Do You Need An Outboard Compressor?

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

At some point in your studio adventures you might be asking yourself this question: do I need to buy an outboard compressor? Maybe you’ve heard that recording with some compression can be helpful. Or perhaps you’ve seen the “big boys” using outboard compressors in the mixing stage. You know they exist. So do you need one?

What It Can Do For You

The best reason I can think of for someone to use an outboard compressor (i.e. a physical hardware compressor in your signal path) is for recording purposes. A little compression on your vocals, kick or snare drum, or even your bass guitar can be a nice touch when going in to your DAW.

For a dynamic vocalist (someone who varies between loud and soft passages of singing), a simple compressor inserted after your mic pre but before you converters can be a life saver. You’ll tame the peaks, bring up the quiet parts, and get a more even performance going to “tape.” The same is true for recording snare drum. I usually like to compress my snares to get a fatter sound in the mix, so with an outboard compressor you can get this sound set before you even hit record. Nice!

Try A Channel Strip

For most people in a home or project studio you’re using an audio interface with built in mic pres. This means that after you signal hits the mic pre it immediately goes to your converters. No space to slap in a compressor. That is, of course, unless your interface happens to have some insert jacks in the back. Happy clap for you if they do!

If not then you’ll need to not only purchase an outboard compressor but an external mic preamp  to patch in before the compressor. Great, just what you wanted. More stuff to buy! Of course the best deal out there for this type of thing is generally a channel strip. This is an all in one hardware unit comprised of a mic preamp, compressor, and even an EQ. I actually use a channel strip in my studio and it’s been super easy to implement. There are some great channel strips out there from companies like PreSonus, ART, and JoeMeek that are super affordable (especially considering you’re getting three units in one).

But, You Don’t Really Need One

To be honest though, you don’t really need an outboard compressor or a channel strip. In fact, up until a year ago I tracked everything for all of my clients straight into my interface. No compression, no EQ, no nothing. Just the solid built in pres. The trick when it comes to really dynamic vocalists or musicians is to keep your hand on the gain knob for the preamp. You have to go old school and turn it down when they get loud. I know it sounds crazy having to do something yourself these days, but trust me it works!

As far as compression in the mixing phase goes, for most people it’s just easier to use plugins. And they sound incredible! They really do. If you have a favorite outboard compressor then be my guest and patch it in to your DAW, but for the rest of you, don’t feel like you’re missing out. Just get to work with your interface and your plugins. You have everything you need to make killer music already!

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88 Responses to “Do You Need An Outboard Compressor?”

  1. Brandon

    How good is the compressor on that unit?… I’ve been looking to buy the Art Pro VLA II for vocal tracking.

    Reply
    • Graham

      It’s solid. Has two modes, optical or tube. They do sound different and have their own flavor.

      Reply
    • Graham

      A compressor plugin won’t actually affect the audio coming IN to your DAW so it won’t stop a track from clipping. It just changes what you hear going to your mix buss.

      Reply
      • Carlo

        There are actually some DAWs which allow you to do that. For instance, in FL Studio you can place a compressor as the first effect on a rack, then put a recorder called Edison in the second spot of the FX rack & you record the compressed sound.
        Perhaps there’s something similiar on Pro Tools..

        Reply
        • Maxin

          That is vocal->audio input->comp->daw. That is not pre compressing. That should be vocal->comp->audio input->daw.

          Reply
      • Rex Strother

        I suppose you could easily route a vocal track through a compressor plugin to record onto an aux audio track (like bouncing down a VI, in a sense) – the compressor plugin wouldn’t affect what’s coming in (limit), but would compress to the newly recorded aux audio track.

        Reply
      • Q

        You can setup an aux and record through a plugin compressor to tame the peaks on an incoming signal.

        Reply
  2. Mark Bacino

    Great post. Very true. My fave, go-to channel strip in my studio these days is the UA6176. I generally use it as my main mic-pre. I’ll also use, when applicable, to add a touch of compression going to tape on vocals or I’ll lean on it a little heavier while tracking bass, etc. But that said, I recently recorded a remote project for a friend using just his laptop and his little M-Audio Fast Track Pro. Not only did it sound great, I hate to admit it but I wasn’t missing my 6176 all that much.

