Advanced Compression – 5 Audio Mixing Tips

By | March 19, 2015

Using compression correctly demands experience. If compression is needed, there is always a reason to use it. That reason is what keeps you focused on the outcome. Here are five audio mixing tips using compression, and something to think about next time you’re pulling your compressor plug-in of choice.

  1. Leveling

PSP OldTimer working as a leveler. (Click for larger images)

PSP OldTimer working as a leveler. (Click for larger images)

Using compressors as a leveler is a smart move to squeeze out some dynamic range while keeping audio from sounding “squashed”. The point of leveling is to “massage” the incoming signal, both gently or moderately, whatever the need might be.

The trick is to use a medium-slow attack and release. If the attack and release are too slow, the compressor is unable to act quickly enough to cause the pleasant-sounding leveling “grab”.

Try it. Set your attack and release to about 2 o’clock and crank the ratio up to 8:1. Turn the threshold until you have a decent amount of gain reduction. You can do a lot too, and if your meter hits close to 7-10dB of gain reduction, don’t be scared.

Leveling sounds killer on vocals.

Setting up a compressor act as a leveler is handy for smoothing out a dynamic vocal track for a tighter performance. If you have a hardware compressor lying around, use it as a leveler in the tracking phase and record vocals through it. You’ll have an easier time mixing.

 

  1. Limiting

FabFilter Pro-C doing a limiting job on the peaks (=see yellow circle).

FabFilter Pro-C doing a limiting job on the peaks (=see yellow circle).

Lots of dedicated limiter plug-ins can be found in the audio market, but most compressors are capable of limiting when they are calibrated properly.

Limiting is a handy mixing tool to use when unnecessary peaks are wanted to get rid of.

Such scenarios could include a fast rap vocal, with sudden increases in volume during certain words, or a drum recording. Limiting is a good option to tame down these peaks because it is quite transparent.

A wise man would manually ride the volume of the source audio to achieve the same effect, but sometimes there is no time for such actions.

To make any compressor act as a limiter, turn the ratio up all the way (10:1 is considered limiting, but the effect is better with an infinite ratio), and set the attack and release to the fastest.

After the compressor is set, look for peaks in your audio files, and adjust the threshold to limit no more than 6dB of gain reduction, because if you go past that, you could very easily lose the transparent effect – which is the whole point here.

  1. Make It Go Red

Waves CLA-76 smashing a signal. Notice the famous "All" ratio mode is turned on for massive compression.

Waves CLA-76 smashing a signal. Notice the famous “All” ratio mode is turned on for massive compression.

Sometimes all you need is some character. And boy, are compressors the right tool for the job. Forget about the rules and subtleties and go all the way.

For some really explosive and popping compression, try this: Set the release to the fastest, but leave the attack as medium-slow for some transients to punch through. Set a really high ratio, such as 20:1 or above and push the threshold.

I guarantee you’ll have no dynamic range left after this.

You could take advantage of this trick to create a killer parallel compression setup by simply feeding back some of the dry signal. In-your-face drums and vocals – right at your door.

  1. Bus Processing

PSP BussPressor gluing a finished mix for finalization and cohesiveness.

PSP BussPressor gluing a finished mix for finalization and cohesiveness.

One of the best uses for a compressor is to stick it on a bus, or the master bus, hands down.

The objective here is to gain some cohesiveness and so-called “glue”. This method will truly make your tracks shine if done correctly.

Now, lots of amateurs smash their tracks with badly-calibrated compressors. Let’s stay stylish, shall we?

We’re going to want to choose an attack that is very high. A good choice would be at least 30ms, or above. The release is usually safe around midway. Go for a small ratio too, such as 2:1, or 1,5:1.

Here’s the important part: your sweet spot is going to be somewhere around 1-4 dB of gain reduction. So use your ears when you set up a bus compressor.

How do you know what your sweet spot is going to sound like? Well, that’s just the thing about compressors. You just need to understand when your music starts to dance with the compressor. That’s where the sweet spot is. Experiment and learn.

 

  1. Bring Out the Low-Level Details

The same audio file. Uncompressed version on top and compressed below. Notice how the small details are emphasized in the compressed version.

The same audio file. Uncompressed version on top and compressed below. Notice how the small details are emphasized in the compressed version.

This works especially well for dynamic drum loops, room/ambience microphones and other sources with low-level details. These could include vocal breaths too.

Sometimes the vibe lies in the background details and they need to be brought slightly forward to achieve a better effect.

Go for medium attack and medium-fast release. Set the ratio and threshold to taste.

Remember, it’s all about the goal we’re trying to achieve.

Need more intimacy? Bring out the vocal breaths. Need bigger drums? Squeeze the room ambience a bit. Want a more articulate acoustic guitar performance? Just bring all those beautiful string picks and slides to the front so they’re heard.


 

Okay guys, I hope these five compressor techniques have boosted your learning once again. Hopefully you’ll find uses for them in your music!

Next time.

-JP

What are your favorite uses for a compressor? Are you always goal-oriented when setting up a compressor? Leave your answers below and let’s discuss.

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