A compressor enables you to alter the dynamic range (that is, the difference between the softest and loudest sound) of an instrument in your home recording. Along with the microphone and preamp, the compressor is often added to the signal chain before it goes to the mixer.

The advantage of using a compressor in the signal chain before it hits the mixer is that you can control the transients and have a hotter (higher) signal level going into the converters or recorder. This hotter level used to be necessary when recording at 16 bits, but with 24-bit recording, you don’t need to worry as much about getting the highest signal into your system.

If you record a lot of vocals or real drums, a decent external compressor may be a good idea — just go easy with it. You can find some great-sounding compressors for as little as $200. A favorite is the FMR Audio RNC-1773 (a really nice unit for the money).

As long as you’re looking at preamps and compressors, take a look at some channel strip devices, which are integrated preamp, compressor, and equalizer combos. For some people (and maybe you), a channel strip device is the way to go.

It allows you to have just one unit, reducing the amount of cords, and it’s designed to make the three parts function well together. Quite a few great-sounding channel strip devices are available for under $500.