    Reply
      • Mark Bacino

        Yeah, was pleasantly surprised. Obviously, you have to be a little more conservative with your levels without having some sort of dynamic control in the record chain but it’s amazing what you can do these days with just an affordable I/O and it’s stock mic pres.

        Reply
  3. Rex Strother

    Using the advice of your e-Book, I pared my interface down from a Digi003 Rack to an MBox Pro (3rd Gen). One nice feature of it is that all 4 inserts/mic pres have a Soft Limiter built in. Saved my bacon once or twice already when what I thought was a gentle vocalist surprised me with extraordinary volume during a bridge. Not exactly “compression” but glad to have it. Nice to know my MBox has “it’s hand” on the volume knob!

    Reply
  4. Cory

    I agree that compressor plug-ins are killer but theres nothing like the speed of recording everything into pro tools the way you want it to sound. Mix as you go! But only if you have access to that kind of equipment…

    Reply
  5. Dave Lopez

    Another nice unit is Universal Audio’s Apollo. With it you can use all of UA’s classic plugin compressors and limiters, like the 1176, LA-2A or LA-3A, to compress the signal before it is recorded. No other interface allows this with plugins. It’s such a simple and old school concept that I’m really surprised it’s taken so long for anyone to do it.

    You can also do this in Logic (and maybe most DAWs) by using an Aux track as your audio input track, adding a compressor plugin and then sending the output to an audio track for recording.

    Another great article, Graham. Thanks!

    Reply
  6. Mitch

    you don’t need one, but once you have one as versatile as the distressor, you can’t live without one.

    Reply
  7. Joel Hill

    The longer I observe here, the more I see and hear statements that seem to be contradictory to your basic premise. I’ve watched videos and read articles under the assumption that you were telling me I could make great recordings with a regular audio interface (MBox2 in my case) and the plug-ins that come with Pro tools. I am really confused, because now I find out you are using a $1,000 interface and telling me my converters are inadequate and I have to buy an outboard compressor. I am feeling a bit confused and disappointed.

    How can I go a year without buying gear and keep reading and listening when the messages are becoming more discouraging about actually doing quality work without a high budget? One day it’s not the gear, then it is. I am feeling very confused.

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hi Joel,

      I appreciate your comment, but your observations would be incorrect. I’m not contradicting my site’s premise at all. This post in particular isn’t actually telling people to get an outboard compressor. It’s presenting the question (Do I need one?) and answering it. As you see in my summary paragraph, you don’t really need one. I only bought one last year for the first time ever and I only use it as necessary.

      No where did I say that your converters are inadequate. I’m saying the OPPOSITE actually. I think the converters in an Mbox or comparable USB interface are all you need to make great recordings. I’ve said that from the beginning and I say that to this day. I personally use an interface that has 8 mic pres built in because I record multi track drums for bands. That puts me in a price range of at least $500 for a box with that IO. I sprung for the Liquid Saffire (got it on sale for $750) because of the extra expandability and the liquid pres which I liked the flexibility of. Again, I do this for a living and have IO needs that perhaps you wouldn’t. Converters are the same as the $200 version of the Saffire.

      Hope that clears up the confusion :-)

      Graham

      Reply
      • Joel Hill

        I guess I was a bit overcome by where it looked like the article was going. I am glad I asked, because I am not, by nature, a negative person. Obviously I got weighted down before the end of the post. Thanks for being so committed that you responded so soon. I am aware of the size of sessions you do and totally get the cost difference now. Keep up the good work and thanks for maintaining a good humor in the face of my question. Thanks for making the dialog productive. Thanks, also, to Rex who took the time to comment below.

        Reply
        • Rex Strother

          Nice to meet you, Joel! Between, Recording Revolution, the DUC forum for Pro Tools and Pro-Tools-Expert.com, I have found so much helpful advice re: recording, mixes, gear, troubleshooting from so many smart, talented and generous guys. But I really got a lot out of Graham’s e-book. It convinced me to go with a $600 interface rather than a $1,750 interface I was considering (with bells and whistles I simply didn’t need or wouldn’t use for years and years). And also convinced me to sell off 3 mics I had sitting on the shelf taking up real estate but never used (and they paid for my new interface – no out of pocket – gota love it!)

