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Parallel compression is the process of combining an uncompressed version of a signal with a compressed version and blending to taste. This best of both worlds approach preserves the dynamics, openness, character, and frequency response of the unprocessed signal, while solving the issue of an overly dynamic track getting lost in the mix. When a compressed waveform is combined with an uncompressed waveform, the result is purely additive. The peaks of the uncompressed wave form are preserved, while the body of the signal is raised.
Let's take a listen to these un-compressed drums. Now listen to the un-compressed drums inside a dense section of the mix. Notice how they have a little bit of trouble punching through the mix. The problem here is that the drums get lost in the denser parts of the mix, the chorus in this example. Well more stuff is going on. Simply turning them up will push up the transients and eat up head room. Compressing them will bring them out more, but will also eat up the transients, causing them to loose a lot of their punch and impact. This is a scenario where parallel compression is extremely useful.
By applying compression to a duplicate track or duplicate sub-mix of the material. I can over-compress the duplicate, and bring up its volume to fill out the original, un-compressed track. I'll start by adding a duplicate track, and apply aggressive compression to this track. Take a listen to the compressed drums on their own. Now listen as I bring in the parallel compressed drums underneath the un-compressed drums with the mix. Once it's in, I'll mute it out for a measure so you can really hear how much it's supporting the drum sound in the mix. Notice how the sustain of the track becomes a bit inflated, allowing it to cut through the dense sections of the mix better.
This trick works on almost any kind of material where you want the benefits of compression without a lot of the artifacts. Try it on vocals, guitars, drums, or even entire mixes. Try automating the level of the compressed track, up and down throughout a mix. For example, turn up the volume on the compressed track to really drive the drums hard into the last chorus of the song. Whenever you're creating parallel processing chains like this, you want to be extra sure your DAWs, automatic delay compensation is enabled and functioning, because separate plugin chains may create mismatched latencies in the parallel tracks.
Even a sample of difference will result in very nasty comb filtering as the two recombine. Most DAWs delay compensation is always on, while in Pro Tools you need to explicitly enable it in your session under the playback engine. Many compressor and limiter plugins, and even some hardware processors feature wet/dry mix knobs, that allow you to achieve parallel compression in line. Without breaking the signal off into another chain. This avoids any potential problems due to latency, and makes the setup ridiculously easy.
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