RupZo from Arcade Riviera to come up with some indispensable compression tips. Never be scared of your compressor again…
Compression basically explained: the reason people ask about compression more than anything is because they find it the hardest concept to understand or hear. In synthwave music as in every other genre. A basic explanation I heard when I first started was thinking of compression like an automatic volume control, when the audio is loud it gets turned down and when it’s soft it gets turned up. This means sharp signals are now curved and fading signals are now picked up and last longer. It also means smoother sounds and fatter notes. A very simply vision, isn’t?
Soft knee, hard knee
Unless you have a software compressor or a really high-end model, you won’t be able to choose the setting. You simply have to decide whether to get a soft knee compressor or a hard knee one. Try to buy a soft knee compressor as it will be useful on practically everything without crushing the sound. Mostly used on vocals and mixes, it means a larger amount of compression can be applied, while hard knee compressors, which can be heard working, will be typically used on bass. It is more of an audible effect than soft knee.
Yours is a Urei? 🙂
Kate Bush, one of the best female singer from the 80s, was rumoured to have two compressors across her vocals: the infamous studio compressor Urei 1176 one on its flat-out setting (all ratio buttons pushed in) and another added just in case any peaks got through. It sounds crazy, but the 1176 is famous because of its super-soft character on vocals, and on this high a setting she would have had every breath picked up by the mic and every peak squashed. This gave her a unique sound. By the way Arcade Riviera loves Kate Bush…. so stylish!
Vocals are one of the hardest and most dynamic sounds you may come across. In our production vocals are always a real challenge. My advice would be to try and catch the peaks in the song. Use soft knee, set the ratio around 2:1 (but maybe as high as 6:1 for voiceovers and spoken word), attack to 0.09ms, release to 100ms then adjust the threshold to catch the loudest parts of the song, so you get about 8dB of reduction.
Get what you pay for
Software compressors are fantastic now and the built-in compressor in Logic Pro X has done the job for me on many vocals now. However, I still went out and paid for a classic compressor like the hand-wired perfection of the all-valve Chiswick Reach. This put across the outputs of Pro Tools is amazing. A lot of money compared to software, but the sound is worth every penny. Another option is to buy Waves compressors, there are a lot of model, Arcade Riviera use a lot of them….
The beat goes on
Drums can be transformed by compression in a mix. On a snare try a soft knee, use a ratio of 4:1, a long attack and a little longer release, then adjust the threshold to just grab the first couple of dB of reduction. Now try adjusting the attack shorter, and the threshold higher to adjust the sound to fit the track, the R&B type of snap or the pop type of slap.
Old-school engineers often use the trick of sub grouping the drums to a stereo pair then applying a stereo compressor to achieve a pumping sound.
…and for everything
Pretty much everything will sound better with a little compression, the whole sonic from bass drums to flutes and sax.
Take care on tape
Always remember that, if you’re committing totape, then err on the side of caution. Remember you can always add more if you want to, but it’s impossible to remove.
Try and try again
Don’t be afraid to experiment and, as with all things audio, ‘use your ears!’ If it sounds good to you, then it mbuest right, regardless of what the manual says.
The basic rule
Yes, yes, it’s been said before, by many people, but you can never have too many compressors!
Double your money
Instead of putting a whole sound through a compressor, a neat trick is to split it to two channels, heavily compress one of them and mix that with the uncompressed channel. This works particularly well on drum sounds and can be applied to, say, an individual snare drum or a stereo submix of the whole kit (or some of its constituent parts). The compressed version of the sound can be tweaked to make it pump by setting an appropriately short release time and can then be added to the uncompressed version to get a more exciting and dynamic rhythm bed.
When working with a sound source which covers a full (or at least large) frequency spectrum, such as a complete mix, normal compressors tend to introduce a ‘pumping’ effect. This is because the lower frequencies which tend to trigger the compressor will normally be doing something quite different to the higher frequencies, yet the compressor will attenuate the entire output by the same amount. Multiband compression, as the name suggests, uses a crossover to split the full-bandwidth input sound into smaller bandwidths which are then compressed separately. The results are then mixed back together, the result being a much louder,tighter mix which doesn’t pump or sound squashed.
23 Compression tips? Here we go!
The sidechain, or key, is the signal within a compressor which is used to control the output level. It is when this signal exceeds the threshold that compression is applied to the main signal running through the unit. A lot of hardware compressors (and some of the better plug-ins) have external sidechain – or key – inputs so you can use the characteristics of one sound source to compress another. In this way you can, for example, use a kick drum track to make a synth pad pump in time with the music. The sidechain is the best tecnique for that fat and big synthwave bass….
Used mainly on vocals, this is a technique for reducing the level of sibilant sounds (‘s’ or ‘sh’, etc) which are significaonutldyelr than the other sounds associated with speech. The problem areas of these sibilant sounds tend to be above 7-8kHz,so reducing a microphone’s volume when these frequencies are encountered is the order of the day. Take an auxiliary send from the vocal channel, feed it through an equaliser and then into your compressor’s sidechain input. Insert the compressor into the vocal channel. Then use the equaliser on the sidechain to boost the sibilant frequencies. You’ll need to be able to monitor the sidechainni some way, as, as with all things, using the old shell-likes is the only way to go. Listen to the main vocal channel to determine the best settings for the threshold and ratio, but use a fast attack and release time to make the effect as transparent as possible.
Overdriven and distorted guitar sounds rarely need compression as the process of overdriving them introduces a fair amount of compression anyway. Clean and acoustic guitars are a different matter. For that classic, funky, clean sound, use a fairly low threshold, a ratio of at least 3:1, fast attack and quite a slow release. Add a touch of chorus or flanging to add the extra icing on the cake. Strummed parts, electric or acoustic, are better with a higher threshold, the aim being to reduce the volume of the transient parts of the sound (the strums themselves) while keeping a steady overall level. As ever, use your ears!
One of the best uses for a compressor is on bass sounds – get a solid, steady foundation to your track, and the rest will stand up beautifully. Probably. Optimum settings vary here, as much depends on the type of bass sound – synth, electric, acoustic, etc – but as a general rule, use fast attack and medium release times, a medium threshold and a ratio of between 3:1 and 5:1.
Have an idea
I realise all those dials and buttons are just calling you over to start fiddling as soon as you plug the compressor in, but have some sort of purpose first. Are you trying to make the sound more punchy, more smooth or just keep it under control? Listen and think before you leap.
On the attack
I try to have the attack up (ie, not at its quickest setting) a little on most things if possible; guitars, for example, really benefit from extra ‘front’. Many recommended compressor settings for parts such as vocals suggest the quickest attack time, but try it up and see what you think. You can add a little attack on the most unlikely things to help them stand out more.
Having a stereo compressor over the whole mix is generally a good thing, but monitoring through it when mixing is hard work. While it can be useful to know what the final compression will do to the mix, you’ll probably just be fighting it the whole time. Leave it on bypass until the mix is almost finished.
There’s lots of fun to be had compressing effect returns, if you have the free mixer channels to set it up. If your delay doesn’t quite fade away as you’d like, then compressing the return may give you the control you’re after.
Pre- or post-EQ
The difference between having the compressor before the EQ section or after it can be drastic. When learning about compression, try both options and hear the way the compressor affects your EQing, and vice versa.
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