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Compression Secrets: How to Mix the Perfect Piano Sound – A Step By Step Guide


After EQ, compression is THE most powerful tool for making punchy and powerful mixes.

It’s easy enough to use compression to slam your drums, push your vocals out of the speakers, and glue your mix together.

But it gets a little trickier when you’re compressing a piano track.

Depending on the performance and style of the piano recording, your approach to compression will vary. You don’t want to lose the natural dynamics, but you also want to tame the peaks so that the piano track doesn’t jump out of the mix too much.

So, let’s look at how to compress a piano track and what you need to keep in mind when you’re doing it.

What Does a Compressor Do?

Before we get into the specifics of adding compression to your piano or keyboard track, here’s a quick refresher on compression.

The easiest way to think of compression is as an automatic level controller with a twist.

It makes the louder parts quieter and the quieter parts louder.

However, it doesn’t just reduce the volume like your fader does. That wouldn’t be very exciting. Instead, it squeezes the signal according to how you set the following parameters:

  • Threshold
  • Ratio
  • Attack
  • Release

So, it doesn’t raise the quieter parts as much as it reduces the dynamic range of a signal. This makes the difference between the quietest and loudest parts smaller in comparison.

That’s why it’s not just a “level controller” but rather a “tone bender.” Using compression allows you to bend and squeeze the waveform to your wishes. Depending on how you use the parameters on your compressor, you can:

  • Cut off the transient “peaks”
  • Leave the transients alone but squeeze the rest of the signal
  • Help your signal breathe with the music

Among other things.

You may have thought that compression is just used to squash your tracks. Understandably, you may have been reluctant to use heavy compression on your piano track, especially if you’re recording soft ballads or natural-sounding performances. The difference between a gritty electric keyboard and a spacious grand piano requires two drastically different approaches.

However, understanding the nuance of compression and how it bends your signal is crucial to learning how to compress a piano track.

Why Compress a Piano Track?

Knowing the nuance helps you think about the reason why you want to compress something.

Don’t just slap a compressor on a piano track because someone told you that’s what you do. You need a reason to use compression. Otherwise, you’re using it blindly without thinking what you want your piano to sound like.

  • Is it a pop piano track that needs peak-limiting to sit better in the mix?
  • Is the piano playing chords that need to be evened out?

Depending on what your track needs, your approach will be different.

How To Compress a Piano to Cut Through the Mix

For rock keyboard and organs, I like pushing them a little hard to get them to cut through the mix.

Higher ratios compress harder and squeeze the signal more, but if you use a medium to slow attack, the piano will still cut through because the transients (the initial attack of the waveform) are left alone. Then you just tweak the threshold until it sounds like it’s compressing nicely and sitting well with the backing track.

When it comes to pianos, you don’t want to go overboard in compressing them because you want to retain the natural dynamics of the instrument.

That said, you do want to tame the peaks, especially if the piano is playing aggressive chord stabs (think “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles).

At that point, a fast attack and a medium release will work well. A 3:1 or 4:1 ratio is a good starting point between taming the peaks and squeezing the dynamic range.

What Compression Style Should You Pick for the Piano?

Most compressors have different “styles” of compression, the most common being:

  • FET
  • Opto
  • VCA

A FET compressor is a fast, aggressive-sounding compressor. If your piano track is main character in a heavy-hitting rock track, the characteristics of a FET compressor, such as the 1176, might help that piano track shine.

The opto style, on the other hand, is a slower, more balanced compressor that doesn’t squash your signal as drastically. Use an opto compressor, like the LA2A, if you want to add constant compression to the piano to make it sit in the mix without sounding “compressed.”

Lastly, the VCA compressor-style is the “cleanest” of the bunch. It doesn’t color the sound as much, so they’re ideal if you’re looking to make your compression sound as transparent as possible. Great for when you need that classical piano to sound exactly like it should sound but slightly less dynamic and more powerful.

How To Compress a Piano

Let’s look at the parameters of the compressor and how they apply to compressing piano.

Threshold

This controls the level at which compression begins. Turn down the threshold until the peaks of the waveform go over, otherwise, the compressor won’t do anything to your signal. The threshold dictates how much compression will be added, so you will often tweak the threshold again after setting the other parameters to find the exact sweet spot.

Ratio

The ratio determines how much compression is applied once the signal crosses the threshold. For piano, a moderate ratio of 3:1 – 4:1 is a great starting point. This will squeeze the signal naturally without sounding squashed.

