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So, for the studio veterans out there, what's your "formula" for good compression?

SidHighwind

One thing we hear all the time from our customers and readers is "my recordings always sound thin. How can I get that big professional sound?" The majority of the time, the answer comes down to three things: compression, compression, and compression. Even while new developments in music technology put some elements of the once-mysterious art of audio production into the hands of practically anybody, compression still seems to remain a skill one has to learn, practice, and become good at.
So, for the studio veterans out there, what's your "formula" for good compression? What advice would you give to the budget-minded owner of a project studio? There are plenty of processors out there with compression presets; would you recommend any of them?
May 24, 2002 @07:45pm
Coerce

OK, I'll jump in first...
First off, I would like to say that a majority of pop work is completely over-compressed nowadays, being driven by forces mostly beyond the engineers control. I would hate to think this is what the rhetorical question is referencing when looking for the compressed sound. If so, buy a limiter, crank it to nuke and wave bye to all the dynamics.
In other cases it really depends on the style of music. I may want to retain a great deal of dynamics on simple piano/vox piece. However, I think you are referring to 'pop' work and what should be done. Normally, if I am applying a large amount of compression to the two mix I may use several comperssors or limiters in series. Each set to a gentler compression. I find this sounds more natural than a single unit set to a heavier setting. Presets can be a good starting place but that's all they should be. All music, even individual cuts within a larger project must be looked at individually and adjusted accordingly. Use your ears...keep playing with the knobs until you find something you like. Compare it with other commercial discs until you start getting the same sound. With time it will come quickly. Also learn to recognize the nuances of the compressors that you have. Some are transparent but some are quite colored. Use these to drive to the sound you are looking for based on the source material.
I recognize I never provided a formula. I would hate to think that mixing by numbers is possible. I think it's important to keep yourself from settling into a routine whether its grabbing the same mic or using the same preset on everything.
Good luck,
Kev.
May 28, 2002 @05:04pm
michaelhoddy

I think the reason a lot of hobbyist recordings sound thin is due more to cheap preamps, cheap mics, poor AD conversion, convoluted signal paths, and attempts at overequalization to compensate for less than perfect miking technique and the above. That, and layering on the digital signal processing after the fact.
That said, I also think that compression/limiting "technique" has a lot more to do with knowing when and when not to use it, and then knowing which one to use, when to turn the knobs, and when to leave it alone. An LA-2A has two knobs, making for minimal twiddling. Yet it is hard to make anything sent through it sound worse, and the signal very often sounds better, even without the "perfect" settings. On the other hand, an Alesis 3630 has an abundance of knobs, but it takes skill to make the output signal "better" than the input signal. I'd rather use no compressor at all than a bad-sounding one. This, of course, assumes a good recorded signal to begin with. If there are other problems coming in, compressors, even good ones, have a way of highlighting deficiencies.
May 28, 2002 @05:28pm
JMAC

Compression = Hard / Soft / Over easy!
Pretty much sums it up eh?
Just joking!
Compression is one of those necessary evils of recording. I think the two posts above mine covered the most important aspects of compression: making sure the signal in is great, and knowing when to use it.
I've found that there is no magic formula on compression. You have to take each recording one by one and apply it as needed (if needed).
If you are having problems with a "thin" sound you need to step back and look at what you are doing. Not just compression! Check your mics, cables, spacing, room ambiance, endless other possibilities.
One of the things I will try to do is really listen to the sound of the room and how the music plays (reverberates) in there. Then if I think the sound in that room sounds good I try to emulate that when recording.
If the room sounds flat and dull it's probably going to be hard to catch tons of dynamics, however if the room is too alive there is the difficulty of trying to control all the dynamics and avoiding bleed through.
Sound reflection and damping can help capture the audio better thus making the whole process much easier to deal with when you get to the "processing" stage.
If it's good going in it's easier to polish after the tracks are down.
Here is a test you can play around with. Try recording a song totally dry (meaning no compression no added effects). Then go back and rerecord with compression and compare the two. Notice what is missing after compression is applied, and notice what is added with compression. This is a good way to learn how the compressor works and where you really need it, and maybe where you don't.
Just remember to have fun doing it!!
May 31, 2002 @07:12pm
Terry Wetzel

My DBX 266 set for "Over easy". Gives a nice, full sound without squashing everything. Kind of vintage.
Terry Wetzel
February 4, 2008 @09:43pm