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Using compression to add punch, warmth and power to your mix

by Ian Shepherd

Image by Jason Tavares - click for more info

Using compression in your mixes is essential – and you need to use it right.

OK, maybe not if you play classical harp or Polynesian nose-flute – but in most genres, using compression to control the dynamic range of instruments in the mix is fundamental.

The problem is, learning to use compression isn’t easy. And it’s not helped by the fact that most explanations start out saying something like “a compressor reduces the dynamic range of it’s input by attenuating signals that exceed a pre-defined threshold”.

Or something.

Personally I don’t find this kind of description very intuitive, so this post will try and keep things straightforward. So before we go to much further:

What is compression, and why use it ?

Here is the explanation I was given as a trainee:

Compression is used to make things louder

Meaning, you can use it to lift levels in the mix without overwhelming everything else. Most sounds are very “peaky” to begin with, with lots of contrast between the loudest and the softest notes.

Compressors automatically turn down the loudest parts of a sound, and as a result make the average level more consistent. So, you can turn the overall level up in the mix without distorting or “sticking out”.

There can be all kinds of positive side-effects of this process, like making things sound fuller, richer, more controlled or punchier, but at the end of the day it’s all about loudness. Not excessive loudness, but something musically beneficial.

Using a compressor – an introduction

Here’s a fantastic video introduction to compression by Joe Gilder from the excellent Home Studio Corner blog. Check it out, and then I’ll expand on some of the points he makes, and offer some suggestions for achieving specific effects using compression.




Exploring compressor controls

Joe’s video is great, but there’s no substitute for trying this stuff yourself. Try overdoing everything to begin with, so you get a feeling of what the different parameters do. Toggle bypass on and off to clearly hear the effect, but make sure you adjust the make-up gain so the levels before and after are similar for a fair comparison.

Here are some pointers to get you started.

Ratio & Threshold

  • High ratios (4:1) with high thresholds give a “hard hitting” sound for punch and thump. Watch out for pumping and sucking, or even distortion
  • Lower ratios (2:1) with lower thresholds give softer “warming” or “thickening” effects
  • A low threshold with a high ratio will give lots of hard compression and probably sound very squashed and lifeless

Attack & Release Time

  • As a rule, avoid short (low) attack and release times, as Joe says.
  • Fast attack times can be useful, for softening very spiky sounds (eg. slapped bass) but can remove life and impact if overdone, especially with a high ratio
  • Long attack times with high ratio and threshold give the classic “thump-suck-relax” pumping sound – for example, listen to “One More Time” by Daft Punk
  • Automatic or “intelligent” settings reduce “unnatural” effects like this, but increase the risk of using too much compression without realising it.

The Golden Rule (of thumb)

If the gain reduction meter doesn’t return to zero several times a bar, you’re almost certainly using too much compression

- because this means that the signal is being compressed all the time, and will probably sound squashed or flattened as a result. Try a higher threshold, and then higher ratio if it’s not doing enough.

Use your ears

Don’t be tempted to compress everything, or to over-compress. The TT Dynamic Range Meter plugin can be a valuable aid to judging how much compression to use, but always listen to the sound before and after compression, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Which do I prefer ?
  • Have I achieved what I wanted ? (ie. made it punchier, fuller, with more impact & excitement)
  • Does the compressed version still sound lively and exciting, or is it too squashed ?
  • Does it sound closer to similar tracks I’m trying to emulate ?
  • Can I hear more of the quiet details in the mix, or is it getting “mushy” and confused ?
  • Does it still sound natural ?

Advanced compression techniques

This post is to help get people started – it doesn’t cover “creative compression”, meaning breaking these rules-of-thumb to achieve a specific sound.

In particular, “classic” or analogue compressors are often driven hard for a distorted sound, or to exploit unusual settings, like the Urei 1176′s famous “all-button” option. To learn more about this, check out this post:

When over-compression sounds great

This post is also talking about “single band” compression. Multiband compression is a whole other subject, and I get so many questions about it that I’ve released an eBook and video about using it in mastering. To watch a free 50-minute webinar about multiband compression, click here.

