The Great Mix Bus Compressor Plugin Shootout: Which One is Best for Your Stereo Bus?

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In this bundle, they added new features like a variable sidechain filter and a headroom control trimmer, while retaining the legendary Fairchild tone.

Kotelnikov Mastering Compressor by Tokyo Dawn Labs – Free!

This is a remarkably transparent compressor that models nothing in the real world, and is free.

The “Gentleman’s Version” is €40 and adds a few useful features like an external sidechain, “insane quality” mode and equal loudness bypass and more.

MJUC by Klanghelm – $25.50

This incredibly affordable software compressor from Klanghelm includes 3 separate and distinct models:

The Mk1 is a model of the Fairchild 670 with a few unique features added. The Mk2 models the UREI 175 or 176, also with a few unique features added. The Mk3 is Klanghelm’s proprietary take on vari-mu compression with a more modern twist.

Test A: Transparent Level Control

I started with the mode that was most comfortable for me, which is where the compressor is barely working.

When used this way, I rely on compressors that have a clean signal path and a transparent way of controlling the mix that is subtle yet effective. For the most part, I am using a low ratio of 2:1, or less if available.

I find that tube compressors are usually better for this task, simply because of the gentle rounding of transients that occurs when you drive a tube circuit even slightly. This tube “shaping” works like having an almost-invisible compressor in front of your compressor. It’s similar to the way that tape can add RMS level to your mix without apparently changing the mix. (Though of course, it is changing it.)

For the first test, I used a song from The March Divide, with whom I just completed a record. It’s acoustically-driven, singer/songwriter type of music, which is dynamic and clear, with lots of acoustic percussion. The song is called “I’m Not Sorry” and you can check out the band at their website, themarchdivide.com. This record is slated for release sometime in mid-2017.

On this song, I was careful to not clamp down much at all on the loud parts, particularly because the verses are quieter, and I still want the chorus to “lift”. Too much compression would have the reverse effect.

For the most part, during the loudest section of the song (in this case the chorus) I am only compressing about 1dB, with an occasional bump to 1.5dB. Subsequently, the verses are barely compressed at all.

Here are the standout performers of this test, in my personal order of preference. (You can also click here to download the full resolution files.)

Elysia Alpha Master (A1)
This one sounded stiffer and more high-fi than the others—though not by a lot. Since I’m only compressing slightly, it was more about the clean signal path than the sound of the gain reduction circuit. The mix seemed slightly clearer with this compressor, which allowed me to hear more detail within the stereo image, specifically on the percussion.

Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor (A2)
This compressor seemed a bit thicker and slightly more forward-sounding. This could be attributed to the output transformer I selected (“Iron”) and the fact that there are actually two compressors running in series here. Even though neither gain reduction meter was moving much, the mild compression was still pushing things together nicely.

Manley Variable Mu Compressor (A3)
This one sat somewhere between the previous two, with a slightly creamier sound and a smoothness to the high end compared to the Alpha Master; but it was perhaps a bit less thick than the Shadow Hills. It had a nice “glue” to it as well, which is probably attributed to the numerous tubes in the signal path it recreates to convincingly.

Kotelnikov Mastering Compressor (A4)
This was the most transparent of them all, seeming not to add any color to the mix, while lightly touching the loudest hits. Because there is both a “peak crest” and a “soft knee” adjustment, it was quite easy to optimize it for a kind of dual operation. Without the gain reduction meter, I’m not sure that I would have noticed it working at all.

[If you want to go deeper and hear the runners-up in this category, you can download them here.]

Test B: Heavier Song But Light Compression

This test was probably more indicative of how I would go about processing something that is hard-hitting and aggressive. While the compression can help add some color to the tone of the mix and keep things “glued”, I’m still just looking for a little bit of general level control and averaging. In other words, this is not overly-squeezed at all.

In these samples, the compressors were each applying about 1-2dB of gain reduction most of the time. To my ear, this is a fair amount of compression and is quite noticeable compared to the un-compressed mix. Even still, I set them up to add something musically beneficial, and in all instances, the compressed mix was subjectively better than the unprocessed mix.

The song for this sample is from a band called New Language. I mixed and mastered the record Come Alive for them late last year. This song is the title track from that record and is heavily guitar-driven rock with big drums and bass to go along with it. You can hear more of their music and download the record for free by going to their website: newlanguageband.com

Here are the standouts again, presented in my order of personal preference. (You can also click here to download the full resolution files.)

Universal Audio Fairchild 670 (B1)
The Fairchild 670 really seemed to help this mix “come alive” (pun intended) by accentuating the aggressiveness of the band and their playing.

