The Mystical Compressor (Part 2): Operation

Compression_knee.svgOk, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Here’s the secret trick to operating a compressor flawlessly every time.

Wait for it…

Use. Your. Ears.

That’s all; just use your ears. I have a friend and studio owner near Roanoke, VA named Jake Dempsey. He’s fond of the saying, “Ears before gear.” And he’s right. All the plugins and automations in the world can’t do what a well trained set of ears can do with an EQ and a compressor. I’m sure we’ll explore EQ soon, but for now, back to the compression.

In Part 1 of this post we talked about what a compressor does and what all those knobs and dials do. Now that I’ve just made the bold statement that the secret to using compression (or a great mix for that matter) is using your ears. You must be asking, “So what am I listening for?”

The first thing we need to ascertain while listening to our track or mix is whether or not we even need compression. In my experience the answer is most often “yes”. However, that’s not always the case. Regardless though, this step should NOT be skipped. If we do decide to use a compressor, we have a lot of choices regarding what type. There was a time not so long ago that your DAW had one, maybe even two compressor plugins. Now there are dozens available to us. Some of them are very high quality emulations of classic, famous outboard gear. I’ve got a small collection of great compressor emulators in my arsenal, but my DAW’s stock compressor sounds great too. So how do I choose which one to use? I audition them and listen.

Once I’ve found the compressor that I want to use, I start tweaking the controls for the sound I’m going for. Remember, having a plan for your mix is the first step to a great mix.

As I mentioned in the last post, not all compressors are going to have the same control parameters. Some will be more simplistic than others. That’s not a bad thing. Simple is often times better. But let’s just say that I’ve picked a compressor that offers most of the typical controls. Now I have more choices to make.

The first choice that I need to make is how much compression I actually need. Am I looking for a narrow dynamic range or am I just trying to control spikes? Let’s say that I’m trying to control the spikes on a lead guitar. Depending on how “spikey” the guitar, I’d probably start out with a compression ratio of 4:1. Remember that a change of 6 dB up will be twice as loud while a change of 6 dB down will be half as loud. Then I would make sure that my knee is set to “hard”, my attack time is dialed all the way back, and that my release time is dialed all the way up. The reason I start this way is because I want the threshold I’m about to set to be distinct, hence the hard knee setting. I also want the compressor to kick in as quickly as possible and I want it to continue to compress for as long as possible. That way I can assess the full effect of the compression.

For the next part, I use my eyes and ears. I’ll start bringing the threshold down until the plugin begins compressing. I’ll watch my meter to see how much compression is taking place. When I reach the level that “looks good” I’ll close my eyes and listen to how it sounds. Then with my eyes closed, I’ll make the final tweaks for the threshold level. This is an essential step. Do yourself a favor and don’t skip this part! Ears before gear.

Now that I have the level of compression set it’s time to look at the attack time and release time. I always set my release time first. I want the compressor to remain in a fast attack mode but I want to start dialing back the release time until I can see the meter let go in between the transients. Now I begin to increase my attack time until I can HEAR the transient passing through before the compressor kicks in. Then I make my final adjustment to the release time using my ears instead of the meter. Next I’ll try and adjust the knee setting. Sometime it helps to smooth things out; sometimes it doesn’t. Finally I’ll play with the threshold again until I’m happy with the amount of overall compression I’m getting. And I’m making all of these judgment calls by listening.

In short summary, I’ve set my compressor perimeters to compensate for tempo and transients. Then I’ve dialed things back until I found the level of compression that sounds best. 

There are many other tasks that can be accomplished with compression. It and EQ are the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. Both can be challenging at times. Just don’t get put off if you don’t get it right the first time. Mixing is a skill. Listening and knowing what to listen for is a skill. All skills require practice, so it’s only logical that the same applies to mixing. Just remember to have fun doing it.

I’ve been mixing for more than 20 years and I still learn new things every time I mix. I learn new things every time I read a colleague’s blog. We never stop learning and improving and we never stop loving music. That’s the beauty of doing what we do!

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