5 Compression Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making [Video]


Hey, this is Jason Moss from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today we’re gonna talk all about compression. So if you’re struggling with compression, don’t worry—this video is gonna give you the clarity and confidence you need to approach it like a pro in your next mix.

Now if you want to dive deeper, I put together a free compression cheatsheet that covers a lot of tips and tricks and techniques that I haven’t covered in this video. So if you want this free cheatsheet, just click the link in the description below or in the video and you’ll get free instant access. Let’s dive in.

Mistake number one is your attack time is too fast.

Now, the attack time on a compressor is one of the most important parameters you can set, because it basically determines how much of the initial punch or impact of notes gets let through that compressor. So with a fast attack time, what ends up happening is a lot of that energy gets turned down, so the compressor ends up destroying a lot of the impact and punch of the tracks in your mix. And so this can take a track that sounds really punchy and impactful and make it sound flat and one-dimensional and just kind of lifeless.

So in general, you want to slow down your attack times, and slower attack times usually work better. You want to make sure that you’re letting enough of that initial energy through the compressor with a slow attack time, so that you retain a lot of that impact on the front end of notes that really makes tracks sound larger than life.

So let’s jump into my DAW and take a look.

Okay, so I have a song here by Clean Green Music Machine called Better Way, and I want to show you how different attack times on a vocal compressor can affect the way the way the vocal sits in the mix. So let’s take a listen to the mix first with the final settings that I used in the mix.

♫ The sun it shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

All right, so let’s pull up the vocal compressor on that lead vocal. And you can see here, the attack time is set fairly slow. Now this is the 1176 compressor, which is a fairly common vocal compressor. And the attack knob actually is backwards from the way that most compressors work, so the slowest setting is all the way to the left and the fastest setting is all the way to the right. So something that’s worth noting.

So what I did is I went ahead and duplicated this compressor. And all I did was turn the attack time all the way to its fastest setting. And I also adjusted the output gain so that there was no difference in level between these two versions of the compression. And this way, we can compare the same compression just with a fast attack and a fairly slow attack, and you can hear the difference within the mix.

So first, let’s listen again to the slow attack compression. And I want you to listen to how the vocal is sitting in the mix. Does it feel like it’s close to you? Does it feel kind of far away? And so we’ll do that first and then I’m gonna flip back and forth between the fast attack and the slow attack and just kind of compare the two.

So first, this is the vocal with the slow attack compression.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

And this is fast attack.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

So slow attack again.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

And fast attack.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

So to my ears, with the fast attack compression, the vocal sounds like it takes a step or two back in the mix. It doesn’t sound as punchy, it doesn’t have as much impact. It feels like it’s kind of sitting behind the other instruments in the track. The fast attack compression is kind of shaving off those transients, the kind of punchy beginning of the notes that this vocalist is singing. And so that’s causing the vocal to kind of sound like it’s a little bit muted. It just sounds like it’s further back in the mix, whereas when we listen to the slow attack compression, those punchy transients poke through a lot more, and this brings the vocal forward, and so it feels like it’s upfront and close in the track.

Take a listen one more time. This is the original with slow attack compression.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

And this is with the fast attack again.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

To my ears, I really prefer the sound of that slow attack compression. The vocal feels like it’s much more upfront in the mix. We can hear it and understand it much more clearly. And again, a slower attack time is usually gonna give you better results on vocals.

Mistake number two is your release time is set too slow. Now in general, what you’re looking for with compression is you want to set a release time that allows the compressor to ebb and flow with the natural dynamics of the track that you’re compressing. So I want to jump into my DAW and show you the effect that different release times can have on different tracks in your mix.

First, let’s take a listen to the full mix with the final processing that I used. So this is exactly what the finished mix sounded like.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫ The sun that shines for me ♫

Cool. So let’s take a closer look at that vocal.

Now on that lead vocal, I have the CLA-76, which is an emulation of a classic compressor called the 1176. A lot of people really like it on vocals. And it just usually does a great job on vocals, so it’s a great choice if you’re looking for a vocal compressor.

But if you take a look at this release knob here, the release on the 1176 is opposite of the way it is on most compressors. So the fastest release time is actually all the way to the right, whereas the slowest is all the way to the left.

So if you can see here, I have the release time set pretty much as fast as possible. And the reason for this is because the performance is moving very quickly, and the words and phrases are very short and choppy, and so I really wanted this compressor to ebb and flow with that performance, right. I wanted it to pull things down when they got too loud, but then get out of the way very quickly and stop compressing, so that if the next note was quieter, the compressor wouldn’t still be compressing that next note.

So if you take a look at this meter, I’m just gonna play the track again, and take a look at how this meter is moving here, in kind of, in conjunction with the dynamics of this vocal performance.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

So you can see the meter is reacting to the dynamics of the performance. It’s not just hanging all the way towards the left the entire time. It’s actually bouncing back and forth to kind of mirror or match the dynamics of that performance.

So what I did was I just duplicated this compressor, and let’s actually take a look at both of these here. So I’m just gonna enable target mode, and that button here, in case you don’t know in Pro Tools, makes it so that we can have multiple plugin windows open at the same time.

And so what I did here was I just duplicated this compressor, and instead of a super fast release time, I actually set the release as slow as possible. And then the only other thing that I did was turn up the output gain a little bit just to make sure that there’s no volume difference between these two, so we can kind of compare and contrast them.

