A compressor is a device that reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. First a threshold is established. When the audio signal is louder than this threshold, its gain is reduced. The amount of gain reduction applied depends on the compression ratio setting. For example, with a 2:1 ratio, for every 2 decibels the input signal increases, the output is allowed to increase only 1 decibel. A variety of other parameters in the compressor will also affect its performance processing specific signals; attack time, release time and others are very important.
There are a variety of uses and applications for compressors, the most obvious one being to control the dynamic range of a live performance so that it will fit into the fairly narrow dynamic range of recorders, etc. Other applications include making a signal’s average level higher, increasing the apparent sustain on a guitar, evening out a vocal or bass guitar performance, fattening up sounds, and on and on. The list of possibilities is extensive!