We wanted to do this shootout, that is at the more extreme end of what you would likely be doing as one that has been requested lots, and also appeals to our personal love for distortion. One of the extra advantages of a shootout test such as this is that it really shows off how the character of how the compressors diverge, and where each one can take you when you push them hard. Many compressors are, (you will find if you load them up in the shootout players) more similar in character at the lower amounts of compression, so any tests and shootouts would take a bit more of your listening time and focus. Understanding you are busy people we thought we’d dispense with subtlety on this occasion and let the range of compressors shout their differences for all the world to hear. If you would like to hear some of the compressors in this shootout test at more sensible and polite levels just go to the preset menu and type ‘Digital Buss Comps’ and you will find a number of shootouts at lower compression amounts to test yourself on (offering you the best of both worlds).
Another reason we decided that this test was important is thanks to the popularity of parallel compression, and its effectiveness in particular on drums. Having a quick reference guide that can give you an immediate sense of which compressor will get you the tone you want straight off the bat is a useful thing to have we think. Plus we’re sure most people agree it is fun smashing the crap out of drums.
This shootout review focuses on Digital Plugin Compressors as requested by many Gearshoot users. We'll be doing an Analog Compressors as well and then let you compare and shootout the digital favorites vs the analog favorites. The digital compressors we have semi-randomly selected for this shootout are a mix of ones we thought would be a useful ‘starter for ten’ and let you get a sense of ones that are similar in fundamental aspects. Feel free to drag in any other compressors or limiters (digital or analog) in to compare as well (by clicking on the open player in new window link).
The digital compressors we chose for this review are:
Empirical Labs Arousor
Melda Productions MCompressor
Positive Grid FET
Pro Tools BF76
Pro Tools Dyn3
SSL Bus Compressor
Slate Digital FG116 Modern
Slate Digital FGX
Stillwell Audio Rocket
UAD 1176 Rev E
UAD API 2500
UAD dbx 160
Waves Kramer PIE
Here they are for your listening pleasure:
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What we think -
Elysia’s mpressor is situated at the cleaner end of the smashing playing field, retaining more of the integrity of the original drums as well as the ‘bounce’ of them. The kick seems to get an extra push in the low end and rounding off or softening, (especially compared to the character you get from say a dbx 160 (reduction of low end), or the Slate Digital compressors where the snap of the kick is really brought up).
The Empirical Labs Arousor really leans into the compression of the drums, providing a ballsy rich and even distortion with a (we think) tasteful aggression. Very rock, and definitely something you could get good mileage with blending into a cleaner buss. It really shows why the Distressor has garnered so much love for its ability to smash. (it is of course great at subtle and lush too, but that’s a topic of discussion for another review). It’s worth comparing and contrasting this compressor (modelled on the classic Distressor) with other classics like the API 2500, SSL Bus Compressor, dbx 160 and 1176 to get a sense of some important sounds that have influenced thousands of hits.
The Lindell 7x-500 has more similarities to the Arousor than, for example, the mpressor, especially in the mids and highs. It does (as is readily apparent) have substantially more going on distortion wise in the low end, with the kick super lows pushing out and over the rest of the elements. This may of course be enhanced by the fact that it is compressing at 100:1 rather than the 20:1 of most of the others we are shooting out. Major differences in that area compared to the Arousor is that the Arousor lets more of the slap of the kick come through. This could be (with a bit of EQ taming perhaps, a useful compressor for a dance music (particularly a Drum n Bass track). It also has some similarities to the Stillwell Audio Rocket worth noting.
The McDSP 4030 is great if you are wanting that sucking and pumping sound, it still keeps some of the bounce we hear in the mpressor, but with a most driven character, and really does a cool and unique job with the feel of the snare compared to many of the other compressors in this test.
For the Melda Productions MCompressor you get quite a different tone for the snare, which, when you compare back to e.g. the McDSP or Empirical Labs shows how useful it can be to try different units to color a track and create a feel. The kick has a sort of fuzzy distortion, a bit like a scaled back Lindell 7x 500.
King of the pump definitely comes from the Millennia TCL-2, the way it all gets sucked in by the kick is, to put it mildly, quite epic. The snap on the kick that pops out would provide some really interesting uses in parallel.
For the smashing on the PositiveGrid FET compressor it leans more sonically towards the feel of the Lindell and Empirical Labs and some of the distortion characteristics similar to the Waves PIE, but has its own particular aspects that jump out, in particular the hihat, which would be handy if you are wanting to blend that in to add some extra aggression or bite to the scheme of things. It provides a pretty smooth distortion overall and a nice roundness to the kick, especially with the extreme low end. It does sound quite different in many ways to other FET style compressors in our shootout.
For a free plugin that comes with Pro Tools, the BF76 does a pretty good job compared to its paid options. At the 20:1 that we are playing around with for this shootout it is less distorted than many of those available, retaining a lot of the original drums bounce and balance. Similar feels to this are the McDSP, although the McDSP does have more open highs and punch, whereas the BF76 feels slightly blanketed.
Welcome to the realms of distortion with the Pro Tools Dyn3. Sorry to say, this is probably our least favorite of the bunch, as it gives distortion, but without the richness in tone that you get from many of the other compressors in this shootout. It even seems ever so slightly ‘phasey’, or like something is missing compared to the other options, and loses richness in the low end. (this is quite apparent when you compare it to something like the SSL Bus Compressor or Arousor).