Instead of compressing more by lowering the threshold, I drove the input of the Fairchild slightly harder for some slight rounding of the transients, while still keeping them mostly intact.

The hint of added distortion that this technique gives the track made it sound more intense and muscular. This one felt “loud” regardless of how loud I was actually listening.

Brainworx Vertigo VSC-2 (B2)
The VSC-2 was brighter than the Fairchild and somewhat cleaner as well. It seemed to accentuate the kick and snare transients nicely.

Some of this can be attributed to the availability of a slower attack time than the Fairchild has, but is also due to the sound of the VCA gain reduction circuit.

Instead of pushing everything together the way the Fairchild did, it spread things out nicely making the mix seem wider and clearer. This has the hallmarks of what most people love about the SSL buss compressor, albeit in a much cleaner, more hi-fi way.

Manley Variable Mu Compressor (B3)
The Manley shows up again…not surprisingly. This one made the mix a little bit smoother but also kept the thickness that the Fairchild added so easily.

Using the slowest attack time available kept the transients intact while the slight drive on the tubes made it fuller and polished sounding. Using the sidechain filter also helped keep the big hits “big”.

Klanghelm MJUC (B4)
This one is the most colored sounding compressor of the bunch by a long shot, but it adds some low end girth that is remarkable. I used it in “Mk 2” mode, which is a model of the UREI 176. It made everything seem bigger and deeper even while only gently compressing things.

I don’t really trust the gain reduction meter because it wasn’t moving, but there was definitely some compression being applied. No matter; it really added something that I don’t even think could be achieved if you paired a compressor with a good EQ. There’s nothing transparent about this compressor, but when it’s right, it’s hard to beat.

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  • George Piazza

    I have most of these compressors in my arsenal (Manley, Vertigo, Alpha, Fairchild, Shadow Hills, Kotelinkov), and a few others that I think are nice.
    I’ve had somewhat similar experiences with Mike Major, with slight exceptions.
    The Manley is nice for less aggressive music. It doesn’t always provide the thickness one might want with heavy rock mixes (though it can be a great group buss compressor before the main compressor). The tube sheen is excellent, complimenting the high end nicely. In 1:5 mode, it is really designed to be hit rather hard, as the compressor gives up after @ 10 dB, which lets drum transient through while retaining thickness.
    The Shadow Hills either works or it doesn’t. I think the mix has a lot to do with this, especially given the two compressors in this beasty (though you can use only one if you want). It also often makes a great group compressor, especially in situations where the transformer selection adds to the sound – like acoustic & electric guitars, bass, etc.).
    I almost never use the Fairchild as a mix bus compressor; it’s fast attack time and heavy coloration rarely works for any of my mixes. It is occasionally the perfect track or group buss compressor though.
    The Slate lineup is odd. Every now & then one of them works (usually the Grey – SSL or the Red – Focusrite); the mix knob can really help retain some of the ‘clean’ sound, though I’ve noticed phasing problems with earlier versions (Slate may have fixed this by now). I do not find the distortion on the Mu very convincing; it sounds a little cheap to me.
    The Elysia Alpha Compressor is a kind of ‘desert island’ choice for me. It is so flexible, it can deal with numerous needs, especially with it’s feedback / feed forward selection, auto attack & auto release, mix feature and mid-side mode. Not a lot of coloration per se (unless you use the peak limiter function), but for thickening up & widening, it does the job.
    The Vertigo is very nice; the gain knob adds a subtle grit; it has all the settings of an SSL, but sound better than wither the UAD or Wave SSL Buss Compressor. It is not always the right tool for the job, but it is right there with the Alpha & Manley. The auto release is excellent. I could live with these three if necessary.
    I have also successfully used the UAD Neve 33609, the PSP MasterComp and/or Vintage Warmer, the Voxengo Polysquasher and the Sonnox Compressor (+ gate / expander / warmth / sidechain).
    The free guy – Kotelnikov – is very clean & flexible; well worth the download.
    Izotope’s Ozone has improved over the years, but it is a bit of a beast to deal with; besides, multiband is not the topic here.
    My favorite secret weapon for the main buss is the DGM Essence. It is not only an excellent mastering De-Esser; it also does various parallel compression tasks better than anything else I have tried. I can always dig out 2 – 5 more dB with a mix and still sound transparent with it. It includes excellent presets by Bob Katz for various parallel compression needs, including bass, mid or treble thickening (tonal parallel compression) and an excellent starting point for the transparent parallel job. A real hidden gem!

  • Justin C.

    Thanks for sharing this take George! Glad to have read it. I’ll have to check out the DGM Essence. Not too familiar with it yet myself.

