Compression is a fundamental mixing skill that every audio engineer needs to master. Controlling the dynamic range of a vocal track in a mix is something with which many struggle. But what if we told you it doesn’t have to be as hard as some people make out? There are several alternatives to traditional compressors that could help you approach controlling dynamics differently.
In this article we list a number of compressor alternatives that all do the job of dynamic processing very well, though not all process audio in the traditional sense of a compressor, which makes many of these good alternatives to traditional compressors. Some preserve dynamics, which can reduce audible compression artefacts, whilst others are more geared towards providing the effects of compression but within a GUI which is super simple to use, which can save users valuable time in the mix.
There’s no substitute for learning how to use a compressor in its traditional form or for developing your own critical listening skills to enable you to clearly hear what a compressor does and how the effects of compression impact the audio. If you understand the basics of compression then you’ll be able to appreciate the unique features and workflows that the plug-ins featured in this article provide.
Accusonus ERA Voice Leveler
Accusonus ERA Voice Leveler provides users with a straightforward approach to balancing inconsistent levels within dialog and voice recordings. These sorts of issues are typically addressed by spending time manually adjusting gain levels on a clip by clip basis in a DAW, but why waste your time working this way when a plug-in can correct these gain issues for you?
ERA Voice Leveler automatically normalises level inconsistencies in voice and dialog tracks in real time, controllable via the turn of its main central dial.
Voice Leveler offers two main modes:
A tight mode which provides a more focused radio sound that helps voice tracks stand out from background music.
An emphasis mode which automatically detects and corrects tonal imbalances in voice recordings, such as when vocalists are not directly facing a microphone or have moved away from their main mic position between takes. The emphasis mode applies subtle processing to correct these sorts of issues and ensures consistent tone and intelligibility.
Accusonus say that there's no compression, in the conventional sense of the word, in ERA Voice Leveler. It is based on envelope followers that allow it to perform an on-the-fly relative normalisation.
Watch our video below to see ERA Voice Leveller in action on a dialog track.
iZotope added the Leveler module when they released in RX4 Advanced. With the Leveler module you can take a whole clip and even out the levels automatically, giving you consistent tracks very quickly. This is really useful, especially on documentaries.
At the Super Meet event at IBC in Amsterdam, Mike gave the first public demonstration of the features added in the RX4 release including the Leveler module.
Watch this video to see how Mike was able to level a complete voiceover track very quickly…
Then once back in the UK, Mike produced his review for Pro Tools Expert and watch how he used a different clip from an interview to show how well the Leveler module in iZotope RX works…
In RX5 Advanced iZotope the Leveler module was substantially improved with the addition of a built in de-esser to manage sibilance and a breath control. In this exclusive iZotope RX5 review video Mike showed how the Leveler module works in RX5 Advanced.
iZotope Nectar Elements
Nectar Elements is more than just a dynamics plug-in, as voice and dialog mixing is its main purpose. Nectar Elements has been designed to do most of the heavy lifting for us in the background using machine learning algorithms. The results are very impressive especially if you need to get your vocal tracks into shape in a hurry.
The dynamics section in Nectar Elements is a one fader affair. Increase the value for more squish, lower for more dynamic results. Nectar Elements does a great job of working out a good sounding compressor behaviour based on the input you feed into the AI. If you need a compressor that not only sounds great out of the box but also requires little to no guesswork to set up, then this needs a few moments of your attention.
Couple the clever dynamic section in Nectar Elements with the other modules that include EQ, reverb and tone you may find this to be the only plug-in you need for vocal production.
Quiet Art WaveRider
Wave Rider is an RTAS & AAX plug-in currently for Pro Tools only. It is a virtual fader controller utility that applies intelligent volume adjustments to the Pro Tools faders to maintain consistent levels. It also performs ducking, gating and automatic mixing duties. It has many uses in audio post production as well as music recordings.
Wave Rider first became publicly available for Pro Tools users back in March 2009. It’s a unique and innovative plug-in that detects audio signal levels on the inserted channel and applies Pro Tools fader movements as needed. Since its release, it evolved into a much-improved tool thanks to user feedback.
Here’s an overview of its functions:
Ride mode: In this default mode, Wave Rider’s level detecting algorithm automatically raises or lowers the fader to maintain a user selectable output level by writing volume automation on the timeline. The user can then alter the volume automation as required. Be it your vocal, bass, voice over, or dialog, WaveRider is designed to make it a breeze to maintain a smooth and consistent level so you don’t end up over-compressing.
Duck mode: This function will lower the signal of a target track by a user selectable amount if there’s signal present on the inserted track. Narration and announcements over music as heard on radio channels rely on side-chained duckers which don’t always give the best results, but with Wave Rider it can be so much more natural.
