Do you default to throwing a compressor on every track in your mix? Do you automatically reach for the compressor whenever you mix certain instruments?

Maybe you should re-think that.

Last month I posted about using compression on your master fader. I wrote about how compression can be a great way to glue a mix together, but that you need to be really careful, or you might compress the life out of the music.

What about compression on individual tracks? Is it okay to squash everything separately? Well, there’s no right or wrong answer, but I’ve heard plenty of recordings where the engineer heavily compressed each track in the session. The songs end up sounding very flat and lifeless. When asked if they used compression on the master fader, the engineer will proudly say, “Nope! I wanted to preserve the dynamic range of the song.”

That’s a great goal, but over-compressing the individual tracks essentially does the same thing as over-compressing the master bus. I was recently listening to an older episode from the Project Studio Network podcast, where a mix engineer (I believe it was Charles Dye) was talking about his approach to a particular record. He wanted the record to have around 6 dB more dynamic range than the music he normally mixed. This involved using less compression, obviously, but it affected how he compressed the individual tracks just as much as it did the master bus compression.

Listen Before You Compress

I know this seems like an obvious piece of advice, but do you really listen to a track before slapping a compressor on it? I admit, I’m guilty of this. I just assume the track needs compression before I really critically listen to it.

Your goal should be to make the music sound as amazing as possible with as little compression as possible. Do I think you shouldn’t use compression at all? No way! The problem, though, is that unnecessary compression can create a whole bucket of new problems for your mix. Rather than making things harder for yourself, listen to the track first, then decide what changes need to be made to make it sit better in the mix.

Only then should you reach for a compressor, and even then, you should have a very specific goal in mind for what you want to accomplish sonically with that compressor. For example, you may want to bring out the attack of a kick drum part. Or maybe you want to tame some of the louder bass notes.

What I Do

With that said, there are a handful of tracks I almost always compress. Kick drum, snare, bass, and lead vocals usually get some compression. However, it really depends on how the parts were tracked. For example, there are a few songs on my album where I didn’t compress the lead vocal much at all. Why? Because the tube mic I used had a lot of natural compression to it, and I sang through a little bit of compression going in.

Things I don’t like to compress? Percussion, acoustic instruments (acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano, etc.), pads. That’s not to say I won’t compress them if they need it, but I find that compression on an acoustic instrument can change the tone WAY too much. A piano, for example, has so much harmonic content. When you compress a piano track, these harmonic frequencies get louder, potentially making it sound a bit unnatural.

Just like everything with mixing, use your ears. Know what you want it to sound like, and work hard to get it to sound that way.

What do you think? I’ll need 10 comments on this post.

[Photo by foxspain]