An emerging narrative in the music industry is the idea of the independent artist. Often you’ll see a new artist blow up and proudly exclaim that they recorded their tracks in their garage. The idea may have seemed laughable a decade or two ago, but it’s actually extremely doable in the 2020s.
With the right recording equipment and proper knowledge of audio engineering techniques, you can create professional-level music at home. But if you’re going to do this one of the things you’ll need to know is how to adjust the compressor attack and release settings. Learning how to properly use all those knobs to get the sound you want will take some time, but this guide will help you get started.
What do attack and release mean?
The threshold is the sound level after which the compressor starts working on the input audio. In order to fine-tune the sound and get it to sound exactly the way you want it to you can adjust the reaction time of the compressor once the audio passes the threshold. This response adjustment is done using the attack setting since you are “attacking” the signal.
So while the attack setting refers to the time it takes for the compression to start, the release setting adjusts the time delay while the compression ends. It’s pretty straightforward. The ratio setting controls the degree to which the compressor acts on the signal.
Many at-home musicians don’t bother learning how to properly compress their audio and end up randomly spinning knobs hoping they’ll land on something. But once you learn how to control the attack and release settings you’ll be able to smoothen, distort, or alter sounds as you please.
So what does a fast attack mean? When you manage the settings to facilitate a fast attack the reaction time is minimized and the compressor starts working the minute the signals cross the threshold.
- Fixes clipping signals
- Adjusts unsettling audio peaks
- Makes the sound modern and streamlined
- Potential to cause distortion especially in the bass
- Overdoing the compression can make your track sound lifeless and overprocessed
One way to get all the benefits and avoid the issues with the bass frequencies is to purchase a compressor that has been built with a high-pass filter. That way you can separate the bass from the rest of the audio and only compress those parts for the perfectly polished sound.
Adjusting your compressor settings for a slow attack allows some of the initial sounds through before the compressor kicks into gear. This type of attack is good for getting specific types of results, but it certainly isn’t the go-to move for all sounds.
- A perfect way to get an aggressive and impactful audio experience
- Makes it difficult to control dynamics and maybe worsen uneven signals
- Potential to completely overlook the initial transients that could add much value to your sound
It isn’t enough to sharpen your sound, eventually, you need to let it breathe so the rhythm starts to build. Depending on the speed of the release you can control how the different layers of sound work in tune with one another.
- Juxtaposes the sound in a way that brings energy and excitement to the music
- Makes the audio appear louder which can add a dynamic quality during performances, especially with room mics
- Mismanagement or overly fast release times make the signal gritty
- The hurried clamping of the compressor may be audible within the track to the discerning ear
When used correctly slowing down the release time can help a musician layer sounds for a more dynamic listening experience. For example, if your drums are overpowering the entire sound of the track you can simply slow the release to push them back. This allows the track to breathe and leaves room for other instruments or even the vocals to take the forefront.
- The perfect way to smoothen the audio dynamics
- Ideal for cases where you want to push a certain instrument into the background to highlight another
- An overly slow release that isn’t in tune with the beat can make a track fall flat
To avoid out-of-tune compression start by making sure the needle returns back to the start after the four-beat set is complete. Then increase or decrease the speed based on your desired impact.
Managing attack and release times
When you’re starting off it’s easy to get caught up in the math of it all. Two milliseconds forward four milliseconds back, but when it comes to putting the sound together try not to get too lost in the specifics. If you are a beginner start by playing around with your settings till you understand what each of these settings sounds like.
It’s not enough to read about it on paper. You need to gain an auditory understanding of what speeding up or slowing down the attack and release times means for your sound. Then start by creating a basic framework for the end sound you want. That way you can work backward till you reach a satisfactory audio quality.
Remember, even experienced audio engineers require a lot of trial and error before they land on the sound they want. So as a beginner, don’t get too disheartened if you don’t hit the right notes right away.
Tricks and tips
A few general times to help you along. Often the attack and release times will work in tandem depending on the audio quality you want. So if your end goal is to create a punchy and aggressive track you’ll want a slower attack coupled with a faster release time.
On the other hand, if you want a more natural sound that makes it seem like the audio wasn’t compressed at all try a slow attack with a slow release. The impact will be minimal and just enough to clean up the sound without limiting any of the peaks.
Going for a controlled gain reduction? Try a fast attack followed by a slow-release. Or is your music more of the lo-fi rock variety? Combining fast attack and release times gives you a distorted and loud audio quality. You’ll even hear the compressor in the background.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of all you can go with a compressor but it’s enough to get you started.