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Choosing the Right Compressor

by Ian Stewart, iZotope Contributor February 23, 2021
Learn the different strengths of each compressor in Music Production Suite.

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You may have noticed that Music Production Suite grants you access to no less than four unique compressors, most of which include multiple modes. If the sheer number of possible starting points is feeling overwhelming, not to worry. We’re going to take a look at each compressor included with Music Production Suite, breaking down their different modes and strong suits to give you a solid foundation to start from.

This article references a previous version of Neutron. Learn about Neutron 4 and its powerful features including Assistant View, Target Library, Unmask, and more by clicking here.

Get all of the benefits of these plug-ins and their compressors included in this article with Music Production Suite, also available as a free trial with Music Production Suite Pro. 

Nectar’s Compressors

With Nectar being designed expressly for vocals, it’s no surprise that its compressors are tailored to achieve great vocal-compression tones ranging from clean and modern to colorful and classic. If you’ve got vocals that need compressing, this is your one-stop-shop. With four unique compression modes and two level-detection modes each though, it’s clear we’re going to have to dive a little deeper.

To figure out your starting point, it can be instructive to think about what our goals are. For vocals, there are often two main things you’re trying to achieve with compression: transient control over consonant sounds—especially plosives—and an even body where particular words or syllables are neither lost nor obtrusive. In fact, many engineers will employ both these techniques in series, something you can do easily with Nectar’s two compressor modules (more on that in a minute).

Serial compression in Nectar
Serial compression in Nectar

Nectar’s Digital and Solid State compressor modes are particularly well suited to transient control when set to use peak level detection. If you’re looking to keep things clean and pristine, stick with Digital mode. If, on the other hand, you want to add some harmonic coloration, give Solid State mode a try.

Settings to try:

  • Ratio: 3:1–8:1
  • Attack: <10 ms
  • Release: 30–80 ms

For a smooth, even body, Vintage and Optical modes with RMS detection really shine. If you find those to be too colorful, Digital mode with RMS detection can be astonishingly invisible, while still imparting the level control you need.

Settings to try:

  • Ratio: 1.5:1–4:1
  • Attack: 30–100 ms
  • Release: 80–200 ms

For a classic approach to vocal compression, try using Compressor 1 for fast transient control, and Compressor 2 to even out the body of your vocal. I personally like Solid State followed by Vintage or Optical!

Neutron’s Compressor

If you’re looking for incredibly versatile compression on instruments and buses across the rest of your mix, Neutron has you covered. Honestly, we could dedicate an entire article to everything you can do with Neutron’s compressor, but here are some key bits of functionality that go beyond your typical compressor controls, and high-level ideas on how to use them.

While most compressors use either peak or RMS detection, the Neutron compressor offers three level-detection modes: RMS, Peak, and True. Its unique True Envelope mode looks to solve one of the common issues associated with RMS detection. In a bog-standard RMS detector, low frequencies tend to dominate due to their comparatively higher energy.

True Envelope mode addresses this by normalizing the signal across all frequencies, giving them all equal footing. If you’re after slower, leveling-style compression, but find RMS mode reacts too strongly to low frequency components, give True mode a try. You could even combine this with the detection filters to further tailor the frequency response of the detection filter.

Applying detection filtering to Neutron’s True mode
Applying detection filtering to Neutron Pro’s True mode

The Neutron compressor also offers targeted compression for up to three independent bands. Of course, you may only want to compress a single band. For example, you could create a single split somewhere in the upper midrange and use the high band like a de-esser, or high-frequency limiter to control spikey high frequency transients. Or, you could move that band split lower down to just compress the low end of an instrument or bus.

One more example: use two bands with broadly similar ratios and thresholds, but slightly different timing to accentuate different parts of a signal. This can work wonders to pull a little extra plucky attack out of something like a bass while still keeping the low end firmly controlled and preventing it from getting thumpy.

Sidechain detection in the Neutron compressor is also extremely versatile. Not only can you key one band-split off another internally, but you can also key from an external source either wideband or via any of the band splits you’ve set up. The possible applications here are far too numerous to list, but here are a few ideas.