          Reply
        • Graham

          No problem. I’m the last person on the planet that wants to convince people to buy more stuff to make great music. I just try to address lots of questions I regularly get from readers, and this one about outboard compressors was one of them. A valid thing to consider.

          Don’t get overwhelmed. Just get back to making some great music knowing that the tools you have are perfectly suited to make great art.

          Reply
    • Rex Strother

      I think Graham’s overall message is solid – you don’t need a lot of gear (and especially expensive gear – as prosumer gear and self-education can go a very long way) to make good recordings. And I noticed in the summary, he said – no, you don’t absolutely need an outboard compressor. That said – some may want one for their use anyway, of course.

      I think Graham does a pretty good job of reviewing equipment, without “marketing” it to you – and he’s been really good and recommending good inexpensive gear (like the ART channel – $250) rather than a $1,500 channel (Grace, for example).

      Reply
      • Graham

        Yep, I even got the Pro Channel for $199 when they were discontinuing that old model :-) I try to help. Thanks Rex.

        Reply
  8. Felipe

    This post reminded me of the time I went looking for a better acoustic guitar. After looking and trying all this expensive guitars, I went for an entry level guitar from a great manufacturer. It just sounded as good as the $3000+ guitars, although it didnt look as beautiful, but it gets the job done!! It actually helped me to do better music and my recordings improved a lot!. Thats the point of Graham’s site to do better music with the tools you have at your hand, and not to wait till you have the best of everything!

    Reply
    • Graham

      Thanks for the comment Felipe. I know what you mean about guitars. The expensive ones sure do look pretty :-)

      Reply
  9. Chris

    A question regarding tube pre-amps, channel strips, etc: can you plug the output of these devices directly into your interface input? Reason obviously states of course, but are there any caveats?

    Reply
      • Chris

        Last question: I have a motu 8pre interface that has line inputs built into all 8 xlr inputs, and mic pres for all eight as well. If I keep my mic pre all the way down should I be fine with plugging in one of these channel strips into it?

        Reply
        • Graham Cochrane

          Yes. You’ll want to set those inputs to LINE in on your interface or included software, not MIC in. Then keep the volume all the way down.

          Reply
  10. Brandon

    After Graham stated that he used the Art Pro channel strip…. I went out and bought the Art Pro VLA II…. man what a great compressor…super transparent, yet not necessarily sterile… works great in my vocal signal chain…thanks Graham!

    Reply
  11. Jonny K

    If you were to recommend an affordable but effective channel strip, what one’s would you recommend??? Affordable but effective ;)

    Reply
    • Graham

      Like I mentioned above, I use and like the ART Pro Channel. Other good options are the Studio Channel from PreSonus or the JoeMeek ThreeQ.

      Reply
  12. Jonny K

    Cheers for the reply Graham, your site has been most helpful! Iv heard the modern JoeMeek’s are nothing on the older one’s, now that could be a rumour, but the modern one’s would still do a fine job right? It’s literally only for gentle limiting on things going in to the interface so Im sure it would be fine?

    Reply
  13. Brandon

    I have the Joemeek 3q and I can assure you this thing is awesome in it’s price range… It works great for everything…. The preamp in it is super clean and sterile.. the compressor hits way to hard for vocals but works great on guitars… the eq is where the magic is on this unit, very musical! Even though I have better equipment, I wouldn’t get rid of my Joemeek!

    Reply
    • Jonny K

      Well Im currently in experimental phases with compression so maybe Il stumble onto something magic by toying with it! (Thats the dream……) .. I have a Fast track PRO, Iv never used outboard gear before. How would I by-pass the Fast track preamps and completely take them out of the chain so that it’s literally just the JM preamp? I hear using the jacks at the back, that the signal goes like this:
      -Fast track preamps
      -JM preamp
      -Back to fast track preamps and then into my computer.
      How would I just use the JM preamp?? Or is it possible??

