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Understanding Compression

I thought it might be useful to start a thread with useful resources about compression and it’s importance in all music production, no matter the genre.

I’ve posted a few links from Sound on Sound magazine of late (the audio production equivent of the Imperial Library of Constantinople), so I thought we’d start there.

I’d recommend reading these links in order. And if anybody else has great links ref compression feel free to add them here. And ask away if you have any questions ref the various articles.

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/compression-limiting
https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/advanced-compression-techniques-part-1
https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/advanced-compression-techniques-part-2
https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/classic-compressors

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Comments

  • I’ll add a couple of others from the SoS archive that aren’t directly about compression but the knowledge of these areas are vital to get the most out of compression.

    https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/ins-outs-gain-structure
    https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/how-patch-effects-processors

    In the realms of mixing in the digital domain the differences between insert and send effects and processors is less prescriptive as anything goes although bread & buttle compression is still something that’s generally done as an insert effect, but that’s not to say that compression can’t be used creatively on an fx send.

  • @jonmoore said:

    but that’s not to say that compression can’t be used creatively on an fx send.

    Agreed.

    That's where parallel compression and phase inversion comes into play.

  • @Gravitas said:

    @jonmoore said:

    but that’s not to say that compression can’t be used creatively on an fx send.

    Agreed.

    That's where parallel compression and phase inversion comes into play.

    On the desktop I use Empirical Labs Distressor heavily for parallel compression (the actual Empirical Labs plugin, not the Slate emulation). Oh, to have the attitude of the Distressor on iOS…

  • @jonmoore said:

    @Gravitas said:

    @jonmoore said:

    but that’s not to say that compression can’t be used creatively on an fx send.

    Agreed.

    That's where parallel compression and phase inversion comes into play.

    On the desktop I use Empirical Labs Distressor heavily for parallel compression (the actual Empirical Labs plugin, not the Slate emulation). Oh, to have the attitude of the Distressor on iOS…

    You're not the only one.
    I'm experimenting at the moment in dRambo which will have it's own tone for sure but
    to have the Distressor for drums and bass would be very cool on the iOS platform.

  • @jonmoore

    I put together a four way multiband parallel compressor ages ago in dRambo.
    I revisited it recently and I'm about to put together a new one or refine the current version.

    It has a three main knobs.
    One each for compression, saturation and eq which
    it isn't really eq as it simply changes the filter bands
    keeping the ratio between each band the same as it travels along the freq's.

    As each band has it's own side chain input I'm going to experiment
    with sending individual sidechain rhythms using cv sequencers
    for each band to hear what happens.

    Here's the patch.

    https://patchstorage.com/parallel-filter-comp-v1-01-g/

    It's not a Distressor for sure but it certainly is fun
    on some of my projects that need that extra push.

  • @Gravitas Sounds really interesting, I’ll definitely check it out.

  • @jonmoore said:
    @Gravitas Sounds really interesting, I’ll definitely check it out.

    Cool and tell me what you think about it.

  • @Telstar5 said:

    Agree with a lot of his recommendations but not a single Softube recommendation amongst the set was surprising. Their Tube-Tech Channel Strip (mk2) is as good as it gets for CL 1B compressor emulations and the EQ section is Tube-Tech’s take on the Pultec, properly good stuff. There’s too many other great products in the line up to list them all but I thought I’d at least mention the Tube Tech emulation seeing as Rick mentioned the CL 1B.

  • An interesting feature missing from Mr. Beato‘s comprehensive walk-through is distortion.
    (except the short mentioning of the 1176 „coloring, not transparent“)
    Even fast FET comps can deliver very low distortion figures, if given enough time to settle.
    But anything operating in tight frames of time is likely to increase THD factors significantly.

