When you first started using a compressor, you were happy to just have a basic understanding of what the threshold and ratio do, right?

At some point, though, you need to learn how to deal with the attack setting. I’ll give you a starting point today.

The attack setting simply tells the compressor how quickly it should compress the signal once it crosses the threshold. (Don’t confuse attack with ratio. Ratio tells the compressor how much to compress once it crosses the threshold.)

Start Slow

When you’re dating a compressor, it’s important to take things slow. 🙂

My buddy Ian has been known to say that fast attack times kill music. For the most part, he’s right. Music is all about rhythm and emotion. If your attack times are too short, you’re chopping off the transients on your tracks…losing that punch you’re trying to get.

While I’ll admit…it’s fun to use a fast attack and watch the gain reduction meter bounce all over the place, but try to get into the habit of using slow attack times. The compression will be more subtle, and you’ll be less likely to over-compress the track.

Rather than starting at 5 or 10ms…dial that puppy back to something like 50-75ms perhaps. Let those transients through! Then let the compression shape the tone of the instrument AFTER the transient.

Missing the “Punch”

People talk all the time about wanting their mixes to “punch.” So they talk about using analog summing, or buying fancy plug-ins. I’m not against either of those, but before you go there, try increasing your attack times on your compressors.

You may just re-discover that punch you were looking for.

How do you set YOUR attack times? Leave a comment below. (And if you want more training on compression, check this out.)

[Photo Credit]

  • Martijn Res

    The “problem” I always have when thinking of slower compressor attacks is that it will *expand* the dynamic range of a signal (it passes the transients, while compressing the tails).

    In 80% of the times I think of compressors as tools that help the limiter to make its job easier, so often I end up with a compressor on live audio with a rather fast attack and a low ratio.
    But definitely, if you want to keep, or have more punch, you should slow the attack. And then the compressor might still have a subtle effect on the ratio between the sustain and the release of the signal – but most of the time I don’t consider that, and then leaving out the compressor all together is an option.

    • Frank

      Use two compressors then. A fast attack to trim down the transients followed by a slow attack control the rest of the dynamics. This a go-to technique for vocals.

  • Teagan Kelk

    the longest attack i’ll use is like 30ms for subs. i have most attacks at 0-5ms lol i guess that’s why my compression techniques are leaving me disappointed

  • Carlos Chacon

    Great Advice!!

  • Jonathan

    Despite only writing a few short paragraphs you’ve written it in a way that is more helpful than the Ozone 5 manual I have. Cheers lad.

  • wcb123

    Good advice man. It took me fooking years to to realise i was over compressing. I initially decided not to compress at all, but that just means your track is out of shape. Its all about flirting with the character of the compressor so it gives your track that movement. Still even with that knowledge Its very easy to overdo it.

  • IMaGuest

    I love your site and feel I learn much more reading a few paragraphs here than I do reading 5 pages at other places. Keep up the good work!

  • Arlis moon

    Speaking about the built in pro tools compressor…Do you ever use the hp/lp filters? They are a really cool, often overlooked feature…I like to use 2-3 compressors on some tracks(obviously all with different settings, somewhat like a multiband)to subtly compress different parts of the signal. Often a vocal benefits from a normal compressor, and then another compressor after that one that is set to only tame the silibent transient peaks(I.e. Roll the filter to only process above say 4k). That way I can use a slow attack time/moderate compression ratios and still kill the headroom robbing transient peaks. Same with acoustic guitar…

    • No, I’ve never played around with those, but that’s a really cool idea! I could see that coming in handy on troublesome tracks especially.

  • CVP207

    If we are using a BF76 Compressor, do you mean that we should be setting the dial to the maximum slowest attack time?

  • so if our compressor just has a button that says “Fast ATK” then im assuming its always in a slower mode when that button isn’t clicked?

    • Yeah. It might be good to read the manual and find out exactly what the fast attack and slow attack settings are. It’s a good thing to know.

  • Ryusei

    What I have been doing is that I set a fast attack time and I notice that too much of the transients are lost so I compensate by making the release fast. It’s gotten good results but I’ll take your advice and try slow attack on the next mix and see what happens =).

  • I’m still learning to “hear” the compressor. Your videos have helped me learn how to do that but it sure is hard to tell the difference between 10ms and 50ms!

    • What you want to listen for is the beginning of notes. On a bass guitar, for example, a slower attack time will let more “thump” through at the beginning of each note. A faster attack will tame that “thump.”

  • Ben

    It depends on the source and what I want to do with it. For example, a hard hitting snare drum Id set a slower attack time. Great post though Joe!!!

  • Andrew

    Does this change when taking into account a wider knee. For example, the stock compressor in ProTools gives you a knee of 30dB around the threshold – does this make any difference to the attack time?

    • The knee is kind of a way to gradually increase the ratio as the signal approaches the threshold. Attack time is somewhat independent of knee.

      • Andrew

        If the knee means that the compressor works earlier but ends up slower at the start, isn’t this similar to changing the speed of the compressor and then adjusting the threshold?

        • Nope, not quite. The knee doesn’t affect the attack. It affects the ratio. So if your ratio is set to 4:1, and you have a soft knee, the compressor will start compressing BELOW the threshold by 2:1…then 3:1…then 4:1 (when the signal reaches the threshold).

          Attack time will remain the same.

  • I prefer the “shock and awe” approach to compression: attack fast, attack hard. Seriously, this is good info. I’ll give it a try next time.

    • There are certainly still times for fast attack times…I’ll cover that in the next blog post.