      Reply
  14. Brandon

    If you run output from the 3q into Fast track input 1/2 with a ts cable, this will not completely bypass the opamps inside the Fast Track since all the inputs still run through the same circuit…. However there is a way to connect the 3q output with a trs cable to the INSERT on the Fast Track which does completely bypass the preamp (opamps) in the Fast Track. This is kinda tricky because these units are not necessarily meant to work that way. U need this cable http://www.samash.com/p/Hosa_STP200%2014%20TRS%20to%20Dual%2014%20Mono%20Insert%20Cable%20Assorted%20Lengths_184189. I have hooked one up this way and it worked great!

    Reply
    • Jonny K

      Right so I connect the red and grey jacks in the picture you linked me to from the 2 output jacks on the JM? And then feed the single black jack on the other end into one of the 2 available INSERTS on my Fast Track, and boom.. Preamps bypassed? Or do I reverse the cable around? .. Also, once connected, and turned on, Id connect my mic straight into the JM XLR input which will then feed through my bypassed Fast Track preamps and into my computer? Does this leave me with only one available mic input altogether (JM xlr) or are both XLR inputs on my Fast track available ASWELL as the JM xlr input? (as you can see, Im useless with tech.. I can play, I can record and mix (to a degree), but Im HOPELESS with setting gear and software up! Haha

      Reply
      • Brandon

        To be honest with you, it can be a bit confusing…

        Looks like you have 2 inserts on the FT, so just choose either to be dedicated for the 3q… Say we use channel 2 for the 3q

        1. Plug the (TIP) end into the FT INSERT 2
        2. Plug the (TRS) side into the ouput of the 3q
        may have that backwards…lol

        3. On the FT, Channel 2 should now be turned all the way down to avoid the sound from the internal preamp.
        4. The 3q will now insert its entire signal to the FT on channel 2!

        You will still have the 2 separate inputs available for recording as well, but the 3q is now your channel 2…. Hope this isn’t too confusing…

        Reply
        • Jonny K

          Ahhh right that makes sense! The output of the joe meek has 2 output jacks, so those 2 output jacks will be occupied by the Y cable, then “insert 2″ on the FT will be occupied by the TIP (as you say) which is only one jack, right? Other than that, it all makes sense, so basically your just replacing channel 2 with the 3Q, and channel 1 is still a standard FT preamp, correct? Ahh your so helpful! Id buy you a drink, only for I live in Ireland!

          Reply
          • Brandon

            You got it! Although the cable order could be backwards… lol

            I appreciate the drink offer.. If I’m ever around Ireland I’ll look you up.. haha

            BTW you should drop me a line at warsleyer@aol.com and let me know how everything goes!

  15. Jonny K

    I will indeed! I wont have the unit for about 2 months max, but I wont forget to contact you, have you a Youtube account that I could add you on? I could mail back and forth through that to let you know how things go?

    Reply
  16. Matt

    what do i need to use an ouside compressor on tracks later in the mix as like a plugin? is there some kind of converter, i have an interface pre amp, the “presonus firestudio project” and which has an send and return, but it can only be used for WHILE RECORDING, but what if i want to master a song and use an outside 31 band eq on the whole project right b/4 exporting the song as a wave, how and what do i need to have to do that???? thank you so much please respond, i know your a busy man, but i love your stuff, thanks

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hi Matt,

      You would need to send your stereo mix out of a pair of outputs on your firestudio, then into the compressor or EQ, then back into a pair of stereo inputs on your interface and “record” that incoming audio to a new audio track.

      Reply
      • Matt

        ohhh wow thank you so much Graham! your amazing keep up the good work, i’ve learned alot from you! thank you

        Reply
  17. Dean

    Hi graham, love your vids and site..

