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Using compression is tricky. The compressor makes most things sound better, but you have to know what you’re doing.
Don’t just slap a compressor on everything and think you are done.
Are You Using the Wrong Compressor?
Ok, so that’s a bit of a misstatement. There’s not really a wrong compressor, but there are different compressor types. And they all act differently.
You may not have the original analog gear, but most compressor try to mimic certain famous models.
The most common ones are:
Any plug-in that emulates a FET(Field Effect Transistor) is emulating an 1176. The 1176 is perhaps the most famous FET compressor. People like to use them to get punchy drums.
The LA2A is an optical compressor. It works a little slower, and doesn’t react as quickly to your audio. It works well for parallel compression since it’s always pumping away in the background, not just when you reach the threshold.
The VCA model is fast and transparent. The VCA model doesn’t color the sound as much as the other models, so they’re ideal when you want your compression to go unnoticed.
Compressors tend to build upon these models. There are different emulations but these are the most common and popular out there. They have a specific sound or character that’s different from generic, stock models such as the Platinum setting in Logic. Logic’s stock compressor comes with a few different emulations, but the default setting is always that clean Platinum model. It’s great to use when you’re doing side-chain compression or just want a pure, transparent sound.
But if you want character, using some of those emulation is the way to go.
Know Every Inch of Your Compressor
Tweak your compressor in context with your tracks. Don’t just blindly follow some arbitrary setting that you were told was awesome. Tweak your parameters until you hear what you’re doing.
- Threshold too high? If you can’t hear anything going on, maybe you have the threshold too high. The compressor only works when the audio is loud enough for the compressor to detect the peaks that go past the threshold.
- Does everything sound squashed? If it sounds like it’s squashing the sound, maybe the ratio is too high. Do you know exactly how the ratio on your compresso works? It’s the part of the compressor that decides how much a signal gets compressed. A low ratio, like in mastering, will only lightly compress everything past the threshold. A high ratio will compress more severely, often resulting in a squashed sound.
- Are your transients getting squashed? The attack is an essential parameter to controlling the shape of the compression. Make sure you’re not cutting off important transients with a fast attack. By setting your attack to medium you let the initial attack of the signal through before the compressor starts working.
- Shape the waveform. You can shape your sounds with the compressor. You can further understand how shaping works if you know how ADSR works.
- Beware of pumping your compressor. Pumping is a characteristic sound of the release being too slow. If the release is too slow compared to the signal then the compressor doesn’t have time to reset before the next attack of the instrument. If you’re working with a strummy acoustic guitar and the compressor starts sucking the sound out of it, try a faster release.
- Compare your work. Use the BYPASS button. If you don’t compare before with after, you won’t hear what you’re doing. Sometimes you end up working on a compressor so long you’ve forgotten how the original signal sounded. And if you don’t know if you’re improving things or not, you’re not improving at all. Use the BYPASS button to make sure your knob twiddling is worth the effort.
As you compress, you reduce the volume of the signal.
Whether you’re compressing 1 dB or 20, the makeup gain is there for you to use. Sometimes a compressed signal sounds weaker than before simply because it’s lower in volume.
If you compress much, boost the makeup gain in equal amounts so that you can hear what your compressor is actually doing. In contrast, make sure that you aren’t just making the signal louder without compressing by having the gain on too high.
Our ears can fool us to think that anything louder sounds better. Just try it yourself. Insert a compressor on the same track, with both not doing anything except one of them has 4 dB of extra gain on it. I promise you that all other things being equal, the louder signal will trick you into thinking it sounds better.
Use the gain compensation to compensate for gain lost when compressing. If you’re compressing an average of -6 dB you can up the gain accordingly. But if you’re only compressing -1 dB and your compressor has additional gain on it, it can become very misleading. So make sure you are compensating the compressed signal with additional volume, and not increasing the gain needlessly.
Compression can make your vocal fit in, it can make your snare breathe with the track or drastically change the impact of your kick drum.
- Read more at 5 Compression Tricks and How to Use Them and Here are 4 Things You Can’t Afford to Stop Doing While Compressing
That’s the best advice I can give on compression. Don’t just slap it on because you think everything needs it. You need to understand how the compressor works. It has a lot of buttons, and I know they can be scary, but trust me, they rock once you know how to use them.
They’re kinda like the intimidating neighbors that turns out to be super awesome once you get to know them.
Go check out the video content now for a simple discussion on compression and how you can screw it up.
In the videos I go through some of the basics of compression and how all those buttons work but if you want a more in-depth resource to compression, check out Understanding Compression by HomeStudioCorner.
Joe at HSC really knows how to explain each and every parameter on the compressor in a simple and easy to understand manner.
That’s it for now about compression. Next time we’ll be looking at how presets can make and break a mix. They’re great starting points but if your mixes are all made up of presets then you’ll never get a good sound.