There is something about classic compressors that seems to bring out the inner wine connoisseur in even the most utilitarian of gearheads. With their unique sonic characteristics and often eye-watering pricetags, the world of classic compression has long been the field of of either mega-star producers or those born into supreme affluence. With the global fire-sale of COVID 2020 in full swing and more and more of this kind of gear popping up for sale, the time is nigh for a quick refresher on the classics.
Bear in mind, this is in no way a fetishist list, rest assured all the units below are either a) really, really good at what they do and worth the price of entry or b) connected to enough stellar releases that it’s kind of hard to argue. So with all that out of the way here is Part 1 of our definitive list of Mixdown’s Ten Greatest Compressors of All Time.
10. SHURE LEVEL-LOC
The dictionary definition of a character piece, it would be easy to dismiss the Level-Loc as a bit of a one-trick pony, were it not for the fact that it performs said trick better than almost anything in existence. Originally released as a limiter for speech and PA applications, the Level-Loc found its way into the hands of alternative mix gurus like Tchad Black and Dave Fridmann, who took full advantage of the Level-Loc’s brickwall charcteristics and rekt musicality, adding ragged bombast to a host of iconic drum sounds in the '90s and '00s.
From The Dandy Warhols and Flaming Lips right through to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Tame Impala, the Level-Loc has gained a reputation as a go-to for anyone looking to inflict some serious sonic carnage on the drum bus. In a word: hectic.
9. ALESIS 3630
While not as coveted as other names on this list, the Alesis 3630 is a budget compressor with a very rich history which can be boiled down to a very specific time and locale. The humble 3630 was the compressor du jour for the first wave of French House music in the late '90s, finding its way onto records by the likes of Daft Punk, Justice, Etienne De Crecy, Stardust, Air and a whole host of others.
While far from being the most versatile and sonically pleasing unit out there, the 3630 is worth the price of admission alone for one sound in particular - its ability to produce massive side-chained kick sounds. At a pricepoint roughly a fraction of everything else on this list, the return on investment is high with the 3630, and as a result it is often cited as a perfect first compressor for anyone looking to take their productions out of the DAW and into the rack. Basically Ed Banger in a box.
8. DBX 160VU
One of the fastest rack compressors ever built, the DBX 160VU is the perfect option for highly transient material like picked bass, hi-hats, snares or any source requiring quick and immediate clamp down. A VCA compressor with a soul, the 160VU has a character that could be described as ‘aggressive’ - its hard knee and naturally quick attack meaning very little in the way of tonal flexibility. That’s not to say that the 160VU is cold and predictable - in fact, it’s these aggressive qualities (coupled with the DBX 160VU’s penchant for oddball harmonic colouration) that have seen it become a staple of the electronic world, adding harmonic richness and immediacy to a laundry list of famous kick, snare and bass synth sounds over the years.
It is the DBX’s ability to subtly mimic the pleasant non-linear saturation effects of more expensive tube-based units that have made it a worthy investment for anyone who doesn’t have $10,000 to spare on an LA-2A. It’s this ability to over-deliver on transient content, coupled with the 160VU’s unique distortion properties that have made the relatively low cost unit a cult classic amongst vintage gear enthusiasts.
The 160VU has recently experienced a bit of a resurgence on account of one Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, whose iconic drum sound is borne out of a smashed DBX 160VU and some very idiosyncratic mic placements - subsequently bringing the boom-bap to a whole new generation of bedroom mix wizards.
7. CHANDLER TG1
It’s a familiar story – massive commercial studio buys massive commercial studio console, equipped with all the bells and whistles (compression included). Either through convenience or compulsive habit, this compression stage becomes an integral part to an engineer’s sound/workflow, eventually finding its way onto recordings of considerable commercial success. Manufacturer realises that this lightning can indeed be caught in a bottle and said circuit is isolated, replicated and rolled out as a standalone rack unit (or in this case is licensed out to a third party). Global popularity ensues.
Such is the trajectory of the Chandler TG1 Limiter, and its predecessor, the EMI TG12413. Originally designed to mimic the compression unit found on the EMI board at Abbey Road, the rack version by Chandler very quickly took on a persona all of its own, finding its way on to records by the likes of Pink Floyd and the Stones and popping up time and time again on records as diverse as First Impressions-era Strokes and Beyonce's Lemonade.
Not only a serviceable and handy limiter at the tracking stage, the TG1’s uncanny ability to add a sense of vintage familiarity to anything that passes through it makes it an awesome mix tool for when everything else just isn’t cutting it. While definitely not the most versatile compressor out there, the TG1 can have just the right special sauce for certain applications and has become a favourite of anybody looking to trade sterile modernity for some periodic grit.
6. FAIRCHILD 670
It feels almost sacrilegious to have the Fairchild 670 this low on the list, but hear me out. Having gained an almost mythical status among studio nerds, mostly by virtue of being the go-to vocal compressor for the Beatles recordings, the Fairchild 670 is one of those compressors that most are familiar with, but very few have actually used in real life.
The ‘Fairchild Sound’ has primarily lived on in recent times at least, as a direct result of the various plug-in and software emulations that have continually popped up through the DAW era. Originally known for its sublime tonality and unique Variable-Mu design, the classic Fairchild is very much from the white labcoat school of audio engineering. Boasting no fewer than 20 valves and 14 transistors, the original 670’s were clearly aimed at the top end of town, its eye-watering pricepoint making it a viable option for only the most top-flight recording facilities and broadcasters of the day.
Sonically, the 670’s familiar warmth and refined mellowness never cease to add a sense of instant professionalism when added to a vocal chain. Its ability to provide all kinds of heavy compression while imparting very little in the way of sonic artifacts have made it a go-to for any application where naturalness is paramount. Were it not for the 670’s relative scarcity (especially here in Australia) and insane price tag, they could very well crack the top five of this list - stay tuned for that when it arrives shortly...
Find out who took out the top five spots with part two of our greatest compressors of all time.