9 Tips for Working With Compression

I have been hard at work writing my eBook about mixing. While I was working on the section about dynamics, I thought why not share some practical audio compression tips here on the blog.

Compression (and dynamics in general) is one of the hardest things to grasp in mixing and music production. If you’re having problems learning and understanding it, don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal. Just spend time playing around with compression and familiarizing yourself with the parameters.

To prove the point, this is one of my cats when he was first trying to figure out audio compression. These days he’s like “look bro it’s nuthin’”.

This is what one of my cats looked like when he was first trying to figure out compression. Nowadays he's like "it's nothing".

 

So.. Nine tips from my personal experience for working with compression. Let me know how they’re working out for you, and feel free to share yours in the comments!

1. Just One Compressor

If you’re not yet entirely comfortable with compression… Don’t confuse yourself with too many choices to begin with. Choose only one compressor (maybe the one that comes with your DAW). Use that one compressor for everything until you feel like you fully understand what compression does and how the different controls affect sound. When you have a good understanding and ability to work the dynamics with your compressor of choice, you can start expanding and experimenting with different compressors in order to learn about the differences they make.

 

2. The Extreme Threshold Technique

Sometimes using an extreme threshold setting makes it easier to hear and dial in the attack and release times. Once you have those set up, back the threshold down. This is especially a great trick to try when you are playing around with an unfamiliar compressor and are trying to get to know how it sounds and behaves.

 

3. Don’t Kill the Transients

Be careful with the attack time, especially when working with drums. If you set it too short you will lose transients (of course there maybe times that is what you want). Different types of sounds require different attack times, but for most occasions, do make sure your attack is long enough to let enough transients pass through.

 

4. Less Is More

If you’re not sure about the amount of compression you should apply, think “less is more”. Just to be safe.

 

5. Little Here, Little There

To achieve even loudness without changing the sound too much, apply a little bit of compression at different stages (instead of lots at once). A little bit on individual tracks, then a bit more in the group/bus (and finally, compression will happen on the master). You can also try routing through two compressors in the same channel, each giving a little squeeze.

 

6. Don’t Be Fooled By Volume

We automatically tend to think louder is better, even when it isn’t. Don’t let yourself be fooled by volume differences. Always correctly evaluate the difference the compression makes. How? Set up the make-up gain properly so that the volume of the audio stays the same when you bypass the compressor. Then go back and forth between the compressed and un-compressed audio and listen for the difference. Which one is better?

 

7. Killed the Transients Anyway? Layer Up.

You can layer additional sounds to boost up transients. Be careful with layering though as it’s easy to go overboard and make things too complicated. You don’t have to layer entire new sounds on top of the old ones unless you want to. I sometimes just take the attack parts of a sound and layer that with what I have going. This just gives you more “snap” without altering the base sound too much.

 

8. Provide Dynamics

Compression can of course be used as an effect to really squash things up. One of my favourite things to do! When you do decide to do that and throw things like “dynamic range” and “transients” to the garbage bin… Just remember that the transients and dynamics in your mix do need to come from somewhere. If you squash something up, make sure you have other elements that provide dynamics in your mix.

 

9. Complement Compression with Transient Enhancers

Learn to use transient enhancer plugins. Really. Used wisely, they can take your sound to the next level. A nice technique is to boost transients after heavy compression. One of my favorite transient enhancers is the free Bittersweet V3 plugin by Flux. Check it in this post.

 

Keep experimenting and have patience. The more you practice, the easier it becomes!

What are your favorite compression tips? Got questions? Let me know in the comments below.


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  • Petri Koskela

    I’ve been using Bittersweet for some time now but I’m sometimes experiencing a problem with it: the plugin seems to go randomly on/off while playing my song in FL Studio. Would love to get it work properly!

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      That’s weird. I’ve never had such problem with it in Logic / Live. You could try hitting up the Flux support about it: http://www.fluxhome.com/support/contactus.html .. . Maybe they can help.

  • Eugene Eugene

    Hope you’ll be fine! Can’t wait for yer book to come out! Will read this post later today

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Cheers buddy!