  • Mike Major

    I’ve never tried the DGM. Now you’ve piqued my interest, damn it…

    You’re not helping!

  • Eddie TX

    Great work putting this shootout together! Thank you for doing it.

    Was wondering if you’ve tried the new API 2500 from UAD (I assume you’ve tried the Waves version) — it’s really something.

    Also, there are very interesting things coming out of Acustica Audio (of Nebula fame) lately. Their Coral, Lime, and Sand compressors are among the most hardware-like plugins I’ve ever used. If you can figure out their demo procedure, they’re well worth checking out.

  • jes

    This was a great article, thank you!
    I use mostly UA (I mean a *lot* of UA, and almost always in Pro Tools, FWIW) and seem to change up that 2-bus compression almost per project, but I have to say I do like the Shadow Hills. In your example A test, one thing I also hear also is more of the ambience in A2 with the Shadow Hills that I don’t hear in the others.

  • Mike Major

    Thanks Eddie! Glad you liked the article. It was quite a bit of work to put it together but I learned a few things along the way, which I didn’t expect.

    I have tried the UAD API 2500. I was going to include it in the shootout but just couldn’t make it do anything that I liked, so I left it out. I had so many others to choose from (probably too many) that I felt it wasn’t necessary to include. Now having said that, it may work well for some folks and I know that some engineers love it and swear by it. Just not my taste, I guess.

    I haven’t seen the Acustica stuff yet, so I guess I have to go check that out now.

  • Mike Major

    Thanks Jes! Glad you liked it.

    The ambience difference you hear probably has to do with the interaction between release times of the optical comp and the VCA comp. Since they’re different and the gain reduction circuits respond differently to the transients, it must have seemingly extended the decay of a reverb and brought it forward, thus making it more apparent. At least, that’s what I think is happening…

    I probably use the Shadow Hills more than anything, even with all of the choices I have. The combination of the two comps in series is pretty powerful and usually transparent. Plus, being able to change the output transformer can really affect the tone of the whole mix positively. Sometimes it just doesn’t do the trick, so I look elsewhere, but more often than not it works perfectly.

    I find that the choices available are more fully exercised when I’m mastering because the different comps offer more tools with which to shape things. When I’m mixing or mastering my own stuff I don’t need as much variety because I have a way of putting the mix together that is well planned before I ever insert the two mix comp; in other words, it doesn’t make as big a difference overall for me personally. But now and then, something weird ends up on the 2-mix!

  • Eddie TX

    Cool, Mike. Thanks for the reply. Yes, the API doesn’t work on everything, but when it does …

    Acustica has some unique tech and it’s finally coming to fruition in the form of usable plugins. They do have some work to do on the whole customer experience — it’s a pain just to download and authorize a demo — but wow, the sound. Hit me up if you have any questions about getting set up with those. Thanks again for the shootout!

  • Mike Major

    Yeah, the API was a head-scratcher for me, honestly. I have tried it a dozen times and can’t ever get to the point that I’m like “OK! That’s it!”. I know some people love it.

    Since you posted this I looked at the Acustica stuff and it looks really intriguing. Lots of cool things that appear to be based in reality but with a twist. I will be trying the some demos here soon. Thanks for the tip!

  • Adrian

    These differences are incredibly marginal. Not worth the headache.

  • Mike Major

    Hi Adrian. Are you listening on a good set of monitors or high quality headphones? The differences are pretty significant in some of the samples. I agree that when they’re not driven too hard they are more similar, but the differences in tone and dynamics control should be noticeable.

  • denis la malice

    I must say this like this : this shoutout makes very little sense since the way you mix one song will be influences by the comp you will use as 2buss, so it is much more like some mastering comp shoutout and even that is flawed since some will react better one one type of mix than one other.

    Experience with working with one typical pluggin will dictate your choice, not a shoutout.

    Personal taste also : for instance, I’m not big with the vari-mu as buss compressor, I doubt I would chose the pluggin for that matter, I base this choice on many attempts.

    I always used the SSL buss (not big with any pluggin versions) and loved it : but it is not a transparent one at all, so it might have sounded terrible in this shoutout, but have you “mixed” the track in it at the beguining of your test, it might have ended with the best results.

  • denis la malice

    Now that said, out of experience (not this shoutout), I like the Shadow Hill quite a bit. 🙂

  • Greg Strickland

    Perhaps no mix buss compression is best. Particularly for a radio mix or any mix likely to receive audio processing downstream. Should you presume your mix sound is the sound heard by the entire audience?

