But before we dive in, make sure you download my free compression cheatsheet, which will help you make the most of all these tips while you’re mixing. Click the link above or in the description below to download this free cheatsheet now.
Tip number one is to know why you’re using it. Now it sounds obvious, but whenever you add compression, you should have a reason for it. And if you’re applying compression but you’re not really sure why you’re using it, you’re probably pointing yourself in the wrong direction.
So one of the challenges with compression is that there are so many different effects and sounds that we can achieve with it, and it makes it confusing to figure out when we should actually use it and when we shouldn’t. The way that I think about compression is that it’s a very specific tool for controlling two things – macrodynamics and microdynamics.
Now macrodynamics are the larger shifts in level or volume that occur over the course of a performance or a song. So a great example would be – let’s say you record a vocal, and maybe in the verse the vocalist is singing kind of quietly, and in the chorus they jump up in level, and they’re singing more passionately, and so the level or volume of the vocal increases dramatically. So those are macrodynamics, that big shift in level from the verse to the chorus. And we can use a compressor to even this out so that there isn’t as big of a different between those verses and those choruses, and that can allow us to balance the vocal more effectively in the song that we’re mixing it into.
Microdynamics on the other hand are the smaller shifts in volume that actually occur on a very small timeframe. So a great example would be – let’s take a look at just the individual hit on a kick drum. And if you were to actually look at that, you would see that at the beginning of that hit, there’s a big spike in volume. We call that the transient. And then there’s this smooth roll-off that happens as the note, or the hit, decays. And so we can use a compressor to actually manipulate these microdynamics, these little millisecond moments of dynamics that happen over the course of that individual hit.
So for example if we want to bring out the punch or the impact on that kick drum hit, we can use a slow attack time to actually accentuate the transient, or that initial punch, or that thwack, right on the beginning of the kick drum hit. So we can use a compressor to manipulate the microdynamics of sounds as well as the macrodynamics.
So these two very specific cases are when you would use a compressor. And you really want to be clear when you’re using compression – are you using it for one of these two purposes? And if you’re not, there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t need to be compressing.
Tip number two is to think in extremes. Now one of the things that trips people up about compression is there are so many different parameters on a compressor. We have the attack time, release time, ratio, threshold. And it can be a little bit overwhelming because there are so many different options on each one of those controls. So when you’re first adding compression to a track, and you’re trying to get that compression just kind of set up right in the beginning, one thing that you can do to make your job easier is to think in terms of extremes.
So rather than trying to dial in the exact right setting for the attack time, and thinking very small in terms of these little moves, start by thinking in terms of fast and slow. Just ask yourself, you know, do I want a really fast attack time or a really slow attack time? And maybe you want to listen and try both, and see which you prefer. And same thing with release time or ratio. And you can start thinking in terms of these extremes just when you’re applying those initial moves when you’re first setting up the compressor. And then as you get a sound that’s kind of right in the ballpark, you can start zeroing in a little bit and moving in terms of a little bit finer adjustments on each one of these controls.
Tip number three is to avoid presets. Now presets can be very tempting because we’re not really sure what all the parameters do on a compressor. It can feel like it’s much simpler to just pull up a preset depending on the track that we’re working on. So if we want to apply compression to a vocal, we just pull up the vocal compression preset and it’s kind of done for us.
But the truth is in many cases, presets will actually take you in the wrong direction. A much better approach is you want to get to a place where you really understand number one – why am I applying this compression? What am I really trying to do or achieve? And then, what do these different parameters do on a compressor? And how can I manipulate those parameters to give me the sound that I’m looking for? And that way you can fine-tune those parameters to achieve the goal that you’re trying to achieve, instead of just hoping that you stumble upon a preset that gives you what you’re looking for. Because in some cases presets will help, but in many cases they might actually be the exact opposite of what you’re looking for.
So instead of using presets, focus more on what the goal is, why you’re applying the compression. And then start to develop an understanding for what the different parameters on a compressor do, and how they interact to achieve various different results. And that way you’re going to be able to get to the exact goal you’re hoping to achieve instead of just hoping you stumble upon the right answer with a preset.
Tip number four is attack equals punch. Now when you’re thinking about attack time, a great shorthand way to simplify what the attack knob actually does is to think about it in terms of punch, or impact. So slow attack times are going to allow the initial punch or impact of notes or hits to get let through the compressor before the compressor clamps down on a sound, and that’s going to actually accentuate the punch or the impact of a track.
So if you want to make something sound punchier, more impactful, if you really want to hear for example the thwack right on the beginning of a snare drum, or if you want the vocalist to sound like they’re really spitting out the consonants and the percussiveness of their vocal performance to come through very clearly, then a slow attack time is going to give you that type of sound.