    In particular if you throw the suggested devices into every channel according to the hints. ;)
    I do at least 75% of track dynamics based on „leveling“ tools like Pro-L2, Maxima, etc.
    These processors continually balance peaks, controlled by threshold and target volume with almost no distortion... and there‘s quite a range of „impressions“ possible.
    The rest is handled by (choosen) character compressors to yield a certain result... and this will stand a bit more prominently in the mix (as intended).

  • WTKWTK
    edited September 10

    The following link taught me a lot of dynamic processing and gave me a good understanding about compression.

    https://www.futureproducers.com/forums/threads/understanding-dynamic-processors-compression.352940/

    The best quote of it:

    "So, rather than think of a compressor as something that effects the "level" of a signal. Think of it as something that effects shape. Why? Because level can be controlled with the volume fader more accurately and transparently. A fader doesn't really control shape, unless you are being extremely meticulous. Conversely, compression will always effect the shape of the sound it is working on.

    Once you start hearing shape, you will understand compression."

    When I started using compression on audio signals I used it only to even out level differences. After reading that post I realized that there was more about it and started experimenting with different compressors on different material.

    That trained my ears and I started to hear subtle differences and how I could work with compressors to shape the sound that I wanted to have.

    That was 10 years ago and till today it's still a joy experimenting with different setups to get exactly what I want (eg. shaping transients, sustain a sound, squash everything to death on purpose, balancing the level of a track, catching peaks etc.).

  • edited September 10

    @WTK That’s a great post with lots of useful insights.

    Coming back to a video concerning compression. I’m a big fan of Kush Audio hardware and plugins, the UBK Fatso is a modern classic. It’s designer, Gregory Scott, does both an audio and video podcast series that often provide useful insights. I paticuarly enjoyed this one as it’s a compressor designers insights into drum compression.

  • This site puts out amazing infographics on all kinds of music, synth, fx related things.


    https://www.musicianonamission.com/how-to-use-a-compressor-plus-10-top-tips/

  • A few more on compression from Musician On A Mission.


  • Obligatory

  • @jonmoore said:
    @Pandan Nice…

    I really needed to see that when I first tried to learn about how to use compressors. Things I read just had a hard time clicking with me for the longest until I saw that. The infographics @Poppadocrock posted before that are super helpful too (and it gets through to me more now). I saw the Kush video a while back too and that broke it down even more. I’m by no means an expert on using compressors but I’m much less intimidated now. I just really understand getting yelled at by my mother lol

  • edited September 10

    As great as those infographics are at explaining the 101 of compressors, the thing that I think confuses a lot of folk is ‘right, now I get the mechanics of compressors’, why do I need more than one, what’s special about compressors modelled on classic hardware, when do I need a clean modern compressor such as Pro-C over a classic emulation? The list goes on. For something that at a fundamental level is simply about controlling levels, there’s an awful lot of variety in the methodology used for the task.

    The post that @WTK linked to is great. I love the language of controlling the shape of the signal rather than controlling the level. Then when you get into the realms of compressors that provide color and tone as well as shape, the penny drops. Shape, color, and tone are the tools for getting your drums and bass to complement each other, or how to first create a pocket for your vocal or lead instrumentation and then treat said vocal/instrument to sit in the pocket nicely. To simply think of compressors as something that controls level doesn’t really provide the intuition for getting compressors to shape your audio in complementary ways.

  • I'll go against the grain and say I think compression is often way over-rated in music production. Especially today where so few people are actually tracking acoustic instruments that HAVE a wide dynamic range inherently. Not saying it can't be useful and thus worth knowing about, but I think realistically people need to use it way less than they think. I don't think I ever use compressors in my own music, and only 1-2 times a year for client mastering 😱

    I know I'm in the minority and all the reasons why already :)

    I will say that I think the reason most people struggle to learn compression is that they are using an underpowered amp, even when built into the speakers. It wasn't til I got a super powerful amp for my mastering studio that suddenly compression became EASY to hear. I could use it before well enough, but when you have an amp that doesn't need time to recover from strong hits, it's amazing how detailed transients can be. As can how well or not you're shaping them with compression. It made way more of a difference than getting better speakers did on that front FWIW.

