Compression is simultaneously the most confusing and the most important element of mixing in the recording studio. There are tips and tricks for using compressors all over the internet and many advertised as the next best thing.
The truth of the matter is that any compressor can work wonders to your mixes and help you tone down some of the more wild dynamics (steep ranges of amplitude) captured on your recordings. We are here to help walk you through 5 easy tips to improve your mix when using compression.
Start out small
When learning how to use a compressor, it can be confusing to figure out all of the different features and settings. We recommend sticking to one or two different compressors that you have and getting familiar with them. This will help you get started and suddenly you’ll be able to understand any other compressor that you may end up using.
“Loud is more good” p.s. It’s not!
Changes in volume can easily be the foil to any audio comparison. If you listen to any two audio samples with differing aptitudes, chances are that you will prefer the loudest one. But, as engineers, we cannot be fooled by this simple error.
You should always compare any changes you make to the original audio and set up your compressor to work without changing volume. This can be done by using makeup gain if the compressor lowered the signal’s overall amplitude and by lowering the output volume if the compressor has raised the overall level of the signal.
We have talked about the importance of gain staging in “Don’t Make These 4 Recording Mistakes” and we’re here to remind you that it is also important when using compression. However, gain staging is important when using any signal processing plugin, be it software or hardware.
This is because plug-in effects can add unwanted distortion or noise when the input signal is too hot, and conversely, the effect might not take place if the signal is too low. Even if it’s not a compressor, it is important to set healthy levels both before and after running through the effect.
Less is more
This tip is a relatively simple one: don’t over do it! Often, musicians will slam compression on absolutely everything in their mix and overuse the settings. Ultimately, this causes a heavily unprocessed and unnatural sound full of low level distortion.
While that can sometimes be the desired effect, we know that most want to hear a clean and natural sounding recording. Always remember the goal you are trying to achieve when adding and tinkering with compression and don’t forget to listen to the changes you make in context with the rest of the mix!
Compress in stages
This last tip is admittedly a bit more advanced than the others: add multiple light compressors in stages rather than one heavy compressor. We find this to be a surprisingly effective way to add a lot of compression to a signal without heavily altering the original sound of a recording.
Say for example, you have a fantastic vocal track that sounds incredible and you don’t wish to alter the original sound of the track too heavily. However, this track has wildly different amplitudes from certain points of the recording and you wish to balance the levels together without spending laborious time setting volume automation (which is a great idea that can help keep a natural sound to a track).
Then, using a light compressor multiple times throughout the signal chain can help balance those levels without changing the sound of the signal too heavily- retaining the original timbre while also heavily manipulating the level of the recording.
Compression can easily be one of the most important tools in your mixing arsenal when used correctly. Unfortunately, there are plenty of ways to use compression incorrectly which can lead to a mix that sounds too heavy or unnatural.
If you follow these 5 tips, using compression should not only be easier, but it should start to make more sense and your mixes will greatly improve because of it.