are not handled with the elegance of hardware, etc. However, the FET is great in my opinion for heavy compression duties - to the extreme even. It behaves VERY much like it's hardware counterpart in that regard, which makes it a bit uniquely suited in my opinion to scream-type vocals, very dynamic percussion instruments, and drum overheads/room mics. When I plan to experiment a bit with the settings to see what the options might yield, this is one of my go-to plugin compressors.

Read more about the FET Compressor.

Valley People Dyna-mite
The Dyna-mite sits in a place a bit different from the previous compressors in my opinion. I see it as more of a creative tool than anything... there is a reason it has been called a "secret weapon". In addition to being able to limit, expand, gate, and de-ess, it can be a powerful sidechain tool as well.

There is definitely a lot under the hood here, and to help with that, there is a cool display window which goes into detail about each parameter/mode. I personally like mangling the drum buss with it, and throwing a bit of that in with the unprocessed drum buss in order to really bring a snap to the snare or kick. Also, you can create some cool pumping with it, bringing some extreme dynamic shifts to existing instrument tracks which might give you a different creative perspective on where your mix can end up. You can create arpeggiator-like effects with this as well (see the Keying sound examples), which can really trip your mixes out. So, in addition to being able to tame dynamics, this unit is famous for going further into the creative territory than most compressors. Which makes it also a lot of fun!

Read more about the Valley People Dyna-mite.

So, these are just a few compressors, and a bit about how and why I use them. Like everything musical, there really are no "rules", but knowing some rough guidelines and taking the time to find out how these things affect your music will hopefully make the process of mixing more fun, intuitive, and creative.

© 2012 Scott Fritz
Scott Fritz is the president and producer of the Chicago-based studio Stranded On A Planet. Recently recorded artists include Amirah, Nadia Ali, Cavalier King, Michael Angelo Batio, Martha Berner, A Friend Called Fire, Karen Kiley, The Hawthorne Effect, and Voice Of Addiction