Here are some of the top compression mistakes that I’ve come across.

If you’re guilty of any (or all) of these, don’t worry. I am, too.

Here are five compression mistakes that keep even us “smart” folks stuck.

1. Waiting until the end of the mix to add compression to the mix bus.

This is the easiest way to unravel a great mix. If you want to compress the entire mix (which is totally fine to do), make sure you add the compressor to your mix bus EARLY in the process.

Then make all your mix decisions while listening to the mix THROUGH that compressor.

2. Using compression instead of automation to bring out quieter parts in a lead vocal.

Doing this WILL make everything the same volume, but it can sound super squashed.

3. Compressing each piece of the drum kit BEFORE adding compression to the drum bus.

This is similar to number 1. If your drums tend to sound too compressed, try compressing the drum bus FIRST, then decide if you need a little more compression on individual tracks.

Sometimes the bus compressor makes individual compressors unnecessary.

4. Not using an “aggressive” compression setting — even though it sounds good — because you think it’s “wrong.”

I oftentimes squash the crap out of bass tracks. Why? Because it sounds good in my mixes.

If it sounds good, you’re doing it right.

5. Using too much make-up gain, so the compressed signal is always louder than the uncompressed signal.

I like to be able to bypass the compressor and hear the track at the same volume. If the compressed signal is louder, it will sound “better” to me, even if it actually sounds worse.

Make ’em the same level, and you’ll be able to tell if the compressor is helping or hurting.

Hey, compression is one of those things I couldn’t figure out on my own. I needed someone to teach it to me, THEN things got really fun (really fast).

I can teach you compression. It’s all right hither:

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  • Bob Sorace

    As far as #2 goes, I automate the vocals like crazy, and like Andrew I also use it to bring up certain words or syallables to make it clear what’s being sung. I also send the vocals (usually back up vox, and lead vox if they’re doubled)to a bus and I’ll compress it there instead. I don’t know if it’s right, but it seems to work… I always forget to put a compressor on the mix bus, so I just don’t do it, but what I do is put a saturation plugin on the mix bus to boost it a bit, and add a wee bit of noise. Again, I don’t know if it’s right or not, but it seems to work on most of my mixes. I think I do a lot of this because for a while I didn’t really know how to use a compressor, so I just found other ways, and now it’s just habit.

    • So you end up compressing the automated signal, vs. automating the compressed signal? This is something I haven’t really thought of before, as I’ve only recently started using automation more. But I suppose if there are big volume differences between say, verse and chorus, depending on what you’re going for with the compressor the settings would need to be pretty different anyway? So compressing after automation would deliver a more consistent signal to the compressor without over-squashing it?

      I’d love to hear more insights on this, as it’s definitely been an area of some confusion for me in the past–balancing the appropriate use of compression vs. automation.

      • I compress the track, THEN I automate the volume of that track. So compression comes before automation. Automating the signal feeding INTO a compressor seems backwards to me, since you’re changing how much level is feeding into the compressor, so if you automate the volume of the vocal UP, the compressor sees more signal and then compresses MORE, which defeats the whole purpose of automation.

        • Bob Sorace

          I never thought about it that way! So does that mean the inserts in your DAW come before the automation written into the track? This stuff can be so mind racking, every time I think I’ve figured it out, I find out the opposite! But I do like to send all of my uncompressed, non automated back up vocals to a bus and squish ’em for that Def Leppard kinda sound. I should’ve been more clear about where I automate, and where I compress, but I was at work trying to squeeze in a post!

          Great stuff!

          • Bob Sorace

            I think I just had an “ah ha!” moment. So what your saying is to compress the vocal going in, and then you can automate after? I woke up this morning and couldn’t get this topic off my mind! So what I said above about the inserts couldn’t be because the compressor is reacting to what the track is doing, right?

            This stuff is enough to drive a man to drink!

            • Jason

              I think it comes down to letting a compressor do most of the work, but use automation to do the rest. If u try to compress a whole vocal track JUST so that a quiet part will be at a decent volume, the entire rest of it will be smashed to heck. Therefore, compress to where the MAJORITY of the track sounds great to u, and then use automation to bring up (or even down) any parts that escaped the compression stage.

