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In this first installment of the Foundations of Audio series, author Brian Lee White shows how to improve the sound of a mix with compressors, limiters, gates, de-essers, and other dynamic processors. The course explains the fundamentals of sound waves, and amplitude, explores common compressor controls, and shows how to eliminate unwanted noise using gates and expanders. The course also demonstrates best practices in compression and limiting in a variety of audio applications and covers sculpting the attack and decay of individual notes with transient shapers and applying frequency specific dynamics control with multiband compressors. Exercise files accompany the course and include special Get in the Mix session files.
I hope you've seen and heard how powerful dynamics processors can be when used effectively. They have the ability to make tracks come alive, providing power and strength. But the same tools that can make a track stand out can also destroy it. Too much compression can take the life out of otherwise lively, brilliant tracks, making them sound weak and dull. Here are a couple overall concepts to keep in mind when deciding how much is too much compression. Just as a compressor can exaggerate a signal's transient response, making it sharper or snappier, it can just as easily take this away.
Remember, loud is only relative to quiet and hard is only relative to soft. If you push too hard, you can actually flatten out a track's transient response, making it sound flat and lacking punch. Dynamic differences are what make sound and music move us. They're what make the speaker cones move and our chest thump to the beat of a loud woofer. You want to control your dynamics, not obliterate them. Remember, when increasing a signal's average loudness and reducing its dynamic range, you're making a sacrifice between total perceived loudness and punchiness.
When you use a brickwall limiter to maximize the level of your mix, be careful not to squash all the impact out of your drums just to pick up some extra average level. A compressor pushed to the extreme will in effect flatten out a track's frequency response, especially in the low and high end. This is why it is common to add EQ to a signal post-compression. But there's a fine line between post- compression EQ touchup and totally needing to rebalance your signal's tonal curve due to overcompression. Every compressor sounds different.
Don't be surprised if the exact same parameters on one compressor don't work on another, and don't be surprised when one setting that works on your guitar track today doesn't work on the next guitar track you record. Always approach each situation with a fresh mindset, willing to experiment and try different things. Presets are great starting points, but use your ears. If it sounds bad, tweak it. If it still sounds bad, take the compressor off. The most transparent form of compression is often a track's volume control and your DAW's automation.
Don't be afraid to use the waveform's amplitude display and draw in your own dynamic control. Understand compression's aesthetic use versus its utility use and use that to your advantage. Extreme compression can be amazing when used in the right context, but sound amateur when not. It's not uncommon to use too much compression when you're first starting out, simply because your ears are not used to hearing small changes in dynamic range. This is normal. Embrace the learning experience and listen, listen, listen.
Check your work against your favorite mixes and seek constructive criticism from peers and mentors. My best advice is to experiment, a lot, and find what works best for you in your style of music. By listening and experimenting with your own tracks, you'll be better able to sonically identify what the norms are in your favorite genre.
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