This is a common search term and it applies to all plugins for audio production and not just compressors. Most home music studios rely on software in order to process recorded audio tracks within the realms of a digital audio workstation. There must be literally 1,000’s of plug ins on the market such as equalizers, compressors, stereo width adjustment, de-essers etc. Some are purely digital in nature and some seek to emulate analog hardware.
Many of these plugins are created by well known developers and some are made by just a one man operation. With such a vast range of plug in types to choose from what is the best way to ensure you set yourself up with the best sonic tools for the job. Well it will come as little surprise that listening is the real way to ensure that you choose the best tools. Of course we can all hold pre conceptions of what tools will add ‘analog warmth’ or provide clarity and punch and sometimes this is a good place to start from. Try and clarify what the goal is with any given purchase and then narrow it down to the 5 plugins that you feel are going to serve your needs best.
Buy an iLok
An iLok is a USB based copy prevention device and I managed to avoid iLoks by choosing software from developers that did not use one. However I now own one and some software I use needs it. I recommend owning one. ($40.00) This way you can hear plugin demos that are protected by iLok and ensure you are getting the full picture when it comes to all the possible software options. There are some great pieces of software that use iLok and I can say so far my experience with both fully paid software and demos has been trouble free thus far. It is now ok to get rid of the iLok hang ups in my opinion.
I recommend creating a new session in your digital audio workstation with a range of sonic tasks set up for testing of the plugins. Of course the test method may change for each software type depending on it’s use. I recommend preparing a vocal track, an entire mix unlimited and some drums on a track, make the audio 24 bit resolution. Then insert your plugins in the insert points of each channel and try them out, each with the same settings on the given material.
Listen carefully and compare and contrast taking notes about the sound changes you like and dislike. I would focus on tone, stereo image, distortion, harshness, clarity air, subjective quality and transients (drums and peaks in the audio). Try listening on both studio monitors and high end headphones where sometimes the details are shown more clearly. Of course exactly what you will be listening for will depend somewhat on the plug in you are listening to. For example a limiter will require listening to different sonic attributes compared with an equalizer.
Do not be too hasty in making judgments, in some cases your first impression is right but some plugins cover their true potential in complexity of interface and it is wise to come back and listen again in a few days and assess them again. Of course you can simply compare source material with the processed material but more information is presented from direct comparison with the different plugins with similar settings. In addition, ensure that you try and level match the audio when you A/B as the ear is easily deceived by volume changes.
This is the best way to find out what the right plugins are for your audio tasks. Do not discount the small plugin developer as there can be excellent products to be had for a great price. Conversely sometimes quality and result is worth paying for so be prepared to spend proper money to ensure you are getting the best possible results in your mixes.
Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound mastering studio based in London UK.