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: