Welcome to Day 28 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

When I’m working on a mix, once I have the basic sounds and levels I want, I reach for a compressor on my master fader.

I’ve talked about this before on HSC (see Using Compression on Your Master Fader), but it deserves to be repeated here on 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Do you compress your entire mix? Have you ever thought about it? Do you compress by default? Or do you shy away from compressing the master bus?

I’m not here to convince you to start compressing your master bus, but I do think there are some benefits. Read over these and decide for yourself.

It’s Like “Pre-Mastering”

In a couple of days (Day 31) we’re going to take a look at mastering. Several years ago, when I first started mixing, I was under the impression that it was wrong to compress the mix. Compressing the mix was the mastering engineer’s job. Period.

Well, as with most things, there really are no rules when it comes to audio. In fact, I’ve read interviews with mastering engineers who say they actually prefer it if the mix comes to them with a little bit of compression on it.

If a mix has 30 dB of dynamic range, that means the mastering engineer (depending on the style of music) probably needs to knock 20-22 dB off of that mix to make it loud enough for general listening. If the mix engineer had applied some compression to his mix before sending it to the mastering engineer, there wouldn’t be quite as much dynamic range to mess with.

See, the problem with compressing in one fatal swoop is that it can harm the sound. Using a little bit of compression along the way, in stages, can sound much more natural.

The Glue that Holds Your Mix Together

I’ve said this before. Compression can sometimes be the glue that holds your mix together. There’s something about light compression on an entire mix that makes everything play a little more nicely together.

It makes the bass tighter, the mid-range more present, and the highs sparkle.

A Few Tips/Warnings

While compressing the master fader can yield some great results, DON’T OVERDO IT. A little bit of compression can go a long way. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Don’t compress by more than 2-4 dB.
  • Use a slow attack. Let all the peaks come through, leave them for your mastering engineer to deal with.
  • Use a fairly low ratio. I rarely use more than 2:1 on the master.
  • Mix everything through the compressor. Don’t just slap a compressor on the master at the end of the session. It will completely change the sound of the mix. Make sure you’re mixing and making all of your decisions while listening through the compressor. Trust me.

Day 28 Challenge

Your challenge today is to spend some time adding compression to the master fader on a few of your mixes. Notice how it changes the sound…and report back here.

  • Jay

    As a general rule, if you intend to send your final mix to a professional mastering service you should not use any pre-mastering devices such as normalizer, limiter, compressor, maximizer ect.

    This makes more work for the mastering guys 😉

    If you plan to master your own tracks then experiment with all those above.

    Personally I use compressors on some instruments or channels for example vocals, snares, kicks ect. I often use a maximizer on the master channel to boost the whole mix, ive not really had good results using a compressor in the master channel, most often the volume change is too noticable but that could be the settings i’ve tried lol so imopen for suggestions on possible compression settings for a final mix 🙂

    • I would say ask your mastering engineer before assuming it makes more work. Ian Shepherd has told me sometimes he prefers if the mix engineer used some bus compression on the mix, that it actually makes his job a little easier.

  • Jay Voth

    I have a setting on one of my plugs called “master” that I made. I use that, and the Sonnox Inflator (this is more for a little grit), that’s my mixbus. My drum bus is the same as well, I have several presets I’ve made that I will start from. I do not start anything until those are there. I have to mix to it or it will not work for me at all.

  • Ryan Shorb

    I’ve been using groups or busses to get that nice finished sound. Once I have say the drums sounding the way I want ( which I do use eq,comp) I send them all to a buss (Aux in PTLE which is then assigned to the master fader in Pro Tools. Then I add slight eq, comp, sometimes stereo widner to that buss just to tweak or get close to the final sound I want. This normally comes out to 5 or 6 busses (depends on song, mix, etc.) So I have a drum buss, guitar, bass, vocals. I then listen to all the busses and get as close to the final version of the song I want to hear, watching the master fader and leaving about 10 to 12 dbfs of headroom. Then on the master fader I use a Waves L3 mastering limiter set at (it varies) -.02 to -.04 on the output ceiling and 3 to 8.0 on threshold side. This will bring your mix up to (CD) standards. After that its all about mastering which I haven’t mastered yet!
    I can get mixes very very close, but still don’t have that sound I think we all want to hear. Hope this helps!

  • Arjun Ramesh

    I use Maxim on my Master Fader, but should I use a different compressor on it? I use it to make up some of the overall gain and this might be a very bad habit. I should try mixing with it instantiated first. However, I do not know what settings I should have on it, since I will be eq’ing and compressing tracks as I go. I would appreciate some more advice about this.

  • Christopher w

    I have been using a multi-compressor on my master channel recently, it seems to glue the drums in with the rest of the mix better. I’m not sure what all the buttons and knobs on it do yet though, but its a start.

  • Frank Adrian

    You mean people don’t already do this? Wow! Something I got ahead of the curve on!

    That being said, I’ll go as high as a 2.5 ratio on the mix bus. Although I’ll still keep the attack and releases long and I won’t go lower than a few dB. All of this depends, of course, on the type of music you’re mixing. You might want to use a bit more on a thrash metal tune than on a pretty acoustic ballad. Just remember to leave some spikes for the mastering engineer to work on (they get cranky if there aren’t any left in the mix).

    • Luis

      Frank… man! You must be very smart! Really?

  • i’ve been doing this for awhile. i slap the SSL master buss compressor on the output bus set with about 3db of reduction, a 2:1 ratio, and a pretty slow release. i think it sounds great and really gives the mix a nice balanced, “together” sound. i would recommend this to anyone, regardless of the fact that most things online say to put zero processing on your master fader pre-mastering. what do they know? lol.

    • Mark B.

      what’s your attack set at? i monna give yo settings a try.

      thanks, m

      • my attack settings kinda very by song, and mostly by the level of the kick and snare. usually either 3ms or 10ms. if it’s a hard rock song with a very present kick, i lower the attack to 3ms so there aren’t wild peaks and to give it a more modern sound. if it’s softer rock/classic rock with a more subdued kick, and an overall more consistent feel, i’ll raise the attack to 10ms for a more natural sound. wouldn’t go much lower or higher than that in my opinion.

  • David S.

    So, you’re saying to add the Compressor to your Master Fader BEFORE you start to mix the tracks. ie: before you add EQs, processing, etc. on individual tracks? If this is the case, that would explain why I never liked having the compressor on my MF. Hmmm.
    I’ll have to try this on my next session.

    • Mark B.

      ditto. i wonder why i didn’t think of that. :/

    • Apologies for being stupid here. But do you mean the above, then bounce the mix with that compressor on the master fader switched on or switched off?

      • Not sure I follow your question, David.

  • I was always told not to do it. I like your reasoning behind doing I’m going to go try this tonight.

    • Christopher w

      I love doing something I have been told never to do mixing and recording wise, how else am I going to learn what works for me?

      I never tell the lectures until the project is finished and they ask how I got that great sound, obviously it dosen’t sound good all the time but you learn from mistakes better than not learning what it does at all (plus in the digital world we have a undo button).

      I believe, in the “professional” world of recording and mixing rules are meant to be broken otherwise we wouldn’t have great innovations.

  • Matt

    Hey Joe,
    I really never liked to use the compressor on the main bus as I always had a hard time with hearing pumping. I obviously had my ratio too high (I was setting it at 3:1) and my attack must have been too fast. I’m going to try to do what you have mentioned by using it 2:1 ratio, slower attack and only grabbing 2 – 4 db’s to see how that works.

  • Robert

    Be carefull with plugin latency when recording new tracks if you are mixing in the box (Logic) Deactivate the master plugins.