  • Maikel Paverd

    First off; Your writing style is mad decent! (lack of a better power term)

    always on point, clear!

    I am currently demo-ing izotope Alloy (great compressor, transient shaper inside).. Schaack Audio has a great one too (no freebies like flux though)

    what I wanted to say; I learned a hell of a lot on compression, saturation, transients, tails etc by using this little freebie (after compression etc.. last insert);http://bram.smartelectronix.com/plugins.php?id=4

    you can instantly see what’s going on in your audio(waveform)..

    (now I’m using Presonus Studuio one, which has a native plugin; scope)

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Cool man thanks for the feedback, I try to work on my writing. ;) Like music, there’s endless room for improvement.

      That waveform visualization plugin looks great! Brilliant tool for learning like you said. Thanks for the tip.

  • Tom Snively

    Can you point me to any resource with audio or video examples of exactly what a transient is, or what a transient shaper does? Thanks!

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Yeah Tom check this one by iZotope:

      • Tom Snively

        Cool, thanks!

  • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

    Yup that’s another good one. Definitely cool trick with the L2 (I use the L2 a lot as I find it seems to do something beefy to the sound that most other limiters don’t). Cheers Lukas. Hope you’re good :)

  • Max Mtwn

    Generally, when i use a compressor, I find it easier to set it up at a relatively low volume, even for extreme effects, and then to A/B it with the other sounds playing. I found out that when you compress something, you can easily be happy with the result with the sound soloed, but when you put it back in the mix, it doesn’t necessarily interact in a good way. Finding some sort of ‘starting preset’, and then tweaking it ‘live’ isn’t probably the easiest part, but it is extremely useful if you want to understand how a compressor reacts (me think).

    As for the transient design, I particularly like to use it in parallel mode, when I want some drums hits to pop out of the mix a bit more. I think doing it in parallel mode allows you to make more variations when mixing down your track, especially when you add some flavours to the parallel buss, like saturation or modulation plugs, without affecting your original pieces.

    Anyway, keep up the good work mate, it really is great ! I think i’ve read almost, if not all of your posts, and I always learned something.

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Great advice there Max. Especially the one about listening in the context of the entire mix. Very important.

  • Rifosi

    I really want to thank you for all these tips. I’m getting much better results after applying some of your concepts. It’s amazing how far you can go with such tools just by experimenting it. If you understand how they behave and know what you are looking for, it’s even better. I have noticed that as I make progress, I can distinguish much more the subtle differences, tone nuances that make all the difference. One difficult point (to me) is to determine when that mixing must be considered finished. I mean, every time I do some improvement to it, I think that now is finally okay. Until tomorrow, when I heard it and decide to change a little bit here and there again. It’s never ending. A friend told me once that he never really finish a mixing. Instead, he abandon it when he thinks it’s good enough, and goes for another. How do you do?

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Hey,
      You’re absolutely right, the more you experiment with the tools the more you start to learn about the subtle nuances and will be able to use those things to your advantage.

      Mixing and making music in general can definitely feel like a never ending process. I could easily go on tweaking forever, but I try not to fall for that trap (it isn’t easy). At some point you just have to make a decision and move on. Perfectionism is an enemy. :)

  • mobu

    First of all thanks for the excellent articles. Do you mind explaining this part or point me to the right direction? How one actually do that.

    “I sometimes just take the attack parts of a sound and layer that with what I have going. This just gives you more “snap” without altering the base sound too much.”

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Glad you’re liking the blog!

      Sure let me elaborate on that:

      Let’s say you have a snare sound in your track that you really like, but it’s not sounding snappy or punchy enough. So you want more punch but don’t want to change the sound too much.

      That snap or punch of a sound comes from it’s attack – let’s say the first 30ms (or even less) of the sound. What you can then do is find another snare sound and cut it so that all that is left is the attack. Then layer that with the attack of your original snare sound and mix it in enough to give it some more punch. It also pays off to play around with the timing. Changing the timing even a few ms can make a huge difference.

      Hope that helps!