Got this email from John, one of my VIP members recently:

I have a question about your Understanding Compression video.ย All of the tutorials make sense except one section…

In the Real World Examples video, you use a Waves Renaissance Compressor, and it looks like the compression is kicking in WAY BEFORE the threshold his being crossed.

My understanding is that the compressor kicks in after it reaches threshold.

John’s not asking a bad question at all, but in my opinion he’s asking the wrong question. He’s focusing on a seemingly important detail, when in reality it’s not all that important (and can lead to lots of unnecessary distraction).

Here was my response back:

Hey John,

I understand your confusion, and here’s my response:

When I set up a compressor, I really don’t care where the threshold is. I just move the threshold and ratio until I get the AMOUNT of compression I want. So, it really doesn’t bother me either way if it appears that the signal is being compressed below the threshold. That information really won’t help me get a better mix. What matters to me is how much compression is happening, and if I have all the settings right (ratio, threshold, attack, release, etc.)

I think this would fall under the “doesn’t really matter from a practical standpoint” category for me.

It’s a valid question, but I’ve learned that trying to answer these really technical questions almost never make my mixers sound better. ๐Ÿ™‚

Hope that helps!


Please understand, I’m not trying to be rude. I’m trying to make sure John doesn’t get so caught up in the technical details that he misses the bigger picture.

It’s easy to be distracted by things like that. Things like:

  • Wasting your time researching the exact frequency response of your microphone (instead of spending time recording with it and finding out what it sounds like)
  • Spending a lot of time learning exactly what each button on a plugin does (rather than using it on a mix and learning as you go)
  • Browsing forums for hours, looking for the “best way” to mic a particular instrument (when what you should be doing isย trying things and seeing what sounds best to you)
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
Always ask questions…but make sure you’re asking the right questions, and that you’re not simply hiding behind questions because you’re too scared to get your hands dirty and try something.
I’m not saying that’s what John is doing, but I can tell you that I have done that before…and it’s never helped me get better recordings. ๐Ÿ˜‰
If you want to be cool, like John, grab your copy of Understanding Compression here:

6 Responses to “You’re Asking the Wrong Question”

  1. Andrew Bauserman

    Joe –

    I got an ‘A’ rather easily in high school Chemistry. Some of my classmates who were as intelligent as I struggled to do the same. Is this related to your post, or am I just a braggart?

    My teacher knew a lot about Chemistry. Whenever a student asked the incessant “Why?” question, he would stop what he was teaching and answer the student’s question.

    Of course, there was nothing in his explanation we would need to know for the test โ€“ in fact, it was often beyond our level of comprehension. Having figured this out early in the year, I would put down my pencil, stop taking notes, and nod my head as I absorbed the gist of what he was saying. (In fact, what he explained was somewhat interesting โ€“ when looked at from a high-level view.)

    Others in my class would furiously take notes, trying (simultaneously and unsuccessfully) to follow how each new piece of information fit together. When it came time to study for the test, their notes were full of information that was neither in the book nor on the test.

    So I’ve tried to learn a lesson from this myself as a teacher, audio/tech guy and web programmer: Sometimes it’s not the question that was asked that needs to be answered.

    As a unashamed geek I need to be reminded of this often. Acquaintances may think I’m a quiet man of few words. But get me started on gain staging or the importance of an established framework in developing web applications (my day job) and you’ll have a hard time shutting me up.

    Thanks for the reminder to answer the most important question first. I’m sure that myself and others will follow behind with the answer to the less-important (literal/technical) “Why?” question to satisfy the demands of our fellow left-brainers โ€“ because sometimes we just can’t help it ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Joe Gilder

      Great points, Andrew.

      It’s kinda like when I worked in sales at Sweetwater. A customer would call up asking for one thing, when what they REALLY needed was something completely different. If I answered all the customers questions without directing them to what they SHOULD be asking (to get where they want to go), I would not have been helping them very well.

  2. Xan Angelfvkk

    Or it was simply quick peaks that were over the threshold that were triggering the compressor. Renaissance Compressor is pretty cool. I use it a lot. RChannel is good too..especially handy if you want to do a few things without stacking up the plug-ins.

  3. mandalaeyes

    I understand your approach to these kinds of questions and I agree that it’s more important to understand the musical aspect of gear rather than the technical. Like you said, the frequency response curve of your mic (for instance) won’t matter if you don’t take the time to listen and figure out where you can put it to get the sound you’re looking for. But honestly, I think it’s pretty lame that you completely refused to answer John’s question. Again, I know you’re not trying to be rude or anything… but it sounds like the compressor you were using in the video has a soft knee setting. These types of compressors/settings usually cause compression to start before the actual threshold is reached. Why couldn’t you say those two sentences to John so that he has a deeper technical understanding of compression, and THEN explain that that’s not what is truly important? A lot of the time it can be really frustrating to not understand the technical basics of your gear. After all, you need to know how it works to a certain degree in order to tweak it to get the sound you’re looking for. You can’t just twist random knobs and hope you stumble upon the sound you want. So why the anti-technical approach here? I don’t think explaining what a soft knee does qualifies as getting mired in technical details–certainly not comparable to analyzing the frequency response curve of a mic! It’s a basic function of many compressors! *end ramble*

    • Joe Gilder

      Valid points. Knee control is a great feature, but this particular compressor doesn’t have a knee control. So for this particular compressor, I encouraged him to focus on how much compression and where the threshold was set. Knee can be neat, but it doesn’t really change how I operate a compressor.
      I have no qualms with my answer. It’s my honest opinion. And it’s the way I’d answer this question a million times over. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • dan

      Not trying to speak for Joe here, but i dont think it is an anti techincal approach. I think it’s more like “less gear/technical stuff, more recording and just finding out what works. or at least that it the way i take posts like these.


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