I was hanging out in the VIP forums a few days ago, and the question came up about using compression while recording.

Adam commented:

Applying compression during recording scares me and is something I think you should only really do if you are very comfortable with what it’s doing… For me I rarely get the compression right on the first pass.

For a long time I was in the same boat as Adam. I didn’t really bother with outboard compression while recording. After all, once you add compression to the signal and record it, you can’t undo it.

When you’re starting out, you might not even own an outboard compressor, and that’s fine. You can always record everything “dry” and add compression plug-ins later as needed.

But there’s something fun about running the signal through a compressor before it gets recorded. Let’s face it, we all like twisting knobs, right?

And if you’re careful, on-the-way-in compression can be a great tool in your recording arsenal.

Here are a couple reasons why I like to use some compression when recording:

Less Work in Mixing

You’ve heard me say “get it right at the source” at least a couple million times. 🙂

But that idea can apply to using outboard compression while recording as well.

Let’s say you’re recording a bass player, and you know you’ll want to compress the bass signal when it’s time to mix. Why not try to capture that compressed sound right now, while recording?

Whenever I’m recording anything, I like to pretend like I won’t be allowed to use plug-ins to mix it. That forces me to try to make the source sound like I want it to sound in the mix.

Sometimes that involves compression. So…compressing on the way in can make mixing easier.

Better Than Plugins?

Depending on your compressor, you may find that you like the sound of that outboard compressor more than your compressor plugin.

Maybe it adds a certain “warmth” or “character” to the signal.

Heck, it could even be a really cheap compressor. But you’ll never know if you like it if you’re too scared to use it, right?

It should be noted that I don’t ALWAYS use compression when I record. After all, it’s never a good idea to do something by default, but if the sound could use some compression, I like trying to capture that in the analog world before it hits the computer.

If this makes you nervous…

If you’re scared of ruining the sound by using too much compression, here’s a great starting point for you to try.

The more comfortable you become with compression, the more risks you’ll be comfortable with taking.

Until then, try using these subtle settings to get your feet wet:

  • 2:1 Ratio (or less) – Lower ratios allow for less compression.
  • High Threshold – Set the threshold to where the signal is just barely crossing it. If the compressor is constantly compressing, the threshold is too low. Raise it up until you only get a little bit of occasional compression.
  • Slow Attack – Keeping the attack slow (50-100 ms) prevents you from affecting the transients of the signal too drastically.
  • Smooth Release – I normally set the release around the same as the attack. If the release is too fast, the compression becomes more noticeable.
  • No Make-Up Gain – If your compressor has an “output gain,” leave it alone. This keeps you from potentially clipping your converter by accidentally introducing too much gain with the compressor.

The above settings are simply a starting point. Don’t be afraid to experiment. When I’m goofing around in the studio — that’s when I normally make new, cool discoveries.

Don’t be afraid to goof around.

In fact, don’t be afraid…period. Have fun with it.

Joe Gilder

P.S. I don’t know if there’s something in the water, but I’ve been getting into a lot of conversations about compression lately.

Whether you plan to use outboard compression or compressor plugins, if you don’t really grasp how compressors work (and how they are intended to be used), you’ll either end up using TOO much compression or not enough.

When I listen to mixes from people who are fairly new to recording, there’s almost always too much compression.

I think that stems from simply a lack of understanding of what those knobs on that compressor DO…and how to use them to your advantage.

If compression still leaves you a bit baffled, if you see compression as more of a mystery than a tool you can use with confidence, then you need to check out Understanding Compression.

It’s one of my most popular videos, because it explains compression in a way that actually helps you use it to get better-sounding mixes.

To grab your copy, go here:

www.UnderstandingCompression.com

  • Xan

    I like to use analog compression when I am recording bass guitar. The way Baphgirl, Beltane’s bassist plays. It sounds good when there are two layers ov compression.

    I used to record dry & add two plugins, which works pretty well. But more recently I have taken to using a little Alesis Nano Compressor and only one plugin.

    How I use it depends on the recording setup as we have a couple ov different configurations we use.

    On our super-portable “Mini-Deck” setup we use for outdoor location recordings, I’ll usually add it in the signal path when I do the transfer from Mini-Disc or Mp3 recorder to the computer. I could digitally transfer this data but by doing an analog xfer I get to do things with the bass & gat sounds in the analogue domain. (And I get to preview all the takes at the same time, so by the time I’m finished I know which are the best ones)

    If we is doing our larger location setup (full Cubase on laptop, small instrument amps) where we have decent shelter and reliable power. I tend to put Baphy’s bass through a small bass amp that is mic’d with the compressor between the instrument & the amp.

    I have an Aphex Compellor which I am looking at testing out on one ov these roles – when I get round to making some balanced to unbalanced connection leads for it..! 🙂

  • Andrew

    I love compression! This is one of the best “musical tools” one can use to make a great mix or a bad one (depending on how familiar you are with the tools). Compression is not only great for creating dynamics amongst your mix, but also for cool “creative effects” like ducking, pumping, or shaping/elongating the “attack” certain track/instrument (although use with caution because that’s how you suck the soul out of a song when not careful). Still learning how to use it creatively, but I need more practice. I want to use it like Michael Brauer or at least create my own techniques that suits my style.

  • Joe, have you tried using an outboard compressor as a limiter just to prevent clipping the converter? This would be done by setting a very high threshold, say -6, and a very high ratio, 100:1, or more, so the compressor becomes a brickwall limiter.

    • I do sometimes use the compressor as a clip-preventer, but not necessarily as a brickwall limiter. If I need a 100:1 ratio to prevent clipping, something else is wrong in the gain staging before the compressor. I will sometimes use a higher ratio (maybe 10:1) and a high threshold on a lead vocal track, for example. That way if the singer really belts a loud part I’m not ready for, the compressor will clamp down on it and keep it under control.

      • Assuming your gain staging is ok, would you recommend a fast attack setting (e.g., 25msec or less) to make sure that occaisonal and unexpected peaks don’t clip your converter? Thanks Joe.

        • Certainly. But I recommend a slower attack time when you’re first getting your feet wet.

  • David

    That’s the way we used to do it most of the time in the analog days. You only had a few compressors usually. Not enough to have 1 for each channel like you have in your DAW. Another thing about outboard compressors is the ability to really drive the analog circuit. You just can’t get the same results with plugins. You can really add character and warmth to your recordings this way. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes plugins are the way to go. But as you said, don’t get caught up in the notion that you need to compress EVERYTHING. Recording is an art and there are no steadfast rules. Compression is just 1 of the many colors on your pallet. As always, just my 2 cents.

    David