Compression makes things punchy. Compression makes things loud and clear. Compression makes your tracks more consistent throughout the song.
But compression also makes things sound choked. Compression makes drums sound muffled and dull. Compression makes your listening experience tiring sometimes because listening to loud music can be exhausting and distracting sometimes.
Here are simple ways to avoid over-compressing, and keep control over your tracks and song without squashing and killing it.
Don’t compress every track by default.
Only compress what needs compression. For me it’s drums, bass and vocals. Drums and bass are the rhythmic foundation of your song, so it’s always good to make them consistent and punchy. Vocals carry the lyrics, so a little compression ensures lyrics are audible when the singer sings more quietly. Other instrument do not always need compression.
Use a slower attack.
A fast attack turns down the audio as soon as it gets to the threshold and kills it. Let your tracks breathe. Don’t punish them for being too loud. It’s about controlling the dynamics of the song, not killing them.
Use lower ratios, like 2:1 or 3:1.
A compressor hitting hard on a track sounds unnatural. Keep your ratio low, and lower the threshold a little instead of using a high ratio. You’ll compress a little more often but much more smoothly and transparently.
Compress no more than 3 to 6 db.
Watch your gain reduction meter on your compressor, and try to keep it in the 3-6db range. More compression is more obvious, and the goal with compression is to make your tracks more consistent and be as transparent as possible. This is the easiest way to avoid over-compressing.
Use compression in stages.
If you want to compress a lot, use multiple layers of soft compression instead of hitting hard on each track. Use a little compression on the track, then a little on the bus, then a little on the master fader if you want. That’s -3db on the track, then -3 on the bus. They stack.
Use parallel compression.
Parallel compression allows you to compress a lot and still keep some dynamics because you’re blending a track with a compressed copy of it. Compress the copy a lot if you need to, and leave the original untouched. Blend the two. You get the best of both worlds.
You don’t HAVE to compress the master bus.
If you do, keep it very subtle. Use a slow attack, a low ratio, and a high enough threshold to keep the compression under 3db.
To me compression is not about getting things louder. It’s more about consistency in volume and tone. Try these concepts to avoid over-compressing your next mix, and let your music breathe.