On the other hand, a fast attack time is going to actually turn down – and in many cases remove – a lot of that punch and impact, resulting in a sound that sounds softer and much less impactful. So if you have a track that maybe sounds a little bit too punchy, maybe you want to mellow it out a little bit, you want to kind of push it back in the mix so it doesn’t sound like it’s so, the impact is so aggressive, then using a fast attack time will give you that type of result.
So in this case, it’s a matter of having a clear goal, right? Knowing what am I trying to do with this track? Do I feel like there’s too much punch or not enough punch? And then using that attack knob as a tool to manipulate the punch of the track that you’re working on.
Tip number five is release equals low-level detail. Now one way to simplify thinking about the release time is to think about it as a control that allows you to determine how much of those low-level details, those quieter moments in a track, get brought up. So the release control controls how quickly the compressor lets go after it compresses, and a fast release time is going to tell the compressor to let go very quickly. And the result is that a lot of the low-level stuff in the track – the quieter parts in the performance – get brought up. They actually get much louder.
So if you feel like you want to bring up a lot of that detail – take for example if you’re compressing a vocal – the tail ends of the phrases, the quieter breaths, the little subtle details on the performance that often get lost, then setting a fast release time will allow you to do that.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to bring up a lot of that low-level stuff and you want the compression to just kind of control the track, but you don’t really want to bring up a lot of that low-level detail, setting a slower release time can give you that type of effect. So again, another great example of having a very clear goal, knowing what we’re trying to achieve, and then using the release time in this case as one of the parameters that we can manipulate to get there.
Tip number six is ratio equals intensity. So a great shorthand way to think about ratio is it’s a control that basically determines how aggressive or how intense the compressor is. So higher ratios are going to tell the compressor to clamp down on sounds much more aggressively, and that effect is going to be much more noticeable. You’re going to hear the sound of the compression much more.
So if you’re trying to really control tracks, and really squeeze things, or if you have tracks that are wildly dynamic where there are these huge differences between the quiet moments and loud moments, you really want to rein things in, higher ratios will allow you to do that. Much more aggressive of a sound, whereas lower ratios are going to be much more transparent and natural and gentle. So if you’re really just trying to subtly control the dynamics of something, lower ratios are going to give you that. So thinking of ratio as a control that will basically allow you to determine how intense the compressor is is kind of a shorthand way that hopefully will simplify setting that parameter for you.
Tip number seven is to avoid the solo button. Now whenever we’re applying any processing in our mix, especially compression, we’re not trying to make tracks sound good on their own. Really what we’re focused on is how do we make all the tracks in our mix fit well together. How do we make them sound good as a single unit. Because that’s how people are going to be listening to this mix at the end of the day. No one cares how the kick drum sounds like on its own in solo, all that matters is how that kick drum sounds with everything else.
So when you solo a track – let’s say a vocal – you start compressing it, you’re no longer hearing how that vocal track is fitting in with all the other tracks in your mix. And so while your compression decisions might make that track sound better on its own, oftentimes those same decisions can make things sound worse in context with everything else.
So a better approach when you’re compressing is to avoid the solo button, and make all of your compression decisions in context. Meaning when I’m compressing a vocal, I’m not soloing the vocal and listening to the vocal on its own, I’m listening to the vocal with everything else in the mix. And oftentimes you find that you have to compress a lot more aggressively when you do this. And maybe you solo the vocal and suddenly it sounds a little bit over-compressed, but in context it’s exactly what was needed.
So avoid the solo button when you’re making compression decisions. Force yourself to make these decisions in context, and your compression decisions will improve dramatically. And this goes not just for compression; for any processing you apply within the mixing process, avoid the solo button. It’s one of the easiest ways that you can improve the sound of your mixes.
Tip number eight is don’t forget about automation. Now when it comes to achieving mixes that sound professional, compression is undoubtedly a very important part of the process. But automation is the other half of that process that often gets lost. So sometimes we think that if we just compress things enough, we won’t have to actually go in there and ride the fader, or kind of use automation to move things around. And compression becomes this lazy way that we just make everything sit really well together, and we don’t really have to do anything beyond that.
The truth is that in terms of achieving mixes that sound really professional, compression will get you maybe 80 to 90% of the way there, but automation is a really important part of the process too, especially when it comes to vocals. Because even the best compressor is not going to do the job 100% perfectly.
So for example on vocals, if I’m trying to get that really radio-ready vocal sound where I can hear all the subtle details very clearly, I’ll get 80 to 90% of the way there with compression. Then towards the end of the mix, I’ll go through and I’ll actually ride the fader on the vocal, and I’ll turn up the little details the compressor might have missed, the little moments that might’ve gotten lost. And so compression in conjunction with automation gives me that sound that I’m looking for.
