Compressors are one of the keys to dialing in a professional-sounding drum mix. Whether you’re going for an aggressive, punchy sound or a tight, controlled performance, compressors help you shape transients and control dynamics to achieve the perfect sound.
Some compressors excel at certain tasks while others struggle, so it's important to select the right one for the job. When mixing drums, many engineers reach for fast-acting compressors with program-dependent release times and just a touch of saturation. While there are many quality options out there, here are six compressors for dialing in unforgettable drum mixes.
Universal Audio 1176
The Universal Audio 1176 compressor is known for its super-fast attack and release times and colorful FET sound, which makes it a perfect pick for the drum bus. With attack times as fast as 20 microseconds, the 1176 excels at peak limiting, making it an excellent choice for leveling out the dynamics of a performance.
Its release time varies based on the incoming signal, with a faster release when applying moderate compression and a slower release when applying heavy compression. This unique algorithm allows you to apply massive amounts of compression without causing unwanted pumping.
Most engineers prefer the 1176 for its signature sound rather than its ability to tame transients. The 1176’s FET circuitry and feedback design add brightness, presence, and energy to any signal. And while the 1176 is capable of compressing signals with minimal distortion, heavy amounts of gain reduction result in significant saturation, which is perfect for fattening up drum tracks.
The 1176 sounds great on room mics, and can be used to add explosive energy with “All-Buttons In Mode,” which speeds up the attack and release times, increases the compression ratio, and adds plenty of harmonic distortion. It’s also great for aggressive parallel compression.
Modeled after dbx’s very first compressor, the dbx 560A offers the same classic compression characteristic of the dbx 160a in a compact 500-Series format. With modern feed‑forward VCA circuitry, the dbx 560A delivers clean, controlled, transparent gain reduction.
Its intuitive interface makes dialing in great-sounding drums fast and easy. With super-fast program-dependent attack and release times, the dbx 560A features streamlined controls for threshold, ratio, and output gain. The ratio controls range from 1:1 to 1:infinity and beyond. When using inverse-compression ratios, the dbx 560A ducks the output level if the signal exceeds the threshold, resulting in a one-of-a-kind compression algorithm.
The dbx 560A features two modes of operation: dbx’s proprietary OverEasy mode for smooth, natural compression and classic hard-knee compression for taming transient sources. Hard-knee mode is perfect for individual tracks like kick and snare, while OverEasy mode works well for subtle glue on the drum bus.
The API 2500 is more kitted-out than Batman’s utility belt. This versatile VCA compressor can be configured to deliver clean, neutral compression or punchy, pumping insanity. It features selectable ratios ranging from 1:1 to 1:infinity. In addition to selectable attack and release times, the API 2500 features a program-dependent release setting with variable time controls for maximum flexibility.
This compressor offers advanced tone controls, with options for soft, medium, and hard-knee compression. Toggle between modern-sounding feed-forward compression and vintage feedback style compression designs with the touch of a button. Stereo link controls allow you to use the API 2500 as a stereo or dual-mono compressor, while filter controls allow you to apply high-pass, low-pass, or bandpass filters to the link controls for mid-side processing.
One of the most unique features of the API 2500 is the Thrust detector, which inserts a high-pass filter at the detector circuit, reducing compression of the low-end and applying additional compression to higher frequencies.
With the right settings, the API 2500 can work wonders on individual channels, add glue to your drum bus, or produce punishing parallel compression. No matter how you use it, it always adds a certain presence and musicality to your mix.
SSL Stereo Bus Compressor Module
Modeled after the original SSL G-Series console bus compressor, the SSL Stereo Bus Compressor Module is well known for its ability to glue tracks together. While it may not be as versatile as some of the other compressors on this list, the SSL Stereo Bus Compressor Module excels at clean, neutral VCA-style compression.
The SSL Stereo Bus Compressor Module offers selectable ratios of 2, 4, and 10. In addition to selectable attack and release times, it also features a program-dependent release setting that’s great for adding punch to drums. In terms of tone, the SSL Stereo Bus Compressor Module has a punchy mid-range that makes snare drums sound like they’re jumping out of the speakers.
UnderTone Audio Unfairchild 670M II
Modeled after the legendary Fairchild 670, the UnderTone Audio UnFairchild 670M II delivers a painstaking recreation of the classic tube limiter. The UnFairchild uses four paralleled Vari-Mu tubes to deliver an extremely soft-knee compression curve for a smooth, warm sound.
The UnFairchild features sub-millisecond attack times for consistent dynamics. Six preset time constants and four variable time constants offer an array of attack and release settings suitable for any situation.
The most unique feature of the Unfairchild is its program-dependent ratio settings. The compression ratio increases as the input signal level gets higher. As the signal gets louder, the compression ratio increases, making the UnFairchild extremely effective at controlling dynamics, adding color, and gluing tracks together on the drum bus.
The UnFairchild also features stereo link, mid/side, and side-chain functionality for creative compression techniques. Strap the UnFairchild across your drum bus and use the mid/side setting to add excitement to your room tracks without sucking the life out of your kick and snare.
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor
The Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor is easily the most versatile compressor on this list. It’s capable of emulating the sound of several classic compressors, including the dbx 160, Teletronix LA2A, Fairchild 670, and Urei 1176.
The Distressor features eight compression ratio options, each modeled to emulate a different sound, including Empirical Labs’ own Nuke setting which is optimized for adding excitement to room mics. With fully variable attack and release times, the Distressor is capable of carving transients into almost any shape.
High-pass and bandpass filters allow for excessive compression without causing pumping, while two types of harmonic distortion offer unparalleled tonal flexibility. Ideal for individual channels, bus processing, parallel compression, transient shaping, and tonal coloration, the Distressor is a studio workhorse.