Ever since audio compression was invented people have been using it to make their mixes sound bigger and better. Unfortunately over the years using has become abusing, and bigger and better has become smaller and weaker.
Audio compression is just reducing the dynamic range to make the sound over time closer to the same volume. This can be either in the micro-dynamics, e.g. the sound of individual drum hits in a loop, or macro-dynamics, e.g. the difference in volume between the chorus and the verse.
The sound of compression is a massive part of modern recorded music. It can make things sound in-your-face, smooth and punchy when done well. The problem comes when producers get addicted to this sound and try to apply it to all areas of a mix. There is no loud without quiet. Without great care mixes can be destroyed, and unfortunately its so common that it’s become an epidemic.
To celebrate dynamic range day I will give you compression junkies three simple steps to recovery! Use these techniques to really make sure your use of compression is enhancing and not destroying the music you are producing.
1. Always Accurately Volume Match Your Compressed and Uncompressed Material for Comparison
Anything that is louder is going to sound better, even if it is only by half a dB. The most important stage of setting up your compressor is to make sure that the input and output volumes are perfectly matched when you compare the original and compressed material.
The main challenge here is making the perceived volumes the same. If the material we are compressing is very dynamic it makes it tricky to get a useful volume match. If we match the RMS volume of the compressed and uncompressed material then some sections of the uncompressed will be louder.
You Can Only Remember Sound Accurately For About Three Seconds!
While we listen we should asses the overall sound. Due to our similarities to the Goldfish we must consider the duration of the clip we are listening to when we are deciding if we prefer the compressed version.
Human auditory memory is part of sensory memory and not that long. It is known as echoic memory and there is good evidence to say it is approximately 3 seconds. That makes judging anything longer accurately a problem!
- If you are concentrating on how the compressor is actually affecting the details of the sound then the section of audio you are listening to should be three seconds or less. This is the maximum you can accurately remember. If you are concentrating on the overall volume fluctuations and ‘feel’, make it as long as you need.
Important Considerations in A/B Testing Your Audio Compression Settings
For the best results you need to be able to shut your eyes and have one keyboard shortcut assigned to switch between the compressed and uncompressed sound.
- First you must adjust the output of the compressor to ensure the perceived volumes are the same. Depending on the material using an RMS volume meter may or may not be a good way of doing this, but it will certainly be a good start.
- Set your DAW to play only a certain section of the material you are compressing
- Assign a keyboard shortcut to flip between compressed and uncompressed. Every different DAW will have a different way to do this, and in some you may not be able to do this easily. You just need to be able to flip the compressor on and off or activate a bypass. In Reaper you just select the plug-in in the insert slot and press ctrl-b to bypass. Please share any methods you come across in the comments section for your particular DAW.
- Switch between compression and no compression changing the settings until you are certain you have not damaged the sound
- Listen to the compressed and uncompressed material in the context of the mix and by itself. Have you really made it bigger and fatter, or merely tricked your senses by not matching the volumes when you did the crucial comparison?
What Exactly To Listen For As The Warning Signs of Bad Compression
- Unwanted distortion, reduced fidelity or unwanted change in tone. This is very common and needs good monitors to pick up on.
- Lack of expression in instruments. Are notes that are meant to be emphasized now being squashed down to the level of ones that are not?
- Missing punch / unnatural envelope on transients. Listen to the shape of the volume envelope at the start of the sound. Drums can have their punch ruined, vocals can loose their natural human qualities and instruments like piano can have their expression completely altered.
- Flat digital sound. Some plug-ins are just poor quality, it takes a lot of listening to learn why. A tell tale sign is it just sounds ‘wrong’, go with your instincts.
There are many more things to listen for before confirming your compressor or compressor settings are not messing up your mix, listen to great recordings and try to hear into the settings they are using, and when they are not using any compression at all.
2. Never Compare Your Mix’s Volume to a Mastered Mix
Mastered mixes will most likely have been limited, quite often mercilessly. You should not attempt to make your mix as loud as a commercial master. Mastering should be left to the mastering stage, the mix engineer should be focused on a getting a well balanced dynamic mix, NOT on volume.
Which Hat Do You Wear When Compressing for a Mix?
Even if you are going to master your own mix you need to have two different hats.
In fact it might be a good idea to head into town and actually buy two different hats with enough space on to write ‘mix engineer’ and ‘mastering engineer’ on. Don’t ever wear the wrong hat for the job again.
Remember, good mix engineers DO NOT compress for volume, they compress mainly for balance, don’t wear the Muppet hat!
3. Expose Yourself to Music With Great Dynamics
Dynamics are a part of music. You can’t have the light without the dark, and you can’t have loud without quiet. Different genres of music traditionally have different levels of dynamics and need to be compressed in different ways during mixing.
It is easy to get trapped in one way of thinking about dynamics by only listening to certain types of music. Classical and dubstep are very different styles, but they are both still music and they both expresses emotion.
Dynamics Strongly Affects Emotions
In a nightclub people want to dance, get high and meet members of the opposite sex. When the kick drum drops they want to feel it shake the floor. The emotions experienced in dubstep maybe less varied than in classical (the jollity of getting mashed up and clownstepping vs pondering the meaning of existence), but these emotions are still affected by dynamics… strongly! So why are so few dubstep tracks making use of dynamics?
If everything is loud, then nothing is loud. There needs to be a quiet section to make the loud section have any meaning. If you have not listened to types of music that have varied dynamics you won’t know what I am talking about. You can’t really know anything until you have experienced it.
Listen To Other Types Of Music To Learn About Dynamics
Electronic dance music producers, go to a classical or jazz concert and learn about dynamics. You will quickly discover over compressed music is just BORING.
There is probably an entire generation of music producers now who are used to hearing hyper compressed audio drivel dripping from every speaker around them, the only cure is an intense diet of audio excellence. Fantastically recorded fully dynamic music listened to on a daily basis. This is probably the best and most enjoyable way to cure any producer of their addiction to audio compression!
What do you think? Please discuss in the comments below, and if you like this article please don’t forget to click the relevant social media buttons below to help spread the word!