              • Jordan Kirby

                so wouldn’t it be better to automate your track in the first place using a gain plugin to bring up the parts that aren’t getting effected by the compressor throughout the track and then compressing the vocals so the track sounds to your liking, then finally actually automating the rest of the track on the fader to make the finer touches?

                Also i would like to point my preference of using gain plugins on volume automation to keep the fader free of any automation, this is because i find that i have more control over the overall level of the track on the main fader without the hassle of changing a million and one automation points across a whole track. plus it makes the channel faders feel like you’re working off a desk then rather than a computer theoretically. (just for leveling the mix)

                Not sure if anyone else feels the same on that one, but thought i’d share my feelings on volume automation on the channel faders. 🙂

                • You just have to be careful with WHERE in the chain you put the gain plugin. If you put it before the compressor and start automating the volume, the sound of the track will change, since the amount of signal feeding the compressor will be changing, too.
                  If I did what you’re talking about, I’d put the gain plugin at the end of the plugin chain.

            • A channel’s inserts come before the fader, and when you automate, you’re automating the fader. So a compressor on the insert will come before any automation. AFAIK, the only way to process post-automation is to do it on a bus that the automated channel feeds into.

              Thanks for the comments, guys. The explanations make sense.

              • Jason

                Or setup an effect as “Post-Fader”. Not many effects are used in this way except limiters and spectrum/freq analyzers.

              • Yeah, but there’s almost never a reason to want the effect post-fader, except for maybe Dither on the master fader. (The inserts on Master faders in PT are actually post-fader. Everything else is pre-fader.)

            • Hey Bob,

              The compressor is reacting to the audio on the track BEFORE it hits the fader. So automation is automating the already-compressed sound.

        • Kevin C

          Wouldn’t some instances call for compression applied post fader after volume automation? Say you have a very dynamic acoustic guitar track with great natural reverb; adding compression right off the bat might over saturate the track with that reverb and negatively affect tonal character by squashing peak dynamics.. But, if you automate the volume first to lower peaks and raise dips relative to overall dynamics you can use a fast attack compressor (in conjunction with eq) to gently soften abrasive pick or string noise or increase sustain equally to all parts. What do you think? Love your articles btw.

          • I like that you’re thinking creatively. And theoretically that might make sense, but I’ve never seen that done in actual practice. I’ve never done it myself.
            Nothing wrong with trying it, though!

  • Andrew

    I think I do #2 (But I like over compressed vocals as long as its not KILLING TOO MUCH of the dynamics. Just enough to sound like todays radio stations pop vocal. To me that’s the trend for today, but maybe in 10 years it will change and I will change with it).

    Vocal riding or maybe a little compression and vocal riding might be a better alternative for me (I do use some automation but only to make words audible so people know what the singer is saying. I usually don’t use it as a replacement for a compressor cause it’s tedious work and I am an impatient person when it comes to what I find to be the most boring part of mixing…heck I may even be lazy about it LOL. But I think it’s fantastic if you do put in the time to do Vocal riding. I am definitely going to stop being lazy and impatient about it! Great Vocals sound even GREATER when you do Vocal riding.)

  • Jason

    #1 also made me think of limiters. Do u like putting a limiter on the mix bus WHILE ur mixing?

  • Jason

    How do u go about #5 exactly? I too would like to bypass a compressor at times to see what its doing. But by squashing hard (see #4), u would HAVE to bring up the make-up gain, wouldn’t you? Do u pull the gain up somewhere else? I suppose u’d gave to disengage THAT as well when A/B’ing compressed and uncompressed.

    • Eric Jean

      The idea is that you bring up the makeup gain so that the volume of the compressed versus uncompressed audio is the same. So, for example, if your compressor is showing 3 db of attenuation, you typically would want to augment your makeup gain by about that much.

      • Jason

        Yeah I get it now duh…it was really early this morning when i read #5.

        I guess I get how someone could use the make-up gain to add gain instead of the fader to make something sound “better”. Yes, in that instance, you wouldn’t be able to A/B the compressor.