Add some pump and bounce to a drum loop or drum bus by keying a higher band to a low one restricted to the thump of the kick. This can achieve that classic sidechain pumping without adding any additional compression to the kick. Or, for a more transparent take on sidechaining the bass to the kick, use the external sidechain but restricted to the low band to make room for the low end of the kick without causing pumping in the upper harmonics of the bass.

Sidechaining the bass low end to the kick low end
Sidechaining the bass low end to the kick low end

Lastly, don’t forget to check out compression ratios below 1:1. Ratios of 0.9:1 and lower turn Neutron’s compressor into an upward compressor, turning up signals that fall below the threshold. This can be great for enhancing low-level detail without squashing the peaks. Do be aware that because compression is happening below the threshold, the attack and release controls sound a bit like they’ve swapped functions.

Add to all this Vintage mode, auto release, variable soft-knee, and the parallel mix controls, and you’ve got a true powerhouse processor for just about any mix compression scenario you can dream up.

This article references a previous version of Ozone. Learn about Ozone 10 and its groundbreaking new features including the new AI-powered Master Assistant, adaptive mastering EQ with the Stabilizer module, and more. 

Ozone’s Compressors

Whether you call it your 2-bus, your mix bus, or your master bus, this is where the Vintage Compressor and Dynamics modules included with Ozone are most at home—or in a dedicated mastering session, of course. That said, the Vintage Compressor can also do lovely things on your drum and instrument buses, so don’t be afraid to try it there! Let’s take a look at some use cases for both.

If you’re after a compressor that takes its cues from some classic hardware units and can impart some color and mojo, look no further than the Ozone Vintage Compressor. It can do great things to warm up a slightly sterile-sounding master, but can also be put to great use in a 2-bus chain to mix into. In fact, pair it with the Vintage EQ and Tape modules and you’ve got the makings of a great 2-bus chain! But I digress…

When it comes to choosing the right mode—Sharp, Balanced, or Smooth—unfortunately there’s not any one-size-fits-all guidance I can give you. A lot of what the Vintage Compressor does is fairly program dependant, so for that reason, experimentation is key. In general, though, Sharp mode uses somewhat faster time constants and a slightly soft knee, while Smooth mode uses slightly slower time constants and a very soft knee. Balanced, unsurprisingly, us somewhere in between these two.

Ozone's Vintage Compressor on a drum bus
Ozone’s Vintage Compressor on a drum bus

The Dynamics module in Ozone is a dynamo of nuanced master compression. Like the Neutron compressor, we could spend an entire article dissecting the functionality and practical applications of this compressor. With stereo and mid/side processing, internal sidechain filtering, up to four bands of multiband processing, a compressor and limiter per band with positive and negative ratios each, three detection modes, parallel blend, adaptive release, and more, the number of possibilities is truly vast.

With so many options at your disposal, it can be easy to get in the weeds and start doing more harm than good. My best advice here is to keep it simple. Use only as many bands as are truly needed—often two are perfectly adequate—and try to use similar settings for each band. Exploring the presets to find one you like and then analyzing how it’s set up can also be a great way to learn all the ins and outs of this compressor.

Ian’s 3-band starting preset for the Ozone Dynamics module
Ian’s 3-band starting preset for the Ozone Dynamics module


As you can see, you’ve got a ton of compression options at your fingertips. Hopefully, this guide has helped prepare you to think more easily about which one is right for the job at hand. You’ll also likely find that as you experiment and try out each compressor you’ll discover your own favorite uses for each, and before long you’ll be able to listen to a vocal, or instrument, or bus, or an entire mix, and know just which one to reach for.

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, try not to stress. This is music, and it’s meant to be fun. Take solace in the fact that many classic techniques or sounds were born out of happy accidents, or from engineers experimenting, abusing, and trying gear in ways it was never intended to be used. So go ahead, try the Nectar Optical compressor on a bass, or the Ozone Vintage Compressor on a vocal bus, and see what happens. You may just discover your next favorite compression technique!

Learn more about compression

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