So don’t be afraid of automating. Don’t feel like you shouldn’t automate. It’s absolutely an essential part of the mixing process. You can use compression, I certainly encourage you to use it, but don’t be afraid to really go in there and get your hands dirty with automation. And oftentimes the two together is the key to achieving mixes that sound professional.
Tip number nine is to be careful with multiband compression. Now for those of you who have never used multiband compression, it’s basically like a compressor on steroids. It’s actually multiple compressors strung together in a single plug-in, and each compressor, instead of affecting the entire frequency spectrum of a track, only works on a very specific part of the frequency spectrum. So there might be one compressor that just takes everything in the low end, and one compressor that takes the midrange, and one compressor that takes the high end – so multiple compressors working together on a single track. And at first glance you might think, well this seems like it’s better than a single-band compressor, right? It seems like it’s more impressive, or it might do more for us. But in many cases I’ve found that multiband compression can create more problems than it solves.
So while it’s tempting to feel like you should always use multiband compression over a single-band compressor, I find that in most circumstances a single-band compressor is all you need. And I would avoid using multiband compression on the mix bus in particular, because there are lots of problems that are created with multiband compression – phase, artifacts that get created between different bands and the different compressors – and it’s just not a very natural way to approach compression.
So I find that multiband compression is a very specialty tool I use for very specific circumstances. If you want to learn more about that, I actually have a whole video on multiband compression. You can check it out by clicking the link above or in the description below. But I would say in the vast majority of circumstances, single-band compression is more than enough. Don’t feel like you have to use multiband compression just because it’s available. Sometimes the simpler tools are the best ones.
And tip number ten is to test every fix. Now by and large when it comes to making decisions in the mixing process, we are way too overconfident. We all feel like every decision we make is making things better. But in reality, there’s a good chance that a good portion of your decisions in the mixing process are actually making things sound worse.
So part of becoming better as a mixer is not just making more good decisions, it’s also about becoming better at catching yourself in those moments where you’re making things sound worse, and avoiding those mistakes.
Now the best way to do this when it comes to compression is just by using the bypass button. So flipping the compressor in and out of bypass, and asking yourself – do I prefer the version of the track before the compression was applied or after the compression? But there are a couple of caveats specifically when it comes to compression that you want to pay attention to when you’re doing this.
The first is that you need to level-match the before and the after versions of the track so that when you flip that bypass button in or out, there’s no difference in level. And because compressors turn things down, oftentimes you’ll find that the version after the compression was applied is much quieter. So you need to apply in many cases what’s called makeup gain on the compressor, and many compressors will have a knob called makeup gain or output gain. And you have to boost that so that when you flip that plug-in in or out, there’s no difference in level, and that will allow you to make a fair comparison. So making sure that you’re always level-matching when you’re making this comparison is really important.
The second thing is that we all have this natural bias when we’re staring at the screen and we’re watching that bypass button go in and out. We’re going to feel, our brain is going to trick us in many cases into thinking that the version after the compression was applied sounds better, just because we’re looking at that screen. And the reason for this is because we just spent the last five minutes tweaking all the knobs on this compressor, and so why would we have wasted our time doing that, right? We have this bias to feel like we’re making good decisions, and so that’s going to trick us in many cases into thinking that the compression sounds better than the uncompressed version.
So you want to make sure that you’re protecting yourself against this bias that we all have when you’re making this comparison. And the best way to go about this is to use a technique that I call the blind bypass. So basically what you do is you close your eyes. You hover your mouse over the bypass button, and you click the mouse – you know – a million times, whatever, so you don’t know whether the plug-in is in or out of bypass. And then with your eyes closed, you click that bypass button once and you ask yourself – do I prefer the sound now or the sound before? And then you click it again and you ask yourself, do I prefer it now or before?
And so you do this a couple times, and you make a decision with your eyes still closed about which one you preferred, and then you open your eyes and you actually see whether the plug-in is in or out of bypass. And this is a much better way to test for these types of decisions, and oftentimes you’ll find that you actually come to a different conclusion if you just close your eyes and do it this way than if you were actually staring at the screen.
Now if you’re ready to dive deeper, don’t forget to download my free compression cheatsheet, which will help you make the most of all of these tips within your mixing process. Click the link above or in the description below to download this free cheatsheet now.
And before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – what’s your go-to compressor plug-in? I’d love to hear your response, so leave your answer in the comments section below.
Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips like these right here on my YouTube channel or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.