    Out of curiosity why do you name some tracks with a + sign in them? And also what is that app logo in your dock between S mix and Logic, thanks! :)

    Reply
  18. Bernardo

    Hi! Most people tend to dont use a compressor at the recording phase because it has no undo. Once it is compressed you can t go back. But there is a little trick that save my day sometimes – record 2 versions of every take- one direct from the outboard preamp and other from the output of your outboard compressor. There are some channel strips that have a direct output from the preamp section and also from the compressor section. But in the case of using for exemple a Pacifica preamp and a 1176 compressor, you would need a splitter cable or box to be able to do that. So, once you record the track, if you are in Pro Tools you can disable and hide the uncompressed version. I really love the UAD plug ins And for sure you can an excelent mix using only them. But if they were exactly identical to their outboard gear they emulate, nobody would buy hardware compressors anymore..

    Reply
  19. Joel Hill

    Couldn’t you use an alternate, simple solution, if you had no hardware compressor? Couldn’t one just have the same input on 2 channels, one with a software compressor and one without compression and blend or discard as you see fit?

    Reply
  20. daniel

    Turning the gain knob for vocalist is retarded. If you know how to use a compressor the right way theres no need for that.

    Reply
  21. LoRd GabRielz

    Hey Grams, God bless your effort for passing out knowledge to the world of music production.
    I have a question. How do I connect an external compressor to the Avid mbox 3rd Generation(not mbox Pro), and use the external compressor as an insert inside pro tools.
    Thanks in Advance

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hmm. I’m not sure there’s a way to insert a compressor into the Mbox. Maybe someone else here can explain if they’ve found a way.

      Reply
  22. Rex Strother

    The Mbox (3rd Gen) doesn’t have any Insert routing options. But the Mbox Pro does.

    You could possibly get a 1- or 2-channel mic-pre w/compressor or compressor channel strip and use S/PDIF OUT on the MBox to route OUT to the hardware compressor (assuming it has S/PDIF itself) and then back in via S/PDIF IN on the MBox.

    That would give you external compressor routing, I believe (am I up in the night – someone wanna check my conclusion)?

    http://www.avid.com/US/products/mbox

    Reply
  23. Rex Strother

    That said – of course, the external compression would obviously be occuring POST Mbox mic-pre, unlike an Inserted hardware effect (I believe).

    Reply
  24. A producer

    Sorry to say this people but eventually you’ll all find out that you need ‘real’ gear. Don’t just rely on plugins or you’ll all sound the same. Computers are clinical, they drive everything from spreadsheets to robots. Studio outboard gear is temperamental, it has flaws – no 2 pieces of gear are identical and they ALL sound different to each other, even when sat in the same rack etc. To get a good sound you need electrical ‘drive’ and distortion – not implemented computer driven plugged-in white or pink noise. There’s your reason to go ‘out-the-box’.

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hello anonymous “producer” :-) I can definitely appreciate the “flaws” of analog gear, that no two pieces sound exactly the same. Much truth there.

      However, you definition of “real” gear doesn’t keep up with the times. Plugins ARE “real” gear. Just like outboard gear is “real”. One is analog, one is digital. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. And for many people a nice combination of both is in order. But for some, analog is the only way to go, and for many others digital is the only way to go.

      Reply
  25. E

    Hi Graham. Amazed to see this article was posted in June of last year and your latest response to a reader was just a few days ago. I am grateful for that kind of commitment and responsiveness to your readers – truly awesome.
    I’m part of a new generation where digital software is becoming more and more the only pathway to making music. The economy is tough. Young folks are counting their pennies. But computers and softwares are accessible. This makes sense.
    However I’m one of those who is trying to get the balance right between digital gear and analog gear.

    Help me out here. If I forced you to observe my home-based setup and recommend 1 more bit of analogue gear, what would it be? Please keep in mind, I’m going for Hip Hop, Reggae, and House music sound. I need warmth, clarity, and thick lows.
    My Setup:
    A regular ol Casio Keyboard with MIDI connectivity
    to
    FLStudio 10, Cubase, Studio One, & Various Software Plugins
    to
    Presonus AudioBox 1818VSL
    to
    Dangerous D’Box for Analog Summing
    to
    Daking FET III Compressor
    to
    KRK RP5G2 Studio Reference Monitors Rokit 5

    I’ve been wondering if there is anything I could do, anything I could add, to ensure an even warmer, thicker sound. Personally, I love plugins. But I covet outboard gear for its unique warmth. I’d like to know what you’d recommend. Thanks a TON.
    E.

