The dust has settled and the top three spots in my master bus compressor lineup have at long last begun to stabilize.
Back in the old days I used to relentlessly hunt and search for that one magic master bus compressor plugin that would make my mixes sound professional.
I even went so far as to buy an API 2500 for what was, for me at the time, and ungodly amount of money. This was way before I knew enough to understand that the “one magic piece” of hardware, or that one magic bus compressor plugin.. just doesn’t exist.
I used to read the discussion boards where audio engineers hung out and get really frustrated when they would list 10 compressors when asked what their one favorite was. “10?! I can barely afford one! How am I supposed buy all of these? How will I know when to use each one??”
Then there would inevitably be that one contrarian who would answer, “None”. Thanks a lot. Not super helpful when I’m trying to find The Answer that will get me to sonic nirvana, buddy!
Now that I’ve put more miles under the tires, though, I can finally say that I get it. No bus compressor plugin or hardware is going to magically elevate your mix if your mixing skills aren’t up to snuff. And sometimes “no bus compression” is the right choice for the mix.
You’ve heard it a million times before, and it’s true – some compressors are “clean”, meaning they compress the signal without changing the sound or character of the mix. And other compressors have “character” – meaning they alter what you put through them so it comes out sounding different.
They have personalities.
The trick is finding the bus compressors that have personalities that gel with the types of music you’re making, and bring out the right things, in a way that makes the end product mix sound better than it did without them.
I routinely use a champion/challenger approach to both plugins and hardware (when I use hardware). I try not to spend too much time on it, but I will try new things or plugins I haven’t tried in a long time every so often to try to learn what works best on which source.
So my list of top three master bus compressor plugins is a combination of old standbys and new favorites. Or you could say it’s a list of three #1’s, depending on the source material.
Oh, and there’s a fourth hardware choice, too – call it an honorable mention.
Starting of my list is a venerable plugin from UAD. I’m heavily invested in the UAD platform, and with good reason. Very few plugins sound as good to my ears as UAD plugins. And when they hit a home run, it quickly becomes a staple in my lineup and a part of my sound.
The UAD Manley Variable Mu is one of those.
I’m a sucker for master bus compressor plugins (or any audio processor really) that “open up” a mix, making it feel bigger and more spacious. And the Vari Mu is one of those.
Working with Americana music, as I did for years, I came to rely on it to both pull the mix together and widen it a little – almost as if it brought the background elements a little more forward and then unfolded the whole sound a bit.
Most times I found a slow attack worked well, and I’d dial back the threshold until I was getting just 1-2 decibels of reduction. Magic happens. Just the thing for music that featured acoustic instruments that wanted warm air to breathe.
The UAD Manley Vari Mu ends up on my master bus a lot of the time, because a lot of the time it just makes stuff better.
One application where I found myself not favoring it as much was on electric guitar heavy rock music. Something about the way it adds wonderful separation and space didn’t seem to fit when the sound I was after was an in-your-face wall of sound.
Which brings me to the next master bus compressor on my list – the Plugin Alliance Brainworx bx_townhouse Buss Compressor.
Based on the sound of this plugin, it doesn’t surprise me that it was modeled on a compressor built with SSL parts. It sounds rock ‘n roll to me. Dialing in 1-3 decibels of gain reduction on it has a way of pulling electric guitars together and bringing the mids forward in a mix.
It’s honestly the first bus compressor plugin I’d heard that sounded as good to me as the UAD Vari Mu, just in a different way. It made my rock mixes feel more like finished productions. Not a magic bullet, so much as a mix accelerator.
So now it’s my first call for mixes with attitude.
The last spot on my list is currently occupied by a compressor that I’ll confess I’m still learning. I don’t know if it will stay there, but there have been mixes where it was just the thing.
Ever since I heard audio samples of the Plugin Alliance SPL Iron, I was smitten. Talk about a bigger-maker! It can make your mixes instantly huge and wide.
I’ve called on it a few times for mixes that just didn’t seem to be coming together any other way, and it glued them (I know, I know) and made them sparkle.
I tend to favor the LED rectifier, and though the AirBass setting can be heavy-handed, it has worked wonders a time or two.
I’m still a noob with it – just scratching the surface, and at times I tend to second guess it when I do before and after tests with gain equalized. But for now, it’s on the list.
I should probably mention that I mix into bus compression. Usually I’ll dial up a rough mix and try to make a decision on bus compressor at that point, early on. That way I can hear what it’s doing and use it to its full advantage as I mix.
There are times when nothing feels right or any compressor feels like too much, and in that case I leave it off and check again later in the mix.
So, now for the honorable mention. Recently I’ve been using a hardware bus compressor that hasn’t replaced all plugins, but it has done most of the heavy lifting. That compressor is the one found in the Rupert Neve Portico II Master Buss Processor.
Yes, it’s very, very expensive. And yes, it’s not really a fair comparison because the MBP has harmonic texture, a limiter, and a stereo field editor. But the compressor itself in this piece is a wonderful jack-of-all-trades on the master bus. I’ve yet to find any source material that it doesn’t add something great to.
I do at times use a plugin compressor after it just for the sound- often one of the above, and I’m hardly ever compressing more than a decibel or two. But the MBP is probably as close to the one magic bullet as I’m likely ever to get.
In reality, the Neve MPB represents a big investment that is honestly getting you the final 5-1o% there in terms of your sound. And in many cases you could get there if you really knew what you were doing with a good suite of plugins.
But the MBP makes it so easy.
So yes, I just ended a post about my top three plugin bus compressors raving about a hardware compressor. But like I said.. bonus! And every compressor on this list is a huge winner in my book.
Learn any of them well and pair them with the right source, and you will make audio magic.