Musical Dynamic Compression in Home Recording

The compressor is one of the most useful — and one of the most abused — pieces of gear in the recording studio. The most difficult part of using compression is that every instrument reacts differently to the same settings. So, instead of presenting specific settings for you to use, here are some guidelines and ideas for using the compressor effectively.

The following steps show you one good way to get familiar with the compressor:

  1. Dial in a high setting (an 8:1 to a 10:1 ratio), and set the threshold all the way up by turning the dial fully to the right.

  2. Slowly turn down the threshold, watch the meters, and listen carefully.

    As you dial the threshold down, notice where the meters are when you start hearing a change in the sound of the track. Also notice what happens to the sound when you have the threshold really low and the meters are peaked (the sound is very different from where you started).

  3. Slowly dial the threshold back up again, and notice how the sound changes back again.

After you get used to how the sound changes as you adjust the threshold, try using different attack and release settings and do this procedure again. The more you experiment and critically listen to the changes made by the different compressor settings, the better you understand how to get the sound that you want. The following guidelines can also help you get the sound you want:

  • Try to avoid using compression on your 2-track mix while you mix your music. This is the job for the mastering phase of your project. If you compress your stereo tracks during mixdown, you limit what can be done to your music in the mastering stage. This is true even if you master it yourself and think you know what you want during mixdown.

  • If you hear noise when you use your compressor, you’ve set it too high. You’re compressing the loud portions enough to make the level of the softest sections of the music (including any noise) much louder in comparison. To get rid of the noise, turn down the ratio or the threshold settings.

  • To increase the punch of a track, make sure that the attack setting isn’t too quick. Otherwise, you lose the initial transient and the punch of a track.

  • To smooth out a track, use a short attack setting and a quick release time. This evens out the difference in level between the initial transient and the body of the instrument and results in a smoother sound.

  • When using limiting to raise the volume of a track or mix, only limit 2–3dB at a time. This way, the limiter doesn’t alter the sound of your signal; it just reduces the highest peaks and raises the volume.

Less is more when using compression. Resist the temptation to dial too much in — it just squashes your music. On the other hand, if that’s an effect that you’re going for, don’t be afraid to experiment.

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