  • edited September 10

    I’m probably best known for my remixes and reworks and that involves a lot messing around with samples and breaks, and often my primary tool for getting things to sit well with each other is compression.

    About 12 years ago I did a rework of The Beatles ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ which layers another Ringo drum loop from Love, (the album produced by George Martins son Giles) with the huge drums of the original. Getting everything to sit together was definitely down to compression, far more so than eq. It gave the mix huge weight down the centre, which is essential for something aimed at the dancefloor. There’s a lot of mid/side shenanigans going on help the stereo field feel a tad more modern and not so hard pan to each side. And yet again most of the control for that was compression derived.

  • WTKWTK
    edited September 10

    @Tarekith said:
    I'll go against the grain and say I think compression is often way over-rated in music production. Especially today where so few people are actually tracking acoustic instruments that HAVE a wide dynamic range inherently. Not saying it can't be useful and thus worth knowing about, but I think realistically people need to use it way less than they think. I don't think I ever use compressors in my own music, and only 1-2 times a year for client mastering 😱

    I know I'm in the minority and all the reasons why already :)

    I will say that I think the reason most people struggle to learn compression is that they are using an underpowered amp, even when built into the speakers. It wasn't til I got a super powerful amp for my mastering studio that suddenly compression became EASY to hear. I could use it before well enough, but when you have an amp that doesn't need time to recover from strong hits, it's amazing how detailed transients can be. As can how well or not you're shaping them with compression. It made way more of a difference than getting better speakers did on that front FWIW.

    I agree with you partially. I don’t think it’s overrated in music production but in modern music production where people use samples and/or loops that already have been post processed to become broadcast ready.

    I never used samples until lately. On my desktop I have a drum synth where eg. the kick drums can have a crest factor of 18dB or more. And I appreciate that because I have a pretty broad range to shape the sound to my needs. A compressor is just one of the tools in my arsenal which helps me to reach my goal in creating something that I already have in my mind.

    Maybe that's the reason why I love compression so much. Because I always have a sound in my mind and I am looking for a way to get it from the source sound that I already have. And I know how my different compressors, gates, eqs etc. react and sound. It's just matter of time to find the right tool for the right task. I love experiments and I always try different things. Life is too short doing the same stuff over and over again. Sure, I always start with something familiar first like using a 1176 on my drumbus but if it doesn't fit then it doesn't fit. Then I try a DBX or something completely different like a tape emulation.

    But when I use samples I rarely use compression on single instruments. Mostly on busses and then only slightly with a 2:1 ratio or even less. My gain reduction mostly sits between 1 & 2 db and I use gentle attack and release timings. Classic bus compression for some glue. That's it...most of the time. Because if I think that a 20:1 ratio sounds cool then I am totally fine with it.

    But I know what you mean that a lot of people overestimate the need of compression.

    I try to see the picture aka my mix as a whole and then I try to find a way to reach my goal. Sometimes compression works, sometimes not. But since I know a lot of techniques getting there I don't care what I use as long as I am satisfied with my mix in the end.

  • edited September 10

    @WTK said:
    But since I know a lot of techniques getting there I don't care what I use as long as I am satisfied with my mix in the end.

    100% with you.

  • WTKWTK
    edited September 10

    And I forgot one important thing : I always try to find a good balance in levels first. I am a gainstage guy. I don't care if people think that you don't need to gainstage anymore because of the dynamic range we have today inside our daws. For me it's solely practical. I like to take a look at my virtual mixer and then I see how loud something is when I see where the faders are. For me it's way easier to identify a problem if eg. my claps sound way too prominent in the mix. I lower the volume by 3 db or more and the problem is mostly fixed.

    Because when every fader sits at 0dbFS I know they always have a similar volume/loudness. Pretty convenient if you ask me.

  • edited September 10

    @jonmoore said:
    @WTK That’s a great post with lots of useful insights.

