I compress everything. Well, basically everything. Sometimes an individual track won’t need compression (which is pretty rare), but in this day and age of the “loudness war”, it’s important that your mixes are able to stand up against other tracks.
To clarify, I’m not talking about compression on the master bus, but compression on individual tracks of the entire mix. I’ve used the default Logic compressor, I’ve used the Waves C4, C6, CLA-2A, CLA-3A compressors, I’ve used FabFilter’s Pro-C, and everything in between, including free compressor plugins I have found on the web. I don’t discriminate. You never know where you’re going to find that perfect sound.
It’s important to compress your tracks so that by the time you get ready to mix, or even if you’re mixing on the fly, everything is speaking loudly and cutting through where it needs to.
Keep in mind, any EQ that you need to apply should be applied before the compressor. It’s not a hard rule, but it’s a general rule. If you want an instrument to sound a certain way, you won’t want to accentuate any offending frequencies by compressing it and then trying to EQ the result. But again, that’s a general rule. Sometimes going against the grain can yield some interesting results!
Any reverb will usually go after the compressor so you don’t end up unnaturally sustaining the reverb tail. However, again this is a general rule and sometimes a really long reverb with a whole lot of compression can have a really cool sound! Experiment!
Compressed explanation of compression…
Ok, so what does compression actually do? In a nutshell, compression makes quiet sounds louder and louder sounds quieter. It effects the dynamic range of a track by setting a threshold and then effecting anything below or above that, depending on how you want the compressor to function. This results in a smooth, even volume across the track. Think of a compressor acting as if you were constantly riding a volume fader on a track. When the track is too quiet, you’re moving the fader up. When the track is too loud, you’re moving the fader down. A compressor does this automatically.
There are also a lot of variations of compressors, from multi-band compressors, to expanders, as well as varying methods of using compressors. The most used methods are parallel compression, serial compression, and sidechain compression.
I won’t go into too much detail about each variation and method, but I do suggest you do some research and learn about each one to help you understand how best to use them.
A basic compressor will help even and smooth out your track and limit its dynamic range by making quiet sounds louder and louder sounds quieter.
A multi-band compressor will compress different frequencies of your track. A really troublesome and boomy bass track could use some multi-band compression on the bottom end, while not having to effect the mid and high frequencies.
A limiter is a kind of compressor on steroids. It’s ratio is set very high and has a very fast attack time. It’s a super compressor!
Also known as “New York compression”. I use this method a lot on drums because it just sounds so great. The basic idea is to have two tracks. One without compression, and one with a TON of compression, and then you mix the two together. This method keeps the dynamic range of the original track, while introducing all the compression artifacts of the altered track. There are obviously infinite variations of this method that can work for your track, so definitely experiment.
I use serial compression a lot as well. The basic idea is to use two completely different compressors on one track. The first compressor in the signal chain should be mild and be used to stabilize the track. The second compressor can be more aggressive and really punch through. The idea is that you’re essentially using a power drill to tighten the track rather than a screwdriver.
Ah yes. My favorite type of compression. Good ol’ sidechain. I must admit, I was a bit of a clubber back in the day and I LOVE sidechain compression. It’s like an old friend that will always make you feel good and never let you down. I bring up my clubbing days not to brag, but because sidechain compression is what gives House, Dance, Electronic, Dub Step, and any other EDM genre it’s groove and pulse. Sidechain compression actually came out of necessity during the golden days of radio broadcast. When the DJ had to speak over the music to do an ad, there needed to be a way to make sure the two competing inputs were at the same level. It was called “ducking”. This is basically what a sidechain compressor does. It “ducks” one input to allow another input in. So, when you have a kick and a bass, you would apply the sidechain compression to the bass, with the kick as the input source. The bass is compressed until the kick comes in. Then the bass ducks, and you hear the kick. This continuous “hit/duck/hit/duck” is at the ROOT of all dance music and really gives the track a sense of movement.
I hope this helped you better understand compression. This is in no way an in-depth article, and there is a lot more to learn about compression. I didn’t even mention the ratio, attack, or decay settings of a compressor, so I invite you to go do some research and learn on your own.
Like any tool, a compressor can definitely be used incorrectly, so the more you know about how it works, the better you’ll be able to make it work for you!