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Introduction To Compression

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Everything in music production is closely related to pitch, volume, or time. Think about it, reverb and delay are time effects. Chorus is a combination of time and pitch. EQ is basically a frequency adjustment and frequencies are pitches; 220 hz is the A below middle C. And finally, a compressor is basically a volume-adjustment device. Of course it gest more complicated than that and in this article I’ll give you some ideas on how to think about it without getting too technical. I’m not a fan of technical things when it comes to music.

We tend to make compression more complicated than it needs to be by thinking of all the numbers, different settings, types of compressors and tonal character. And this stuff is great, but I’m going to suggest you view these as secondary thing to worry about. I like to think of a compressor as a volume adjustment that happens throughout time. In others words, the compression can happen fast, slowly, and at high or low amounts. If you think of it that way then you start to learn how to avoid compression mistakes such as squashing the life of things or changing tonal character in unpleasant ways. As a rule of thumb I like to use as little of it as possible, kind of the same way I use salt on food- if I put too much then I ruin the dish.

The settings of a compressor pretty often go as follows (or some variation of this):

  • how fast is the compression being triggered? (attack)
  • how slow does the compression end or fade out?  (decay)
  • how much attenuation do I want? (ratio)
  • At what level is the compression being triggered? (threshold)
  • After all the above, did my track become quieter and how can I fix it? (gain)

These points might sound very simple but they’ll require some thinking on your behalf. The combinations of all 5 of them can deliver infinite results and you must use your ears and brain in order to make good decisions. Some questions that help me think better about when to use compression are:

  • Does a sound feel like it sporadically pokes at me throughout the performance? If yes, the times when it does poke at me should indicate an approximate value of where to set my threshold.
  • Does the track sound great without compression? Sometimes this is the case.
  • In the case of percussive sounds such as snares, plucked guitars, kick drums, etc; Is the initial transient of the sound loud enough and clear in the mix? Is it too quiet? Is the tail of the sound too loud or quiet? These points will determine how fast or slow the compressor should be triggered and released. If I’m trying to manipulate the initial transient of a sound, then clearly my head is focused on the attack of the compressor and how fast it should be. If I’m dealing with the tail of a sound then I’d dial in a slower attack on the compressor. Decay is something that I like for it to occur in some kind of rhythm along with the music and tempo. You have to use your ears for this. And a lot of times it is better to exaggerate the effect in order to get a good idea of what it sounds like.
  • Does my track still sound natural after the compression? If no, then I must revisit my settings.

Anyway, this is an introduction on how to think about compression. The topic can get a lot more technical and if you’re the lazy type and simply want to focus on the songwriting and not worry about this stuff then I suggest using the simple two knob compressors. One I highly recommend is Massey’s CT5 compressor. Another great one is Oldtimer by PSP.


I’ll be making a more detailed post on this subject so stay tuned!



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