  • Mike Major

    Sometimes that’s true, but I like what a comp does to the sound of the mix. I am always cognizant of how things will inevitably change downstream (mastering, radio, iTunes, etc.) and try to mix in a way that minimizes the differences between all of the delivery media. But ultimately, I just like how using a comp makes things feel more together and complete. Also, if I control the way the dynamics are presented then I’m less likely to be surprised by how some downstream process affects them. I can remember some stuff I mixed way back when that really sounded strange on the radio. There’s ways to fix that and compression is one of them.

  • Mike Major

    Well, honestly, the whole purpose of a shootout is to directly compare the way the different options perform under the same conditions. Otherwise there’s no reference point. Without a reference point then it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

    If I stand in front of a mirror and try on 5 shirts then I know exactly what those shirts look like on me at that point and in that lighting. Knowing this I can then decide which one I would wear to go the movies, which one would be best for a job interview, which one makes me look fat, etc.

    Likewise, I can compare how each of these comps react to the same music, with basically the same settings, and then extrapolate how that would work in other situations that I may need to use a compressor. It’s like any audio gear that we ever hear: you listen, make a judgment and then file it away in the memory banks for later recall: “that would work great on this type of mix”, or something like that.

    Not everyone has experience with all of these compressors, so I am offering a direct comparison under specific conditions so they can hear what is different and what is the same, that’s all. It’s somewhat subjective because I had to set the compressors, but I also tried to be as scientific about the process as I was able to do and still fulfill the goal of the shootout-which is to show how a bunch of different compressors sound on a mix.

    And trying to mix a song for each compressor would have taken a month and would tell the reader nothing useful except that I could use a different compressor on a bunch of different mixes. That’s not illustrative in any way.

  • denis la malice

    I agree with you mostly. I just wanted to point the limitations of this particular shoutout . best regards

  • Ray Tubes

    I like the Alpha’s transient punch.
    The kick is tight, solid, while retaining good bottom end and the guitars are nice and spanky.
    The image is quite wide, and it is interesting how the triangle is much more forward than the Shadow Hills.

    Shadow Hills has a nice overall balance, sounds a bit wider than the Alpha, good transient response though less in your face feeling.
    I suspect this is the Steel trafo setting as opposed to the Nickel and feel the Nickel would sound more forward.

    As for folks not mixing into a 2 Bus comp, many of is do even if the mix goes out uncompressed.

    The balance of the mix and EQ tends to be different when mixing into compression and this can be a great way to have a more polished mix for your mastering engineer to work with.

  • WayneD

    Brilliant thanks so much for getting this together esp supplying files. Very helpful.

  • Null Static Void

    Guess I’m a little late to the party.
    Surprised you skipped over the other UAD offerings. I’ve used their 1176 and LA2A plugins for 2 buss for years. The 1176 is tricky, but it sounds right on certain mixes.
    The Neve 33069 though seems perfect for the job. It can do overdriven, or clean and is quite adept at making just about anything sound 110% thicker.

    I could name a bunch of other UAD plugins, and that is kind of the thing. You could easily write a whole article on just UAD 2 buss plugins.

    btw, I always throw an EQ on there too.

  • Steven Adams

    sknote’s SDC is a fantastic emulation of the Shadow Hills!

  • Marcus Mittilä

    This was a great read, interesting comparisons! Thank you!

  • Dangenoir

    Wow !
    I found the complete biaised, zero level matching, inconsistent, subjective, alleatory ; and since you a priori knew that all along by pre-retracting in the “The Same, But Different” paragraph!
    Still you took the ‘grand-risque’ of posting it, while it could only be a failing (Shootout) with the impossibility of objectively hearing anything but three 30 seconds clips, that gave us the chance to perhaps discover new bands with different compressors applied to them. Sadly, all uncompressed clips sounded more balanced, with more definition and…….more dynamic !
    Thank you for your courage, and for having sharing links for all bands (it was a nice touch) 😉
    SonicScoop.com is one of these rare web area where you can actually REALLY LEARN, mostly knowledgeable Audio-Engineering vitalizing tips, tricks, hints, concepts, ideas and Spooks ? As a DSM-V (musical edition) !

  • Avila Marcos

    For me Manley Variable Mu Compressor keeps winning in my daw, i use it track by track and on the mixbus, gotta love the fairchild as well

  • Avila Marcos

    indeed

  • Paul

    Would have liked to hear some jazz or soul/blues. The acoustic pop wasn’t a good indication for me.

  • Richard Domina

    Hi Mike and thanks for this shootout. Have you taken a listen to Acustica Audios ‘Ultramarine’ 670? Curious.