Compression (and dynamics in general) is one of the hardest things to grasp in mixing and music production. If you’re having problems learning and understanding it, don’t freak out. It’s perfectly normal.
My cat when he was first trying to figure out audio compression. These days he’s like “look bro it’s nuthin'”.
So here are nine tips from my personal experience for becoming better at understanding compression. Let me know how they’re working out for you, and feel free to share yours in the comments!
1. Just One Compressor
If you’re not yet entirely comfortable with compression… Don’t confuse yourself with too many choices to begin with. Choose only one compressor. Maybe the one that comes with your DAW). Use that one compressor for everything until you feel like you fully understand what compression does and how the different controls affect sound. When you have a good understanding and ability to work the dynamics with your compressor of choice, you can start expanding and experimenting with different compressors in order to learn about the differences they make.
2. The Extreme Threshold Technique
Sometimes using an extreme threshold setting makes it easier to hear and dial in the attack and release times. Once you have those set up, back the threshold down. This is especially a great trick to try when you are playing around with an unfamiliar compressor and are trying to get to know how it sounds and behaves.
3. Don’t Kill the Transients
Be careful with the attack time, especially when working with drums. If you set it too short you will lose transients (of course there maybe times that is what you want). Different types of sounds require different attack times, but for most occasions, do make sure your attack is long enough to let enough transients pass through.
4. Less Is More
If you’re not sure about the amount of compression you should apply, think “less is more”. Just to be safe.
5. Little Here, Little There
To achieve even loudness without changing the sound too much, apply a little bit of compression at different stages (instead of lots at once). A little bit on individual tracks, then a bit more in the group/bus (and finally, compression will happen on the master). You can also try routing through two compressors in the same channel, each giving a little squeeze.
6. Don’t Be Fooled By Volume
We automatically tend to think louder is better, even when it isn’t. Don’t let yourself be fooled by volume differences. Always correctly evaluate the difference the compression makes. How? Set up the make-up gain properly so that the volume of the audio stays the same when you bypass the compressor. Then go back and forth between the compressed and un-compressed audio and listen for the difference. Which one is better?
7. Killed the Transients Anyway? Layer Up.
You can layer additional sounds to boost up transients. Be careful with layering though as it’s easy to go overboard and make things too complicated. You don’t have to layer entire new sounds on top of the old ones unless you want to. I sometimes just take the attack parts of a sound and layer that with what I have going. This just gives you more “snap” without altering the base sound too much.
8. Provide Dynamics
Compression can of course be used as an effect to really squash things up. One of my favourite things to do! When you do decide to do that and throw things like “dynamic range” and “transients” to the garbage bin… Just remember that the transients and dynamics in your mix do need to come from somewhere. If you squash something up, make sure you have other elements that provide dynamics in your mix.
9. Complement Compression with Transient Enhancers
Learn to use transient enhancer plugins. Really. Used wisely, they can take your sound to the next level. A nice technique is to boost transients after heavy compression.My favourite transient enhancer is the Waves Trans-X. It’s an older plugin but don’t be fooled by that. The snap and punch it provides sounds crazy good. It is often discounted as well.
Keep experimenting and have patience. Familiarise yourself with different parameters and techniques slowly over time. The more you practice, the easier it becomes!
What are your favourite compression tips? Got questions? Let me know in the comments below.