VCA Compressor – How to Use It in Your Mix

The VCA compressor is one of four common types of audio compressors. VCA compressors are especially good for one particular purpose in mixing. Let’s identify what is a VCA compressor is and more importantly where and how to use it in your mix, including offering the best VCA compressor plugin as well as a free option you can grab.

VCA Compressor

First let’s identify what a VCA compressor even is.

vca compressor

What is a VCA Compressor

VCA stands for Voltage Controlled Amplifier. VCA compressors are called as such as they vary the voltage to affect the input signal which affects how much compression is applied. While the process is similar to that of FET compressors which also use transistors to achieve the compression, VCA compressors are generally considered to be cleaner, faster, and more transparent.

With all of this in mind, VCA compressor is ideal for imparting a little bit of glue. In other words, whenever you need cohesion on a track or even better two or more tracks together, VCA compressors are great.

I recently talked about what is a bus on a mixer, and why you should use them in your mix. Not only do they help to keep your mix organized and create a hierarchy, they allow you to process the “sum” of multiple tracks which route into them.

Compressing a collection of tracks together helps to bring more cohesion to them, getting them to sound better together as a collective unit rather than a jumble of individual tracks.

This is the basis of glue compression – getting two or more tracks to gel together better, thus making the entire mix sound better.

Speaking of the entire mix, I’ll use a VCA compressor at the tail end of my mix bus chain. At this point, I’ve got dozens of tracks which seemingly unlimited individual effects on them. There are A LOT of different tracks with different sounds all trying to assert themselves in the mix.

Dropping a VCA compressor right at the end helps to lightly (or more aggressively, depending on the settings) pull them all together and sacrifice a small portion of the mix’s ultimate dynamic range to get everything to sound better as a whole.

VCA Compressor Settings

The settings on a VCA compressor will vary from plugin to plugin, but typically they’ll be the standard audio compressor settings you’ll find on most compressors.

Here’s a snapshot of the VCA compressor settings you’ll find on my favorite VCA style compressor, the Waves SSL G Master Bus Compressor which I’ll mention in a moment:

vca compressor settings

As you can see, the threshold, attack, ratio, and release settings are all there so that you can dial in the intensity, speed, release, and amount of compression you want to achieve on your track or bus.

In the case of this particular VCA compressor you have an “analog” button which imparts some simulated analog hum/hiss that you’d hear as part of the workings on the hardware it’s emulating. It also features arguably the best fade in or fade out parameter I’ve ever used which is useful when you’re using this on your master bus.

Best VCA Compressor Plugin

As I just mentioned, my favorite VCA style compressor is the Waves SSL G Master Bus Compressor. As the name suggests, it’s especially effective on the master bus.

Here’s a peek at the settings I typically go with when I drop it on my master bus:

glue compression on master bus

As you can see, you can dial in a lightning quick attack of .1 millisecond if you so choose, so it’s capable of absolutely squashing virtually even the fastest transients if you so choose.

The attack can be dialed back to 10ms which can be useful when you’re processing a lot of tracks with different individual attacks (relative to their transients) and want to make sure you preserve them.

The automatic release setting is also ideal when you’re dealing with complex audio, at least from a dynamic range perspective which is certainly the case on the master bus or most buses in general.

As I showed in the image above, the “Analog” setting is simply to get a little noise floor like hum or hiss on your audio, though admittedly I typically leave this off.

Most DAWs also come with a free “stock” VCA style compressor. In my Ableton Live, it comes with a clearly labeled “Glue Compressor” which sounds great on buses, as well.

One last thing to mention – just because VCA compressors work so well on buses, don’t be afraid to try them on individual tracks in your mix for some snappy and relatively clean compression!

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