Best Compressors for the Home Studio (Under $1000)
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There is a lot to be said about getting your front-end right in your studio. If you are recording anything with mics it is important to be getting the best possible sound on the way in. Some folks tend to rely a little too much on the advantages of working in a DAW. If you think you may be in this boat, I encourage you to look at where your recording starts. Even if you are using the best quality plugins, you can still benefit from bettering your initial signal.
Hardware compressors are one of a few options people can turn to for improving a recording setup. However, I do want to point out that you should not be looking into compressors if you don’t already have a decent mic and preamp. This is just my and some others' opinion, but compressors and EQs take a back seat to mics and pres. That said, the best case is having awesome units for all of these things, so take that as you will.
Today, I wanted to share with you my choices for what I believe to be some of the best hardware compressors for home recording. I figured I would cap the price at $1000 to keep things budget. Also, while all of these do compression, each of these picks is fairly different from the others. Some of these are copies of classic circuits while others are more modern and transparent. Basically, just understand that all compressors are meant for someone but not always for you. And with that in mind, let's get into the comps.
FMR Really Nice Compressor - $185.00
If you are just kicking off your journey into studio hardware FMR is a really nice place to start. They make some great affordable options that get the job done. In fact, several recording industry greats have praised them for making some of the best budget stuff around. FMR’s Really Nice Compressor (RNC) is right at the heart of this acclaim. And thanks to some crafty design with a microprocessor, this thing is VERY inexpensive. Additionally, while the price may ward some off, the truth is this thing does the job it is supposed to do, it just works. No, it does not have the audio quality of more expensive options, but it’s not like it’s bad sounding. Furthermore, this unit will serve as a great option for the home studio. It’s made to last and can work well in a rack or no-rack setup. For $185, this thing is awesome.
ART Pro-VLA II Compressor - $359.99
Art is another company that makes great affordable studio gear. In the case of the Pro-VLA Comp, this reputation couldn’t be more accurate. You actually get quite a lot with this compressor and I suppose that’s where we will start. The feature set on this guy is nice. First off, it’s got two channels, that’s already a huge plus for those needing multiple comps for mics. Secondly, this is a tube compressor. So, if you're wanting to get into tubes at this price point, the Pro-VLA II is your best option. Lastly, you get a VU meter and LED meter on both channels. These two features make measuring input/output and your peak just a quick glance away. As far as the sound goes… it’s pretty amazing. To many, this is just as good as anything under a grand. It’s definitely a very clean compressor and won’t give you any kind of tone boost, but still. This one is for sure worth a look.
Golden Age Project Comp-3A - $499.99
Now is where we start getting into the copies of vintage gear. While there are plenty of new designs you could go with, many people are searching for these classic-sounding compressors. This first one from Golden Age Project is a copy of the infamous LA-3A from the late 60s. This was a solid-state optical comp that had a rather warm yet pleasing tone to it. And many people agree this copy does a solid job of attaining that sound the original was known for. Additionally, this newer remake brings a few interesting additions to the table. The front of the unit has several switches and controls that the original did not. These add-ons include high-frequency control, stereo/mono switching, and more. The overall quality and trueness to the original circuit make this a great choice for those trying to achieve the LA-3A sound.
Warm Audio WA76 - $599.00
If you are trying to get that classic 1176 sound for a reasonable price, look no further. For those that don’t know, the Universal Audio 1176 is a compressor that has become one of the most iconic units ever made. Thanks to the FETs, among other things, this circuit is very distinct in how it compresses and limits the signal. This means that unlike some other compressors, your sound is going to be intentionally colored by this design (even when not compressing). To most this is a very pleasing tone that is highly sought after. Unfortunately, this comes at a hefty price point. Yet, luckily for the budget recorders out there, Warm Audio has you covered.
The WA76 is a very good copy of the classic design. With the same Class A FET layout as the UA version; this unit can get very close. It even has the look and feel to match. All you have to decide is whether or not you're looking for a 76-style compressor.
Warm Audio WA-2A – $899.00
We are concluding this list with another copy from the fine people at Warm Audio. This time we are jumping back into the optical side of things with the WA-2A. If you didn’t know, you probably could have guessed that the original circuit being referenced here if the LA-2A. The 2A design is one of great warmth and clarity, its tube-driven and sounds like it. The WA copy of this circuit does a particularly great job at bringing to life what many consider one of the all-time best comp designs. It keeps the classic all-tube signal path and uses custom I/O transformers that aid in producing the right amount of coloration. This thing is probably the best optical tube compressor you can find for under the $1000 mark. So, if this sounds like what you're looking for, go for it.
I hope you were able to find some idea of what compressor might be the right fit for your home studio. Whether you're looking at the cheapest option available or one of the slightly higher priced copies, all of the ones listed above have excellent price to performance ratios. So, I don’t foresee much buyer’s remorse if you do decide to pick one of these up. Also, keep in mind what I mentioned at the beginning of this article, not everyone is ready for a hardware compressor. Mics come first people. It’s just the way it is, you need to have a great transducer to make your signal really shine. But, other than that, get yourself an awesome compressor and keep recording!