Park on silence: This is a function you’ll find in automatic mixers. The faders are parked at a user defined low level when there’s little signal and they come up to full output when there’s strong signal present, maintaining a steady output level. Particularly useful in situations where there are a lot of mics open and you want to have the cleanest signal without much background noise. Park mode can also be used in situations where you might have chosen to use a noise gate.
Trace mode: Trace function is practically the opposite of what the Ride function is. It actually makes volume graphs of the envelope of the signal. This helps you to copy the dynamics of a signal to another track. Pretty useful when trying to combine 2 sounds together seamlessly.
Watch our review below to see WaveRider v3 in action in Pro Tools…
Sound Radix Drum Leveler
Drum Leveler isn’t a leveler in the traditional sense but it does level the differences between hits in a percussive performance so the name describes what it does perfectly.
Drum Leveler dynamically changes the gain of hits in a performance but it differs from a compressor in how it detects the level of the incoming audio. Instead of comparing the instantaneous level of the incoming audio Drum Leveler “understands” drum hits and treats each hit as a discrete event, moving the level of each hit within the threshold towards or away from a target level. This allows Drum Leveler to achieve results simply not possible using a conventional compressor.
Check out these two tutorials to learn more about how to use Drum Leveler from Sound Radix…
Watch this getting started tutorial from our own James Ivey to learn how to start using this amazing plug-in. By selectively applying gain to single drum beats, Drum Leveler easily achieves the desired target level for each beat, without affecting bleed noise or beats that are out of the user-defined processing range.
In the example track in this tutorial, the drummer has never heard the track before and is playing hesitantly. This particular drummer gets very "feather-footed" when he's unsure about what he's playing, resulting in a big difference in level between kick drum hits.
The idea is to try to generate a clean set of triggers for drum replacement processing.
This take wasn't good enough to use, but it makes an ideal example of how Drum Leveler can deal with the most difficult material. I tried this with a compressor, the results of which were awful, and using an expander/gate which made a better job of it still couldn't manage a clean set of hits without some intervention.
Sound Radix POWAIR
POWAIR enables users to take control of compression in ways which were once not possible using traditional compressors.
Compressors generally work in the same way. A threshold is set, as input signals pass over the threshold gain reduction is applied. We have control over how quickly this happens (and stops happening) via the attack & release controls, knee and ratio controls which together affect how much gain is reduced when it starts to exceed the threshold. We can even change the measurement of the threshold between peak or average level and put a limit on the maximum gain reduction but in traditional compressors the threshold is always a fixed value around which the input level fluctuates.
A common problem with fixed thresholds is that compressors are often used to manipulate the level fluctuations within individual notes, drum hits or words in vocal performances. This is very difficult to set up with a single threshold setting when a performance is dynamic and the level of words within different sections of a vocal performance vary. We could of course automate the threshold but isn’t there an easier way to do this? There is in POWAIR by use of the Adaptive Compression mode which was designed to address this exact issue.
Check out our preview of POWAIR…
Read more about POWAIR from Sound Radix in Mike’s article - Review - POWAIR Two-Stage Loudness Leveler And Compressor Plug-in From Sound Radix.
In this demo, Julian Rodgers demonstrates how Adaptive Compression in POWAIR has been designed to address the issue of needing multiple threshold settings using an example from Free of Your Love by Jess Hammond in which we have an uncompressed vocal that would be very difficult to compress using a single setting. You can read more in our article POWAIR From Sound Radix - Do You Struggle To Find The Right Compression Setting For Vocals? Adaptive Compression Can Help.
Waves Vocal Rider
Riding the faders is a term used when mix engineers need to constantly adjust a channel’s gain on a physical fader. This interaction can mimic the behaviour of a compressor. Fader riding was used frequently in the early days of music production as it helped engineers to prevent signals from overloading their equipment and it remains a useful technique to help sit tracks in mixes.
In the advent of DAWs the physical act of fader riding has typically moved from manipulating a real fader in the flesh to creating lines in volume automation lanes. In some small way this method is similar but drawing in automation into a track using a mouse is very much guess work at best whereas fader riding feels more natural and instinctive.
Waves Vocal Rider brings together both the methodology behind the physical art of fader riding and the power of DAW automation within one plug-in making it a great example of a compressor plug-in alternative.
It is designed to work hard at preserving the natural dynamics of audio while performing some degree of dynamic processing true to real fader riding. This is a quick plug-in to set up and sports a handful of simple controls for setting the aggressiveness of the fader riding.
Watch our tutorial below to see how to set this up in a mix and to see how to write Vocal Rider’s volume automation into your DAW.
Waves also offer a similar product called Bass Rider designed specifically for processing the dynamics of bass instruments - Watch our free tutorial of Bass Rider.
To reiterate a point we stated earlier in this article, there’s is no substitute for understanding the basic principles of compression or for developing your own critical compression listening skills. The plug-ins we’ve featured in this list are all very smart compressor alternatives to consider trying if you are looking for alternative dynamics management to the compressor plug-ins you currently use in your workflows.