Lords of the Buss compressor Solid State Logic unsurprisingly deliver a kick ass tight, punchy smash level for their plugin that really shows that they may employ magical gypsies to get the low end so slamming. Harmonically not as driven, or rich as the Arousor, the SSL Bus Compressor none-the-less is one of the more exciting options to have in place for when you want to slam to crappola out of your drums but without adding in too much distortion to the picture.
On the snappy and tight mid range slap side the Slate Digital FG116 Modern jumps out with the way it brings the slap of the kick through and keeps a really nice level of definition between the elements. It has a nice slight pump to it, and while it drops off some of the low end of the kick, the extra definition it brings, compared to the SSL would make it a go to for a busy mix (and makes us see why it is so popular with the metal crowd). Slate wins the ‘snappy AF’ award for this shootout.
Like the FG116 the Slate Digital FGX has a similar snap and in your face quality, a family resemblance perhaps. Compared to its FG116 sibling it probably doesn’t accentuate the groove to the same extent, but it should definitely be commended for keeping the amount of top end it does at that level of compression, which would definitely have some major uses in parallel.
Moving onto the Stillwell Rocket is a useful way to really showcases the extreme differences of different designs of, and approaches to compressors. This one excels in distortion, probably as a function of its stupidly fast attack settings for one thing. If you were up for it you could probably have a go at blending in a smashed Slate Digital FGX with a smashed StillWell Audio Rocket with an uncompressed signal and adjust the levels until you came up with something of legend.
And now we arrive at the UAD 1176LN Rev E, the digital emulation of the ultra famous analog compressor (if you want to know how it compares to the real thing check out our UAD 1176 vs analog 1176 shootout review right here). Doing what the 1176 does so well the UAD version retains the bounce and definition, while at the same time significantly upping the nicer aspect of the drums harmonically. It is quite a different beasty at this level of compression from the Slate FG116, and significantly less distorting (or perhaps more polite) to the low end of the sound than the Lindell. The 1176 is an archetype or reference standard of a compressor, and it is nice to compare it to other forms or versions of the FET format, and then pick which one to use as it suits the job at hand.
With the UAD API 2500 compressor you get some of that famous API drum sound (that we personally love). You get some of the squash feel, but at the same time a lot of the integrity of the drums stays true to the original. Less distorted than that SSL Buss Compressor (another legendary drum buss compressor) it produces a lighter distortion profile than many of the other compressors, and retains punch (although isn’t as punchy/slappy as for example, that Slate compressors). The UAD API 2500 probably gets our award for the most balanced of the compressors in this shootout and is a good one to quickly compare others to (i.e. use as a reference standard).
No super surprises on the UAD dbx 160 compressor doing exactly what people say it does and faithfully emulating the originals we have played with, (nice work UAD). It makes the drums tighter, with a characteristic loss of low end at this high amount of compression, and some, but not super amounts of harmonic distortion Much of the low end tone of the kick drum has dropped back (compare to the API 2500 kick sound). The UAD dbx 160 has some similar tonal characteristics to the Slate FGX interestingly (not to say it sounds the same) with the kick drum really poking out much more than other compressors.
As we move onto the last few compressors, courtesy of the folks at Waves, we’re starting off with the good old Waves C1. As a summary it is a cleanish compressor that makes the drums tighter, and pushes forward the snap on the kick compared to the rest of the drums but without adding all the extra harmonic bells and whistles that many of the other compressors add (e.g. the Arousor). The C1’s strengths are probably in lower ratios where it can be clean and tight rather than the ‘stoopid levels of smashing’ zone.
When you compare the C1 to the CLA76 Black compressor you can probably see what we mean. The CLA76 has a really nice tone to it, not too distorted and quite ‘rich’ sounding. You could probably get away with using this as is, without too much need for parallel. It distorts much less than the UAD 1176 in our test (which would be a taste thing on which would suit best), and keeps the low end really tight - espc handy for smashing when you don’t want to scare off your grandma perhaps.
Another declared favorite in this shootout test is the Waves Kramer PIE. As a quick aside, Waves really need to be congratulated for the accuracy of emulation they have done on this plugin which sounds remarkably, even scarily similar to the actual PYE compressors we have tested. The thunder of the compression distortion for the PIE and smudging of individual elements into a beautifully pumping wash of awesome is something to be happy about, and while not for every job, it is worth remembering it and what it sounds like for those jobs that it does suit.
Finally, (thanks for your effort reading through all of these...) we get to the end of the shootout, the Waves dbx 160, so first (obvious) question is… how does it compare and contrast to the UAD dbx 160. It seems (to our ears at least) a bit snappier, and the UAD has slightly extended low end, low mids and stereo width. But they do sound quite similar indeed, to you’d be happy with either I’m sure depending on what were the needs, or the system you were monitoring on.
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Handy Links -
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Extra info for those interested in how we make our calls on what stuff sounds like -
Listening tests and assumptions are determined, double checked or signed off at Gearshoot HQ on ATC110ASL Pro monitors. We reckon that they give us a pretty good chance at getting it pretty well in the ballpark of what it is going to sound like on most other people’s monitors. We also headphone check on Extreme Isolation EX-29’s to hear what is going on in that spectrum and to hear what the world of headphones can show us.
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