If you found this post useful, you might also like Joe’s excellent video tutorial package “Understanding Compression” – to find out more, click here.

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29 Responses

  1. James Pew says:

    Great post Ian.

    I find that when working with “peaky” acoustic instruments (upright bass, acoustic guitar, drums, fiddle, etc) using a low ratio like 2:1 with a higher threshold (15 or more db) can help to smooth the peaks while allowing the instrument to still sound natural.

    But of course this all depends on how the instrument is recorded and how obnoxious the peaks are.

    I used this compression approach to practically every instrument in a production called “Reverie” of New Folk artist Andrea Gauster…you can hear it at http://brokenwindowrecords.com/artists/andrea-gauster/

  2. 2:1 ratio seems like a nice place to rest most compression additions. seems like every time i turned around, my professors were harping on compression ratios…or some other ‘Berklee method”…I like the 2009 method, there are few rules to production, i think. templates are great, genre specific guidelines are great, doing what the hell you want to achieve a nice mix…now thats what im talking about. ;)i would argue too many tools have taken away from music by way of deleting the raw.

  3. Taylor says:

    Great write-up, Ian. Interesting, clear, logical and useful. Thanks. I look forward to reading more.

  4. me me me says:

    great dude!

  5. RJ says:

    A lot of things I’ve read on compression have only added to my confusion, but this article cleared the essentials up nicely. Thank you very much!

  6. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi RJ, glad you found it helpful !

  7. 2:1 ratio seems like a nice place to rest most compression additions. seems like every time i turned around, my professors were harping on compression ratios…or some other ‘Berklee method”…I like the 2009 method, there are few rules to production, i think. templates are great, genre specific guidelines are great, doing what the hell you want to achieve a nice mix…now thats what im talking about. ;)i would argue too many tools have taken away from music by way of deleting the raw.

  8. Warstub says:

    Hi. I’m new to your website and haven’t read eberything yet, but just wanted to ask if you have heard the following 3 albums: Handsome ‘Handsome’; Bloc Party ‘Intimacy’; Cobra Khan ‘Helgorithms’ (NZ band). All three are highly compressed. I’ve listened to the Handsome album for years and love it, but the other two I wish I had versions that weren’t anywhere near as compressed.

  9. Ian Shepherd says:

    Actually no, I’ll check them out ! I think I’m going to post a list of “albums I wish were less compressed”, sometime soon…

  10. ben kane says:

    First off, I am 100% behind this movement.

    That said, this entire page is for the most part horrible advice. I use many analog compressors in my mixes. Aside from altering the dynamic range, they add color, and can dramatically alter the sound or vibe of the track or bus they are applied to. The mixing process is a creation of a piece of sonic art. Saying “never use this sonic tool in this specific way” is not conducive to creating art. It is possible to add dynamics to a mix with automation even with extremely compressed tracks. There are no rules to mixing! If the Beatles followed your advice they would not have gotten the sounds they got. (This isn’t like a clever sentence, its true). Just use your ears, people.

  11. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for posting, and I’m sorry you don’t like the post. I’m a little surprised, though. I have a section called “Use you ears”, and I don’t use the words “rules” or “never” at all.

    This is intended to get people who don’t really “get” compression yet started, and avoid some of the common pitfalls.

    Sure, you can do anything you like with any piece of audio gear – if it sounds right, it is right !

    And fair enough, I’m talking mainly about the “control” aspect of compression rather than the “character” approach – but I have to be honest, for me much of the “character” of compression comes from the control.

    And with all tools, I think it’s better to know the basics of using them as they were intended to be used first, and then get into the experimentation.

    But there you go, that’s what makes audio such a fascinating pass-time.

    Cheers,

    Ian

    PS. This post isn’t really intended to be part of the “anti-loudness” movement, it’s just a primer on compression.