    Coming back to a video concerning compression. I’m a big fan of Kush Audio hardware and plugins, the UBK Fatso is a modern classic. It’s designer, Gregory Scott, does both an audio and video podcast series that often provide useful insights. I paticuarly enjoyed this one as it’s a compressor designers insights into drum compression.

    I saw this video this summer and this is the point we’re it finally started to click in my mind. I saw tons of video and read on what every knob does and i understood it. But I still could not hear the effect of what I did until it was at the extreme. This video did it for me.

    I still need to practice with some simple drum and bass groove like in the video but I’m getting closer.

  • @Tarekith said:
    I'll go against the grain and say I think compression is often way over-rated in music production. Especially today where so few people are actually tracking acoustic instruments that HAVE a wide dynamic range inherently. Not saying it can't be useful and thus worth knowing about, but I think realistically people need to use it way less than they think. I don't think I ever use compressors in my own music, and only 1-2 times a year for client mastering 😱

    I know I'm in the minority and all the reasons why already :)

    I will say that I think the reason most people struggle to learn compression is that they are using an underpowered amp, even when built into the speakers. It wasn't til I got a super powerful amp for my mastering studio that suddenly compression became EASY to hear. I could use it before well enough, but when you have an amp that doesn't need time to recover from strong hits, it's amazing how detailed transients can be. As can how well or not you're shaping them with compression. It made way more of a difference than getting better speakers did on that front FWIW.

    It’s very interesting what you are saying. When I watch these tutorials about compression and they are doing the on/off comparison, then I usually don’t hear much difference. I always thought it’s my shortcomings but now I start to think it might be the emperor wearing no clothes.

  • edited September 11

    We don't all approach music production from the same angle, and I (perhaps wrongly) assume a lot of us have little to no formal training in the field of music production and engineering since we are mostly using mobile gear to record or engineer our music and recordings.

    Having said all that, this is exactly the kind of impromptu education which is invaluable to understanding what is really going on in our mixes.

    In fact, a whole series of "Understanding..." threads might be just what the doctor ordered.

  • edited September 11

    Musicians (esp. guitarists), compared to recording engineers, generally use "compression" for two different things.

    Guitarists will often have a compressor pedal first in their pedal chain, certainly before the amp, and after the obligatory wah pedal, whereas recording engineers put their compressor last.

    In the Musician on a Mission terminology, the guitarist is shaping the sound of the instrument whereas the recording engineer is gluing the instruments together.

    Of course, this over simplifies, and also overlooks many stylistic uses of compression by music producers, but moving on...

    The guitarist may employ several different compression pedals for their arcane purposes, using a variety of settings, many of them undocumented, to achieve different sounds and feels. In many cases it is the feel of the compressor that the guitarist is after, a subtlety that may be inaudible to the listener.

    In this video, guitarist Pete Thorn demonstrates compression using a guitar pedal.

    Here is Beato's guide to compresors for guitarists:

  • @Pandan said:
    Obligatory

    Imagine your mama wanders closer to your sister’s room who suddenly turns her own music on… your mama is surely the side-chain?

  • Back to another Kush video. This is pretty much a follow up to the ‘How to hear compression’ episode and for me, it’s even more insightful even though this one is just Greg riffing with no actual musical examples. I’d sum this one up as the ‘feel the music, don’t listen to the music’. It’s something that comes natural to those versed in swing and groove, be they drummers, bass players or DJ’s.

    Compression can make your mixes lifeless - flat as a pancake, or it can consolidate the rhythm section groove that’s at the very heart of your music. But you’ve to feel it to enhance it.

  • I once produced some demos for a naive but gifted songwriter who had uncanny ears. If I went to apply even the most gentle compression on her voice, she would complain that it sounded wrong and hurt her ears. I explained: you need to consider the social context. Think of it like wearing makeup. Yes, you look better without it. But if you’re headed for a photo-shoot, or the big stage? - better wear it…

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