    Reply
    • Graham Cochrane

      I would say if you like the sound you’re getting, stick with what you have. You’ve got some solid gear. As far as software goes, I’m very impressed with the Slate Digital plugins for adding analog warmth and vibe. Also just started playing with the Waves REDD consoles. They are amazingly analog as well.

      Reply
  26. Gareth

    I just want to thank you for your advice and tips. I use Mixcraft 6 Studio as my DAW of choice, not quite as intense as Protools, but works well for me.
    What you say makes a lot of sense regarding outboard hardware, I have a pair of ye olde Boss Rcl10 compressor/limiters that I still find quite handy to use.

    Thanx again.

    Reply
  27. John Lardinois

    For me the question is – do I WANT an outboard compressor? well hell yea! That would be the bee’s knees, if bees have knees.

    But do you need one? Nah. Not a chance.

    The deeper question is this – which is better, an analog or digital compressor? And the truth is… digital is better.

    There are great emulations of analog compressors, but aside from that, digital compressors don’t have the limits of analog.

    And analog compressor is confined to the response time of it’s hardware. Digital compressors can be as fast or slow as you need, so they catch EVERY transient that you need to, or can be as accurate as you’d like.

    And don’t forget look-ahead!

    Reply
  28. Alex

    After spending two years in digital studio I can safely say that plugins are the worst fx I’ve ever used. They just can’t compare to hardware and specially compressors, the most important tool of mixing. Plugins are great for demos but you won’t find any self respecting studio using plugins exclusively. I’ve gone back to hardware only and my mixes sound professional again.

    Reply
    • Graham

      Kind of a blanket statement, and one that is incorrect. If YOU personally prefer hardware FX then that is totally valid. Many people do. But many people prefer plugins for the convenience and cost, and they still churn out professional mixes.

      Reply
  29. Jesús

    Hi Graham,

    A couple of years later, but there is my question.

    You mention that is impossible to have an outboard compressor between my built in pre and the convertors (it’s pretty obvious). What if I have an outboard compressor (and not a channel strip) and run a mic through the built in pre, then send the signal directly to a line output, then to the compressor and back to the interface? It could be this a kind of channel strip?

    As usually, I always thank you for all the work you do for audio community, and this won’t be the exception.

    Very thankful for having this website close at hand to solve my doubts.

    Best regards!

    Jesús

    Reply
      • Jesús

        Thanks for the fast response!

        Yeah, I have a Saffire PRO 40, so I’d take advantage of the ‘zero latency’ signal going directly to one line output.

        Reply
  30. Henrik

    Hi

    I often insert a compressor on the in channel in cubase. Works great for tameing peaks. For vocals and bass
    The downside is that you can’t remove the
    sound of it after so you’ll have to set it up to give you what you want.

    Reply
  31. Jason

    Hi, I use Adobe Audition, and I already have inboard presets for Multiband, Single Band, and Tube Band compressors in the interface. I use a Mackie ProFx, which has built in pre’s and I have an Art Tube MP that I use for bass mainly. With the built in presets already in the interface, would having another compressor be necessary? Thanks!

    Reply
      • Jason

        Right, but that’s what I am wondering, is it better to do it that way or does it make little difference to use the inboard compressors?

        Reply
        • Graham

          Well, plugin compressors aren’t really compressing in real time. So you still have to have the plugin engaged, unless you render it down to a new audio file.

          Reply
          • Jason

            Right, usually, I record my audio and then, I go in and do the compression and such in post production. I was just wondering if the preset that Adobe uses, or any presets that do compression in any interface are just as good as having an outboard compressor like a DBX. I was just wondering if it would be better to use an outboard for recording, rather then using the presets after recording. I am considering getting an outboard compressor, but, if there is little difference either way, well then I can save some money! :)

  32. rezasa

    you can do this easily in Studio one,there are input channels in mixer..and you place plugins on them…i place a la2a plugin when i record vox

    Reply

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