Attack

The attack time dictates how quickly the compressor responds to transients. The attack and release are often overlooked, but they are the most important parameters for shaping the waveform according to the context of the song.  If you want to clamp down the transients, you need a faster attack time. If you want the initial hammering of the keys to come through, a medium to slow attack is preferable.

Release

The release time determines how long it takes for the compressor to stop compressing after the input signal falls below the threshold. A medium release time (e.g., 100-300 milliseconds) usually works well for the piano, allowing for a smooth and natural decay of the notes.

Makeup Gain

Because compression is an automatic level controller, it will reduce the volume of your signal because the loud parts are turned down. Therefore, you need to use make-up gain to restore the lost volume. If you look at the input of the signal coming in, try to increase the make-up gain so that the output matches the input level. That’s just good gain staging for you. Otherwise, your piano track might sound too quiet and get lost in the mix.

How To Compress Piano According to Genre

Different piano styles and musical genres may require variations in compression settings.

  • Classical Piano: Classical piano recordings often aim for a transparent and natural sound. Use gentle compression with a low ratio to control dynamics subtly. Focus on preserving the nuances of the performance.
  • Jazz Piano: Jazz pianos can benefit from a bit more compression to even out the dynamic swings but still maintain a sense of spontaneity. This is where the attack and release become really important because you need to find the sweet spot that keeps the piano compressed without losing the groove.
  • Pop/Rock Piano: In pop and rock music, anything goes. Usually, engineers get more heavy-handed with compression in these genres because they need to cut through a busier mix. A higher ratio and a slightly faster attack can help achieve a consistent and impactful sound.

Over-compression is the Enemy of a Piano Recording

Too much compression will kill your piano track. It’ll suck the life out of your recording, so keep an eye on the gain reduction meter to make sure you’re not overdoing it. Better yet, train your ears to hear when you’ve gone too far because you’ll often hear your piano sounding small and lifeless like it’s stuck inside a tiny box at the bottom of your mix.

Constantly A/B your compression to hear how the compressor affects the piano track. If you gain stage the plug-in correctly and the input and output are the same level, it’s easy to hear the difference when you bypass your compressor. If it sounds better, great. But if it sounds smaller, less musical, or too dynamic, something is wrong, and you must revisit your compressor settings.

Use Parallel Compression

If you’re worried about over-compressing your piano, using parallel compression is a good solution. Send your piano track to a compressor that’s working in parallel and have fun with your compressor.

You don’t have to worry about over-compressing because the original track will still retain all the dynamics of the original recording. After all, you’re not compressing that track. Blending the compressed piano track underneath will maintain the natural dynamics while adding a controlled, compressed layer for impact.

Parallel compression can work exceptionally well for piano in genres like rock and pop.

Starting Settings for Piano in Different Genres

To put these concepts into practice, let’s look at a couple of real-world examples:

Example 1: Classical Piano Recording

  • Ratio: 2:1
  • Attack: 15 ms
  • Release: 200 ms
  • Set the threshold to compress 2 – 4 dBs

Example 2: Pop/Rock Piano Recording

  • Ratio: 6:1
  • Attack: 10 ms
  • Release: 150 ms
  • Set the threshold to compress 5 – 10 dB

Start with these settings and then quickly adjust them if they don’t work for your recording. It’s impossible to give you the exact settings that you need, but these starting points may help. Alternatively, find a preset in your compressor plug-in to get you started, but always tweak in the context of the mix.

Your Step-By-Step Piano Compression Process:

Your entire approach with compression basically comes down to this:

  • Add a compressor to your piano track.
  • Find the right style of compression you like.
  • Find a preset if you want a simple starting point.
  • Adjust the threshold and the ratio to suit your needs.
  • Tweak the attack and release to shape the dynamics of the signal.
  • Analyze in solo if needed, but always mix the track in the context of the mix.

Compression is a powerful, crucial mixing tool you can’t overlook so I hope this guide helped you understand how to compress and enhance your piano tracks.

By understanding the nuances of compression and the different styles of compressors available, you can tailor your approach to suit the specific needs of your track.

Whether you want your piano track to cut through the mix or feel naturally dynamic, compression will help you get there.

For more step-by-step instructions on how to mix better music from your home studio, check out Step By Step Mixing: How To Create Great Mixes Using Only 5 Plug-ins right here.

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