Compression is an important tool in music production and understanding how to use it is vital. Here is how to use compression in a home recording studio as well as common compression mistakes home studio owners make and how to avoid them.
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To get that record studio-quality you want, you have to use a compressor. Think of compression as the difference between a hot mix and a mediocre track.
While some people might think compression is a crutch, it’s not easy. There is an array of not-quite-user-friendly software to maneuver, and even finding the right type of software can be a hassle. And once you do figure all of that out, it’s easy to flatten a good mix with common compression mistakes in your recording studio.
Before we discuss those common mistakes, let’s break down the basics of compression…
How to understand compression
Compressors reduce the dynamic range between the softest and loudest sound, as explained by Universal Audio. Basically, compression ensures that your listener won’t have to turn the volume up or rip their headphones off at any point while listening.
It’s essential to creating natural sounding audio that isn’t distorted and is ultimately comfortable to listen to. Who wouldn’t want that?
Saying compression is a crutch is like saying shoe shine is a crutch. Sure, you can forgo shining your shoes, but you’d be sacrificing quality in the end. The same goes for your tracks. Compression is the extra step to polish up any track, making it infinitely better than the original.
But don’t make these mistakes doing it.
Compressing every track
Let’s face it, compressing a track can make it sound better than the original track. But if you’ve compressed your tracks to follow the same levels, then it’s going to be boring to listen to. In the end, you’ll just make a lifeless mix.
Instead, pepper compression in where it is most needed, such as when a track has parts that are too low and too high. Balance it out.
Don’t forget that it is a dynamic variable that makes a track interesting to listen to. Otherwise, the brain can easily ignore it and reduce your track to background noise. You don’t want all your hard work and perfect sounding vocals to just be background noise, do you? Didn’t think so!
There should always be a reason to compress, says to Jason Moss of Behind the Speakers. By being deliberate with your applications, you’ll get the best results.
Compressing all at once
One and done isn’t the way to go. It’s like editing a paper. The more you go over your essay, the more you catch little mistakes that could be fixed, enhancing your paper’s overall quality. Be an editor of your music, using compression as your pen, and you can’t go wrong.
By compressing throughout the process, making one track quieter before adding another layer to it—then compressing that layer, and so on—you get a cohesive sound that you couldn’t get if you only shaved everything off the final product. So, compress little by little, not all at once.
Compressing at too high a volume
Finding the right volume is important when putting together your tracks. Too high and every little detail in your recording is going to be exemplified. Too low and the bass will get drowned out by the hi-hat.
People rarely listen to their music up at full volume all the time (especially if they care about their ears). So, don’t compress at too high of a volume. Find a comfortable volume that allows you to pick up those fragile details without drowning them out.
Compressing already compressed tracks
A synth patch comes to you already compressed by its original producer. That person made sure that the sound is finely tuned for maximum impact.
If you compress an already compressed sound, you could undo all the work of the producer and create a horrendously distorted sound.
Izotope describes a good exercise to see if you’re overdoing compression. First, compress a track till you can obviously tell that it’s squashed. Just do your worst.
Then, once the sound is flattened and mediocre, study it. What’s its timbre? Its feel and groove? Training your ear to hear when a track has been negatively affected by compression helps you to avoid it in the future. Once you’ve learned all about badly compressed tracks undo the damage you’ve done and continue working as normal, priding yourself on the insight you just gained.
Attacking too quickly
Sure, fast attack times will make your track sound balanced and even with little hassle, which is why many mixers automatically use them.
The issue with this, however, is that fast attack times kill your transients, which are the short burst sounds at the beginning of the notes. If you’ve ever listened to a Synthesia track on YouTube, you’ll hear the tone of the note and that’s it. Of course, it gets boring to listen to after a while.
That’s because it doesn’t sound organic. Hearing a live recording piques the interest more because it sounds more real—the pick hitting the string, the drumstick hitting the stretched skin, the crunchiness of the bass. It’s the organic sound that draws us in.
When you attack too quickly, you get rid of the transients, ridding your sound of authenticity.
As Robert Mayze of Envato Tuts+ says, “when in doubt, opt for a slower attack time. By doing this, you get the benefits of compression and still retain the punchiness of all the notes. It’s a win-win situation.”
Using a multiband to make it louder
Instead of modifying individual tracks to cook up the whole harmonious sound, multiband compressions let you process everything at once to create a louder track than before. By doing this, you tame acres of frequencies just to push the level.
Sure, you’ll get a loud sound. But it’s not going to sound good.
Resigned to the cage you put around it, the sound isn’t able to move with freedom. The groove is gone, the enjoyability isn’t there, and it will only cause people to turn down your mix.
That’s why Musicians on a Mission says the biggest compression mistake you can make is to use every single band at the same time (unless you have a particular reason to do so). It makes your work sound terrible.
Be kind to your sound and don’t compress it all at once. Let the tracks hold themselves up on their own but take the time to compress each of them to fit the overall sound. If you don’t, it’s going to be obvious that you were lazy and cut corners.
Here are a few takeaways
Imagine compression is like watering a garden. Watering a plant once a day will do it well but spraying it with a garden house for an hour hoping to get better results will just drown your plants, wasting water and your time.
Avoid these mistakes when you compress your tracks. It will be hard since compression is so enticing but resist the urge. It takes patience and professionalism to avoid the easy ways out, and if you want to be a professional sound designer, your mixes should reflect that.