Welcome to Day 26 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Alright, so you’re neck deep into mixing a song. You’ve carved out space in the mix for each instrument by adjusting EQ, panning, and levels.

At this point, though, you may have certain tracks that are too loud in sections and too quiet in others. The lead vocal, for example, might be at the perfect volume during the verses, but it stands out too much at the chorus. You try bringing the volume down, but it loses its presence and…for lack of a better word…oomph.

At this point it makes sense to reach for the compressor.

2 Types of Compression Users

If you’re new to recording and mixing, you fall into one of two categories. You are either too scared of or confused by compression that you don’t bother using it. Or you’re really excited about compression, and you use it by default on every track in your session.

If you are in the first group, you have a lot to gain by learning how to use compression. It could very well be the missing piece to your mixes. It can help glue things together, tame peaks, even out the volume of your tracks, etc. It’s an extremely useful tool, especially when mixing more modern, pop music.

If you fall into the second category, and you compress everything in site. You, unfortunately, need an intervention. Compression is kinda like alcohol. When used in moderation it can be a very pleasant, healthy thing. But if you overdo it, you’ll end up with a mess and ruin things for everybody. 🙂

If you find yourself using compression by default, take a second to think about why you put compression on every channel. Is it because someone told you to? Is it because you think you need it?

Or do you know exactly why you’re using compression?

That’s the point I want to make. Compress on purpose. Before you open up a compressor on a track, know why you’re adding compression. If you can’t think of a good reason, you need to either a. learn more about compression or b. NOT use a compressor on that track.

Common Uses for Compression

Here are some common uses for compression. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but this will give you an idea of when it’s appropriate to use compression.

  • Make loud parts quieter. If certain sections of the lead vocal or bass guitar are jumping out and too loud in sections, compression can help tame those peaks.
  • Make quiet parts louder. If the lead vocal is getting lost in the mix, or you can’t make out exactly what the singer is singing, compression can bring out the consonant sounds in the vocal, making it more understandable.
  • “Tighten” up the sound. Compression can oftentimes be helpful to make a performance more consistent, and give it a “tighter” feel.

There are plenty of additional uses for compression, but this should get you started.

Day 26 Challenge

Your challenge today is to identify which category you fall into.

Do you avoid compression? If so, take the plunge and start learning how to use it.

Do you use compression too much? Start compressing on purpose rather than by default.

  • Arjun Ramesh

    Even though I can’t stand hypercompression, I do fall into the category of putting a compressor on every track, but most of the time, it is only light compression. I like to use it to try to even out the sound, but sometimes, it does cause some headaches, as I try to dial in the right sound and other tracks are affected by my actions on one track. This is frustrating. I also tend to add compression first, before EQ, as I was told that compression will just bring up the frequencies I cut in EQ, so it was better to cut the frequencies after compression. However, I am now reading in many places about EQ coming first. These are things that I have to try out, as I have many habits, some bad, when it comes to mixing. I figure that, since I am going to EQ the track anyway, I might as well put a compressor on it first. If that makes any sense at all.

  • beatsnloops

    When i started mixing 10 years ago i knew nothing at all about mixing. Like a year or so after that, i took a listen to one of my first mixes.

    Except for the bass sound, i liked what i heard and was amazed at how lively the music sounded. Then i wondered why a track with the drum beat and perc programmed, the guitars, keys, horns and vocals (coming from a 1/4 inch tape) chopped to sit on the steadiness of the click, sounded so much like a band playing live!

    The answer i found: no compression at all was used in that mix.
    When i heard that mix i understood a little something about compression.

    No or little compression = live sounding feel.

    Now i use compression on almost every single instruments. After 10 years i’m still experimenting.

  • Matt

    I almost always track a bass with a light compression and then, in the mix stage, will often compress it more. It depends on the song and the player.
    I do like using a multi band compressor for problem sounds like sibilance or to help out the sound of an acoustic guitar.
    Overall, I think I have begun to compress too much and I would like to cut back on it and see what happens. It’s just hard because everyone wants to hear everything so loud.

  • Christopher w

    I tend to use it on main instruments (lead guitar, vocals etc.) but I think I may be “afraid” to really use it, I don’t turn it up much.

  • You guys are hilarious. I guess I need to start some sort of support group.

  • Preshan

    I started out using just a little BOSS digital recorder for 2 years which didn’t have any compression at all (the only available insert was a 2 band shelving EQ on each track…), so if I wanted to even out levels, I had to ride the faders while bouncing. So when I switched to Pro Tools, compression was a massive luxury for me!

    That being said, I forced myself not to overdo any compression in my mixes in Pro Tools, having heard how detrimental it can be to over-compress. The only times I compress really hard is on bass and for parallel compression, but everything else I try to be moderate. Still if there’s a few abrupt peaks in a track, I’d much rather write fader automation than just slam the thing and lose all its life.

    I think Bob Katz says treat compressors like firearms – only use them if you know you really need it.

  • mark b

    “hi, my name’s Mark, and i’m a compressaholic. this is my first fully dynamic day.”

    seriously i do tend to stick a compressor on most tracks. in my defense, i do tend to keep it pretty light, except for parallel compression on drums. i try for less than 4:1 and less than 6 db reduction. still, i COULD try for less, and try to listen more closely rather than just ASSUME the track needs the compressor.

    off to make my amends…:P

  • Being that I like to do a lot of A cappella music, I like to compress. I use the compression to tighten up the vocals and to help keep things in control. I like to compress to about -6db usually no more then -10db. I usually don’t go past that because then you begin to actually hear the compression. At least I do. I use to never compress…but as I started recording more and more strong vocal artist, I quickly learned that compression is a must!!! 🙂

    • Oh…so I would probably fit into the compress-aholic category! LOL… So I guess I am learning more so now how to use compression effectively. Thanks Joe!

  • My name is Travis, and I’m a compression-aholic. There I said it. Thanks for the reminder on this Joe. I’m starting to slowly understand this important aspect of mixing. In fact, it’s helped me lately to literally step away from the studio for a couple of hours (or days) and start mixing with a clear head.

  • Guilty of course.

    compressed tracks into compressed buses, parallel compressed and sent into the mix bus compressor and limiter.

    I compress to tighten dynamics, flatten transients and glue elements together.

    Essential tool, so happy I know how to use it.

  • Frank Adrian

    Hi! My name is Frank and I’m a compressaholic.

    At first it was the illicit thrill of bumping up the vocal. A little compression and things seemed to pop. I started using it on the bass and things evened out so smoothly I thought I was in heaven. But over time I started doing more and more – first drums, then guitars, finally even keyboards. And every time I did it, things were a bit duller, a bit flatter, a bit… worse. But by then, I was too far gone. I kept looking for more and more compression, more and more plugins to make things better again. And nothing worked. I hit bottom and I hit bottom hard.

    So now I’m taking it day by day. I can’t say I’ve gone completely cold turkey. But I’ve developed coping techniques. I use the fader rather than the compressor – I ride gain when I’m recording vocals and hand tune the volume of the vocal parts if necessary. I’ve learned to play some of the instruments more smoothly and consistently. When I do use compression, I use the lowest ratios possible and adjust the attack and release times so that the sound doesn’t sound too compressed. I can’t say that everything is perfect in my mixing life, but I can say that my mixes have more dynamics, seem cleaner, and actually sound better than they have before.

    So again, I am a compressaholic. I’ll always be a compressaholic, but I’ve figured out how to turn my mixes around. It’s a hard battle, but it’s one I can live with. Thanks for letting me talk.