So I’m just gonna bypass the fast release compression, and then we’ll go over to the slow release and I’m gonna play the track and I want you to take a look at the meter on this one and notice how different it is from the fast release compression.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫

So you can see the meter is kind of hanging out around this negative kind of 10 area, whereas the meter on this fast release compression is bouncing and kind of ebbing and flowing. The meter over here is just kind of pegged the whole time, it’s not really moving that much.

Now I want to play this again and next, I want you to listen to the dynamics of the performance. So listen to how the vocal is sitting in the mix. Can you hear all the words evenly? Are certain words getting lost? Does it feel kind of even and consistent? Or does it feel like it’s coming kind of in and out of the mix? So take a listen to this again. And again, this is with the slow release compression.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that ♫

Okay, so to my ears, it sounds like that vocal is kind of coming in and out. It doesn’t feel like it sits very evenly. And now let’s actually compare that to the fast release compression.

♫ The sun that shines for me ♫ The wind that blows the trees ♫ The waves that blew the sea ♫ Have so much energy ♫ The sun that shines ♫

So you can hear the vocal is sitting much more evenly. We can hear all of the words. They all feel like they’re sitting appropriately in the mix. And that’s because again, this compressor is really evening out the dynamics because really, we want the quieter parts to kind of cut through the compressor and we don’t want that compressor to be turning down the quieter parts. We just want it to be turning down the stuff that’s too loud. Whereas with this slow release compression, what’s actually happening is the entire track is just getting turned down, so in reality, because the meter is kind of hanging around negative 10 the whole time, it’s the same exact thing as just kind of grabbing this fader and turning it down 10 dB. We’re not really actually compressing this vocal and controlling the dynamics. We’re just using the compressor as kind of little more than a glorified fader.

So this is not to say that the fastest release time is always gonna be the right setting for a vocal, but the idea and the concept here is you want the compression to kind of ebb and flow and kind of respond to the dynamics of the vocal.

Mistake number three is you compress without context.

Now, the goal of the mixing process is really to take all of these tracks that we have in our session and make them sound good as a single unit. So what a lot of people end up doing that really leads them in the wrong direction, is they’ll start soloing tracks in their mix and adding a compressor to those individual tracks. What ends up happening is that when you solo tracks, you have no context anymore. So you have no idea how that track fits in with the rest of your mix. And the truth is, it really doesn’t matter what that track sounds like on its own. The only thing that matters is how it sounds when everything else is playing.

I think a better approach is to avoid the solo button when you’re using compression, and really apply your compression to tracks while everything in the mix is playing at once. And really try to tweak your settings and make decisions while you’re listening to the entire mix. And you’ll find that often when you do this, if you were to solo the individual track that you were compressing, it might not sound that good, but in context, with the rest of the tracks in your mix, it works. And really, that’s the only thing that matters. So really avoid the solo button and try to make the majority of your compression decisions in context. And I promise you, if you do this, the compression decisions that you make are gonna sound a whole lot better.

Mistake number four is you use it as a crutch. Now if your mixes sound kind of flat and one-dimensional and lifeless, there’s a good chance that you’re relying on compression too much to achieve the sound that you’re looking for.

Now the best mixers know that really compression is just one part of the equation. The key to get that pro sound and really bring out all the details on the individual tracks without making things sound lifeless and flat, is that you want to get 80 to 90% of the way there with compression, and then flip on your automation and use the automation to ride up a lot of the details and lower level stuff that gets lost and add back in some of those dynamics that the compression might have taken out. In conjunction with compression, automation is kind of that missing piece that will allow you to achieve a lot of that sound that you were looking for without just slamming things to try to get things kind of flat and even.

Just to give you some context on what this actually looks like, I want to show you an example of some vocal automation from a recent mix that I did. So you can see on the screen here, there’s just tons of micro rides on that vocal. And what I did was I went through the track, 10 or 15 seconds at a time, towards the end of the mix and just rode up all of the words and phrases that got lost and made sure everything was sitting evenly. And so this track was already compressed, but by using automation in conjunction with that compression I was able to achieve a vocal that sounds great, that has dynamics, that sound like it’s full of life. That’s the key here, using compression in conjunction with automation to get to where you want to be.

And mistake number five is you’re making it sound worse.

Now, the goal when we’re mixing is not just to make the right mixing decisions, but also to avoid the wrong ones. And this is a big deal, because often times throughout the mixing process, we make so many decisions that actually take us further away from where we want to be, and actually make tracks sound worse than if we hadn’t of done that at all.

So what ends up happening a lot of the time is you add a compressor to a track, you start tweaking some knobs and changing some settings, and maybe you twist that makeup gain up a little bit. And what ends up happening is that makeup gain makes the track sound louder with the compressor engaged than if you bypass that compressor and just listen to the track before any compression. So if you do compare the sound of the compressed track and then the sound of the uncompressed track, often times you’re gonna say, “Wow, the track with this compression sounds a lot better.” When in reality, you’re really just responding to that increase in level, because louder always sounds better to our ears.

So you want to make sure that you’re always setting that makeup gain control properly, so when you flip that compressor in and out of bypass, there’s absolutely no difference in level between the track before compression and after compression.

So I hope you found this video helpful, and if you avoid these five mistakes, I promise you, the sound of your mixes is gonna improve by leaps and bounds.

Now if you want to dive deeper, I also put together a free compression cheatsheet with tips and tricks and techniques for approaching compression on common instruments. So if you’re struggling with compression, this cheatsheet’s gonna give you even more clarity, so you can approach compression with confidence in your next mix.

So to download this free cheatsheet, click the link in the description below or on the video, and you’ll get free instant access.

Anyways, thanks so much for watching. You can check out more mixing tips at BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.

Video features music by Clean Green Music Machine.