I refer back to Ian Shepherd’s article How to Avoid Over-compressing Your Mix quite often. Just in the last week I think I’ve emailed that link to people at least 5 times.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about compression…and about a rule of thumb Ian alludes to.

It goes like this: If the gain reduction doesn’t return to zero several times per bar, you’re compressing too much.

Now, you know how I don’t like “rules” in recording. And every rule can be (and should be) broken, if it’s right for the song.

However, in a world filled with rampant over-compression, this is a great rule to at least TRY to adhere to.

When you compress a track, is the compressor ALWAYS on? On my SSL Bus compressor from Waves, the meter shows up to 20 dB of gain reduction. It’s very tempting to always have that meter flying towards the -10 mark.

The problem? If gain reduction is constantly happening, then you’re not really altering the signal. It’s as if you simply turned the signal down. Compression should be constantly changing. It should be turning down the loud parts and turning up the quiet parts.

If it’s CONSTANTLY turning everything down, you’re probably making a minimal change in dynamics…and it probably has a very unnatural, “squashed” sound.

Do you get what I’m saying?

Let’s say I’m compressing a bass guitar track. If that compressor is constantly knocking off 10 dB (whenever the bass player is playing anything), I’m probably compressing too much. However, if the gain reduction meter hits -10 dB a couple times per bar, but ALSO drops back to zero several times per bar, THEN I’m actually using compression the way it was intended to be used. I’m compressing the LOUD parts, not ALL the parts.

What do YOU think?

There are a million ways to use compression, do you over-do it sometimes? Leave a comment below.

By the way, if you want some more training on compression, check out my Understanding Compression videos.

[Photo Credit]

  • The Heat Avinash

    “if the gain reduction meter hits -10 dB a couple times per bar, but ALSO drops back to zero several times per bar, THEN I’m actually using compression the way it was intended to be used” — Thank you for this line .. Respect

  • christian wallace

    Am learning how to use compression correctly.Ive been abusing it.lol

    • I think everybody does at first. You’re making progress!

  • That’s certainly a valid way of compressing. Like I said, there really aren’t any rules…just giving some things to think about the next time you reach for a compressor.

  • Definitely agree with this article, but the first few lines about how it differs song to song is very true. Sometimes getting the harsh distortion from smashing something is really cool. 🙂

  • Ebaysellerjr

    joe, this completely redefined the way i compressed. 😀 i was NEVER sure how to get punchy sounds so i just set the threshold too low and hoped for the best… you’re right it just turned the signal down. thanks!

  • Hi Joe,

    Nice post – and, since you’re quoting me, I couldn’t possibly disagree with you, right ?

    …wrong 🙂

    Well, I’m not really disagreeing, I just like playing Devil’s Advocate 🙂 Anyway, my reply got way too long for a comment, so I turned it into another post !

    Here it is – ‘When over-compression sounds great”:

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/over-compression

    Cheers !

    Ian

    • You, sir, are the master at turning blog comments into blog posts. 🙂 Reading now…and I fully expect to fully disagree with you. 😉

  • lingyai

    I had to smile when I saw this article.

    I’ve recorded a pretty simple folkie-acustic song with just a guitar, lead vocal and quiet occasional backing harmonies. I drew my volume fader envelopes in some detail and used only very light track compression.

    All the while I was running it through a master bus compressor, again used very lightly (1.5:1 or 2:1). 

    But … despite trying various compression plugins which beg to be used (hey! they look so cool… they cost so much… they have presets named things like “vintage warmth”, “mellow analog” etc — who could say no that, huh?) it was just sounding so… pushed into your face.

    I’m not a complete newbie, I understand the basic controls and wander far from presets, but despite trying all kinds of settings, I just wasn’t happy.

    Then today I just turned the master compressor completely off, burned a mixdown, pressed play, turned off my PC screen (one of the best listening tips I know of, by the way) and listened. 

    I like it much much better!   This is quite a revelation for a gearjunkie. I won’t say this will work all the time, but I guess should be kept in mind as an option. Just because you have all the toys you’ll ever need doesn’t mean you have to use them!

    • So true! Using a compressor by default can sometimes hurt you more than it helps. Nice job kicking it to the curb and doing what was best for the tune.

  • Anonymous

    “The problem? If gain reduction is constantly happening, then you’re not really altering the signal. It’s as if you simply turned the signal down. Compression should be constantly changing. It should be turning down the loud parts and turning up the quiet parts.”

    I think there’s a difference between simply “turning down” a track and having the track in constant compression. If you pull the fader down on a track, EVERYTHING comes down equally (the loud stuff, the soft stuff, noise floor etc.), therefore dynamic range is unaffected.
    The difference when a track is in constant compression is that, obviously, the loud stuff is turned down more than the soft, so dynamic range IS affected (noise floor comes up, thus creating the effect of “turning up the soft stuff”). This is not the same “as if you simply turned the signal down”, and the compression IS “constantly changing” relative to the level of the input signal.

    So I think this line is slightly untrue:

    “If it’s CONSTANTLY turning everything down, you’re probably making a minimal change in dynamics…”

    I often compress a track with a ratio of around 1:1.5 and a low threshold where the signal is always being compressed. I certainly wouldn’t call this “over-compressing” and it doesn’t sound “unnatural” or “squashed” – it’s a rather transparent method of compressing (I learnt this from you, Joe!) But what I’m saying is, just because the GR meter doesn’t hit 0 all the time, doesn’t mean I’m compressing too hard – I may be constantly knocking off 3-5dB without it hitting 0.

    If I’m not mistaken, I think Ian’s quote you mentioned was mainly referring to bus or mix compression, and I totally agree. But bus compression is an entirely different thing 🙂

    • You’re right. There’s nothing necessarily WRONG with that. I just think the idea of not having the compressor going at ALL times will lead to a more natural, clean-sounding compression.

  • i agree with this post wholeheartedly, and I over-compressed for a long time and admittedly still do.  What amazes me, is that some of the presets (which I don’t use very often) on different DAWs pretty much set you up to over-compress right off the bat.  It’s interesting because someone who is new to mixing/engineering might be immediately indoctrinated into the loudness wars if they use said presets as one of their only sources for knowledge and “how to”.

    Just a thought

    • BRad

      I find presets should be a starting point regarding ratio, attack and release. The input (threshold) and output (makeup) settings should be ignored and adjusted to suit the material and levels.

      • Exactly.

      • Well yes, because threshold and makeup are dependent upon the signal thats being compressed.

  • Frank Adrian

    I used to use a lot of compression. I probably did a lot of overcompression that I couldn’t hear at the time. Now, having had more listening experience, I can hear when an instrument (or track) sounds overly squashed and I really try not to do that. Also, if I’m not trying to ride gain automatically, but only trying to add a bit of oomph, I use parallel compression instead of just squashing the signal – it sounds better.

    On the other hand, I should probably be careful not to carry this tendency towards less compression too far, or in a few years I’ll only be able to record and mix jazz and classical :-).

    • Having a goal of NOT using compression unless you absolutely have to…can be a great way to learn how to make the tracks sound great without relying on compression.