10 of the best mastering compressor plugins and software processors

Master the fine art of compression using our pick of the best software compressor and processors

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best mastering compressors and processors

Mastering compressors can often feel like a daunting part of music production. Although they’re tools primed for the final, subtle tweaks to your mix, compressors can mean the difference between a clean and muddy mix. A clean mix is one with each element working together and complementing one another sonically.

Not all compressors are made equal. Older hardware units might colour your audio in a specific way, thanks to valves and transformers. Meanwhile, modern units can achieve pristine or even experimental results. Many of those classic hardware units have been emulated into more affordable software versions, while some brands strive to achieve digital perfection in modern software compressors.

Not sure which compressor is right for mastering your music? Here are 10 of the best software mastering compressors and processors available to buy right now.

Waves – Abbey Road TG Mastering Desk

Abbey Road TG Mastering Desk

The EMI TG12410 Transfer Console has lain at the heart of the timeless and distinctive sound of Abbey Road Studios since the 70s. Waves’ take on this vintage console, developed in conjunction with the studio, provides four modules – pre-amp, filter, EQ and compressor/limiter – each of which has a distinctly vintage look, sound and feel.

The order of the modules can be rearranged and each can switch between L/R and M/S processing modes. The results have a distinctly analogue flavour, with airy high ends, punchy mids and warm lows, and can be particularly complementary to band and singer-songwriter recordings.

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Find out more at waves.com

Brainworx – AMEK Mastering Compressor

AMEK Mastering Compressor

It’s surprising that it took until 2023 for the GML 8900 compressor – a rare beast that’s a closely-kept secret of the mastering world – to be given the circuit modelling treatment. But it’s not at all surprising that it was Brainworx that took on the challenge.

The compressor is designed to respond to loudness as opposed to raw signal level, and to handle dynamics accordingly – this makes it similar to how our ears respond. The result is a mastering compressor that is achingly musical, adding body, depth and cohesion to a mix while achieving an unsurpassed level of transparency.

Find out more at plugin-alliance.com

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Arturia – Bus Force

Arturia Bus Force

With EQ, filter and saturation stages to complement its potent compressor, this original plugin from Arturia provides a full suite of tools for fattening and colouring your mixes, stems and parts.

Its unique selling point, though, has to be the parallel processing paradigm that provides three different paths on which the various processors can be applied before being mixed into the master output. This multi-pathed flexibility is enhanced by the sheer versatility of the compressor itself. At the sensible end of things, this is effective at controlling peaks and evening-out dynamics. Cranking things up, however, reveals a monster – not so useful for ultimate mastering fidelity, but ideal for some musical genres and hugely creative to boot.

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Find out more at arturia.com

Brainworx – bx_masterdesk PRO

Brainworx bx_masterdesk PRO

Brainworx’s complete mastering suite isn’t modelled on any specific classic hardware, but rather brings together everything that Brainworx has learned whilst modelling such hardware – and let’s face it, they’ve modelled a <em>lot</em> of hardware.

The resulting expertise has been distilled into a phenomenally powerful and effective mastering processor, and while the plugin’s additional processing stages (EQ, filters, peak limiter, etc.) play a big part, it is the compressor that is the star of the show. This allows you to easily dial in exactly the sound you want – punchy, warm, gluey, brick wall, whatever – and can deliver a massive sound without a hint of pumping.

Brainworx – Elysia Alpha Compressor

Elysia Alpha

The hardware on which the Elysia Alpha Compressor plugin is based is one of the most respected mastering-grade compressors there is, renowned for its clarity and “expensive” sound. The processor sports various unconventional features: EQ on the main signal path; ultra-fast response times with an “auto-fast” option that constantly varies that response to match the circumstances; and more.

The plugin can operate in a conventional L/R stereo mode but is happiest when switched into mid/side mode where it can maximise its ability to lavish energy, crispness and space onto your mixes, buffing them to a professional sheen that’s hard to achieve without high-end hardware.

Find out more at plugin-alliance.com

Softube – Icons Compressor Collection

Softube Icons Compressor Collection

Although not so useful for mastering when used individually, combining the compressors contained in Softube’s Compressor Collection can result in powerful and flexible mastering solutions. The collection consists of three compressors, OPTO Compressor, FET Compressor MkII and VCA Compressor, each modelled to Softube’s exacting standards from a Teletronix LA-2A, Urei 1176 and DBX 160, respectively.

The progressive response of OPTO Compressor provides a perfect first round of compression, gently calming the longer-term dynamics and adding cohesion, whilst following this with FET or VCA Compressor (or both, if you like!) will give you ideal tools for handling shorter peaks and adding punch to the mix.

Find out more at softube.com

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PSP – OldTimer MB

PSP OldTimer

PSP’s OldTimer compressor was designed to mimic the qualities of vintage hardware, which it achieves well with its warm sound and musically sympathetic response.

The MB variant of OldTimer sees three such compressors combined into a single multiband processor that gives professional-sounding results with minimal effort. Each band offers a set of familiar controls, along with an accurate needle-style gain reduction meter, that make it easy to hone the processor to suit the material being processed. As an extra bonus, each band has its own independent stereo width adjustment too, which really opens up the possibilities. Wide high ends with tight, solid lows are easy to achieve, and an output valve stage adds an extra dose of warmth and vintage-ness when needed.

Find out more at pspaudioware.com

Sonnox – Oxford Inflator

Sonnox Oxford Inflator

This renowned plugin, taken from the revered Sony Oxford R3 console, is a mastering engineer’s dream.

Not a compressor as such – it actually preserves and even enhances dynamic detail in a way that’s entirely unlike a compressor – the Oxford Inflator employs a secret alchemy of psychoacoustics and harmonic distortion to add loudness, power and weight to a mix while avoiding all of the downsides of traditional compression (pumping, tonal balance shifts, and so-on). The plugin also does an amazing job on stems, in particular drum submixes, and on individual tracks – vocals are a speciality! Once you try Inflator you may well never be able to do without it.

Find out more at sonnox.com

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Universal Audio – Precision Multiband

Precision multiband

Although only available in UAD-2 format for Universal Audio Apollo interfaces and DSP accelerators, Precision Multiband is exactly what it says it is: an accurate and precise multiband dynamics processor. Each of the plugin’s five bands can be switched between compressor, expander and gate modes, and employ super-responsive detectors that can deliver near-instantaneous response times when needed.

The familiar dynamics controls make it easy to dial in the perfect settings for mixes and stems, and allow for a wide range of treatments from the gentlest tickle to a full-on in-your-face brick wall of sound. Few other multiband compressors offer this degree of accuracy and flexibility.

Find out more at uaudio.com

Brainworx – Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Class A

Modelled on a boutique hardware processor created by the secretive Shadow Hills Industries, Mastering Compressor Class A combines two independent compression stages on each channel. The first, a smooth and progressive optical compressor, feeds into a much more responsive discrete VCA-style compressor, thereby mimicking popular combinations of individual compressors.

Once through the compressors, the signal is treated to a transformer stage offering a choice of nickel-, iron- or steel-wound transformer, each of which injects its own character and colouration. Although not the best at delivering a brick wall of loudness – you will want to place a mastering-grade limiter downwind of it – the results positively ooze with character, cohesion and charm.

Find out more at brainworx.audio

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