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Simple Ways to Avoid Over-Compressing


Avoid over-compressingCompression, along with EQ, is one of the most basic and useful tools you have in your arsenal for mixing.

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 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.


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About me

About Björgvin Benediktsson

I’m Björgvin Benediktsson. I’m a musician, audio engineer and best-selling author. I help musicians and producers make a greater impact with their music by teaching them how to produce and engineer themselves. I’ve taught thousands of up and coming home studio producers such as yourself how to make an impact with their music through Audio Issues since 2011.

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LEAVE A COMMENT

  • Good info. I can see that I still have a lot to learn to make my mixes sound more professional and more listenable. I was committing those very mistakes – compressing everything, including midi/audio instrument tracks. In fact, my only real audio tracks are vocals and audio loops.

    That brings me to another question. How can you determine when and how to process already “processed” loops?

    Another thing, can side chaining be done using audio instrument tracks? And should that practice be confined to, say, dance music and not straight pop or ballads?

    Now, a similar piece on equalization to go with this compression info would certainly go down my gullet well.

    • Vincent Dubroeucq

      Hi,
      When to process is a matter of taste. Just trust your ears. If the loop sounds fine, leave it alone.
      Yes you can side-chain using audio track, and no, it’s not “reserved” for dance tracks.
      Again, do what sounds right to you!
      Hope that helps.

  • Good info. I can see that I still have a lot to learn to make my mixes sound more professional and more listenable. I was committing those very mistakes – compressing everything, including midi/audio instrument tracks. In fact, my only real audio tracks are vocals and audio loops.

    That brings me to another question. How can you determine when and how to process already “processed” loops?

    Another thing, can side chaining be done using audio instrument tracks? And should that practice be confined to, say, dance music and not straight pop or ballads?

    Now, a similar piece on equalization to go with this compression info would certainly go down my gullet well.

    • Vincent Dubroeucq

      Hi,
      When to process is a matter of taste. Just trust your ears. If the loop sounds fine, leave it alone.
      Yes you can side-chain using audio track, and no, it’s not “reserved” for dance tracks.
      Again, do what sounds right to you!
      Hope that helps.

  • Darrell

    Great tips but for beginners I would also add that you should try *over* doing all of the above techniques (e.g. *do* over compress the master bus, *do* smash a vocal with fast attack compression) just to learn what it sounds like. There will come a time when you’ve gone a certain way with a mix and you won’t understand why it doesn’t sound the way you want. If you learn what “too much” compression sounds like you will be one step closer to learning what “just the right amount” of compression sounds like. Every track is different but if you learn to recognize when (for example) the bass track is too compressed then you will be able to recognize the problem when you hear it. Sometimes extreme compression may be what you want. Other times no compression may give you the sound you’re after. Learning to recognize what you *don’t* want is a surprisingly valuable tool.

  • Darrell

    Great tips but for beginners I would also add that you should try *over* doing all of the above techniques (e.g. *do* over compress the master bus, *do* smash a vocal with fast attack compression) just to learn what it sounds like. There will come a time when you’ve gone a certain way with a mix and you won’t understand why it doesn’t sound the way you want. If you learn what “too much” compression sounds like you will be one step closer to learning what “just the right amount” of compression sounds like. Every track is different but if you learn to recognize when (for example) the bass track is too compressed then you will be able to recognize the problem when you hear it. Sometimes extreme compression may be what you want. Other times no compression may give you the sound you’re after. Learning to recognize what you *don’t* want is a surprisingly valuable tool.

  • Vincent Dubroeucq

    Totally agree. Mixing mistakes and time are your best friends! 🙂

  • Vincent Dubroeucq

    Totally agree. Mixing mistakes and time are your best friends! 🙂

  • Nice article! Very informative and accurate advice. I’m a Live Sound engineer and I use compression and parallel compression both as a tool to get my drums sounding like ‘thunder’ and to keep the vocals in check and ‘on top’ of the mix. You would be frankly amazed at how many Live Sound engineers just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to use of compression AND how important it is to put the vocals FIRST in the mix. If you can’t hear AND understand the vocals nobody is going to love your mixes!

    Mixing for the studio always seems to get done fairly well in this regard but somehow LIVE, engineers seem to struggle with this. Usually because they are too afraid to ask the guitarist(s) or bassist to turn down their stage volume in my experience. But I digress. Thanks for the post!

  • Nice article! Very informative and accurate advice. I’m a Live Sound engineer and I use compression and parallel compression both as a tool to get my drums sounding like ‘thunder’ and to keep the vocals in check and ‘on top’ of the mix. You would be frankly amazed at how many Live Sound engineers just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to use of compression AND how important it is to put the vocals FIRST in the mix. If you can’t hear AND understand the vocals nobody is going to love your mixes!

    Mixing for the studio always seems to get done fairly well in this regard but somehow LIVE, engineers seem to struggle with this. Usually because they are too afraid to ask the guitarist(s) or bassist to turn down their stage volume in my experience. But I digress. Thanks for the post!

  • christian wallace

    So,strings and pianos should not be compressed?

  • christian wallace

    So,strings and pianos should not be compressed?