    PPS. The Beatles did use compression in a highly creative way on some of their tunes, but they used it in the more “usual” way described here on almost ALL their tunes from “Day Tripper” onwards. Experimentation and character were the exception, rather than the rule…

  12. ben kane says:

    Hey Ian,

    I definitely did appreciate the “use your ears” section, and I’m sorry I did not mention that.
    While you don’t use the words “never”, your golden “rule” (a word that you did in fact use in two instances) advised that if one didn’t follow the rule, you are “almost certainly using too much compression.” This was part of the attitude that I responded negatively towards. There are many ways to use compression. It can be used as an effect or on a parallel bus, and often, crushing the signal sounds quite nice. If you want to go for a more aggressive sound on a vocal or drum bus, you will often find yourself breaking this rule.

    I feel what you are saying about getting people started with compression, but it is a fine line, as I think the most common pitfall is thinking in these black and white terms.

    You are talking about how these were “intended” to be used, but many of the older compressors were intended for radio applications, where the only goal was to keep everything within a certain dynamic range if someone yelled, or something unexpected happened. If people went with how the gear was intended to be used, we would not have many of the techniques we now consider to be standard.

    Short attack and release times are helpful in a multitude of applications. I consider 4:1 to be a pretty standard ratio… It is possible to use an 1176 (4:1 miin) in a very gentle or “warming” way (as you put it” or in a very aggressive way. So much has to do with what the SOURCE is and what you are trying to do with it. I appreciate your attempt at simplification, but I still do not think you have done this topic justice unfortunately.

    Thanks, and I do very much appreciate your reply and enjoy a friendly debate on compression. -Ben

    PS your comment about the Beatles is still off I believe. The way they used compression on drum sounds on revolver and sgt. peppers was all about character. The way they compress horns was all about character (just two more obvious examples i think). I very much doubt that any of their compressors even had 2:1 ratios. And I am shocked that you would suggest that character and experimentation in how they used compressors was the exception, as I feel that Geoff Emerick and George Martin made extremely bold compression choices throughout the Beatles career.

  13. Josky says:

    Gud Stuff, U hav no idea of how i’ve panting to gain skillz about this thing about compression. although my question is “would it work for radio production?”

    by the way its the first time am here. Cheers Josky!

  14. Ian Shepherd says:

    @ Josky – Welcome, and thanks for commenting ! And, as for the radio – see if this helps:

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-means-nothing-on-the-radio/

    @ Ben – sorry, I missed your reply before ! I’m all up for debate :-) You make a fair comment, the post doesn’t do use of “creative” compression justice, but it’s only a single post ! Compression could take several chapters of a book. And I still think as a getting-started guide it’s OK. I firmly believe it’s better to have a good grasp of the fundamentals of these tools before experimenting.

    I agree with you about the Beatles’ adventurous use of compression – but I think the number of times that it is clearly being used in a creative way are less than the more “standard” uses.

    As far as exactly how they used compression and what the settings were, we can only guess, with hindsight ! It’s certainly true that much of the gear they used is now regarded as classic and added it’s own unique sound to their music, though.

    As I say, for me much of the “character” of compression comes from the control. Exactly where we draw the line is just a discussion point. In exactly the same way, if we use a lovely valve EQ to boost the top of a dull-sounding vocal, it will add it’s own unique flavour – are we doing this for “character”, or control of the EQ balance ? You say tomato etc… :-)

  15. RSR says:

    Compressors are also used to make a signal decay for a longer period of time as in bass compression in ballads/slower pieces or making guitar sustain for longer period. Obviously when release is set to longer periods it will not let gain reduction meter to return to 0 numerous times during a bar’s length. Also, parallel compression requires heavy compression of a mirror track. So although there are general rules, new techniques are found when one starts to break those concepts :)

  16. RSR says:

    Anyway, let’s hope that new technological advancements will help stop over compression in music, things like volume levelers in hi-fi/mp3 players that self-adjust based on a track’s RMS are a great thing as a louder mastered track will sound not so hot compared to a track that offers dynamics once their volume is leveled by a playback system.

  17. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi RSR,

    Thanks for commenting – in fact, I think a post on parallel processing in general would be a good idea sometime soon.

    Ian

  18. Matt says:

    I’ve been producing for a while now and the best advice I’ve come across on actually setting the controls on a compressor and what to listen for as you’re doing it, is from the book “Mixing with your Mind” by Michael Stavrou, specifically the chapter “Cracking Compressors.” I understood the concept of what compressors and their controls do, but would always be chasing my tail, so to speak, by setting one control, then changing another, then going back and changing what I had just etc. until I tried the methodology presented by him.

    http://www.mixingwithyourmind.com/index.php

  19. Ian Shepherd says:

    @ Matt – Interesting, I haven’t read that, I’ll check it out. Shame it’s not available digitally !

    You might also enjoy this post I wrote about compression:

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/compression-punchbag/

  20. caro c says:

    i like the golden rule :> i choose not to compress some sounds and hopefully this gives a bit more texture,space and colour to a mix. I also did an interview with an electronic producer Monolake about producing an album with no compression at all (not even at the mastering stage). i found this an interesting approach..hope u don’t mind me linking: http://www.carosnatch.com/2010/02/monolake-interview-producing-an-album-with-no-compression/

  21. Andre Spiteri says:

    Hi Ian,

    I tried your golden rule and found it impossible to apply. Whenever I raised the threshold enough for some of the signal to start getting compressed, the gain reduction meter never went completely back to zero but hovered steadily above it. I’m not sure whether this means I’m doing something wrong or if it means that the guitar player is an incredibly even player. In fact I’m seriously considering not compressing the guitars at all. I also discovered I prefer the bass guitar heavily compressed. I think most of what you said in this article probably applies for more laid back music styles. When you’re mostly playing fast 16th notes with a heavily distorted sound in a dense guitar-driven arrangement I feel it is more important to have an even, heavy backbone.

  22. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Andre,

    Well first of all, these can only ever be guidelines and suggestions – it depends entirely on what you’re trying to compress. And I agree, bass needs to be consistent, so heavy compression will work well, if the player hasn’t already dealt with it himself using pedals and the amp.

    And yes, with heavy music consistency is important – that’s exactly why you’d use a compressor. Breaking the “golden rule” still isn’t advisable, though. Although over-compression can sometimes sound great, too – I wrote about it here:

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/over-compression/

    But I’m also confused. You say “whenever I raised the threshold enough for some of the signal to start getting compressed, the gain reduction meter never went completely back to zero but hovered steadily above it”.

    Raising the threshold should reduce the amount of compression, not decrease it. and the gain reduction meter should never go above zero – that would mean it’s making the signal louder. Are you sure you don’t have an expander active, too ?

    DM me your email address on Twitter and I’ll get back to you – you can send me a screenshot and maybe an audio example.

    Ian

  23. Andre Spiteri says:

    Hi Ian,

    Many thanks for your interest. Would it make more sense if i said “whenever I lowered the threshold enough for some of the signal to start getting compressed, the gain reduction meter never went completely back to zero but remained steadily just under zero”? I’m afraid I must have confused my terminology :) Also tried DMing on twitter but it says I can’t DM who isn’t following me.

  24. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Andre,

    Yes, that would make sense – and, it suggests that you’re trying to compress something that’s already quite compressed – sustained guitar chords, for example ? I’m following you back now, let’s speak by email !

    Ian

  25. [...] Using Compression to Add Punch, Warmth and Power to Your Mix [...]

  26. [...] (By the way, if you’re new to compression in general or would just like a refresher, this article may help you out: Using compression to add punch, warmth and power to your mix ) [...]

  27. Craig Olson says:

    Thanks for this great article on the basics of compression and an overview of how to use the various controls and parameters. Do you happen to have much experience with multi-band compression? I’ve been experimenting with that in my home studio, still learning more about it, and the sound-shaping possibilities are awesome. Most of the guidelines you mentioned are still valid, but when applied to a limited frequency band, with different compression settings for different bands, the results can get pretty wild!

  28. Andre says:

    Just re-read this post and remembered how I used to squash the life out of everything only a year ago! These days I’m really conservative with compression and with guitars I’ve made a conscious decision not to use it at all. My new rule of thumb is “If you can’t hear much of a difference in the sound, you probably don’t need it”.

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