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One of the most common questions I get asked in any mixing course I teach is, should I record with compression? And my usual answer to that is, if you're asking me that question, the answer is no, you shouldn't. Why not? Well, if you mess up this signal with a botched compression setting, like if you overcompress the signal or unwittingly add unwanted distortion while compressing, that bad compression sound will be recorded and it's really hard, if not impossible, to undo. Instead, record the signal with no compression and add compression later in the mixing process.
Just to be clear, by recording with compression, I mean using a hardware or software compressor before your signal is recorded to hard drive or tape. This is not the same as inserting a real-time plug-in on the track you are recording to. If a compressor plug-in is inserted on the actual audio track you're according to, the compression is added after the signal has been recorded, allowing you to affect the track in a nondestructive way, and you could freely change the compression setting after recording. This technique gives you the most control over your sounds.
That said, many well-regarded engineers do actually record with compression. Why? Generally, there are three major reasons to record with compression. First, sometimes you just know how you want something to sound and you go for it. For example, say you've worked with a particular vocalist before and you know that she performs very dynamically when recording. Adding some light compression with a particular compressor while recording helps to control the dynamic range of her performance and makes less volume adjustment necessary when mixing.
The second reason stems from the practice of maximizing the input signal strength. In the days of analog recording, many engineers compressed signals while recording to improve the signal-to- noise ratio going to tape, because if you compress the signal after it had gone to tape, you would risk bringing up the noise floor and tape hiss. However, with 24-bit digital recording systems and modern analog-to-digital converters, their minimal input noise and wide dynamic range provides such a high signal-to-noise ratio that I personally find no need for compression in that scenario.
The third reason to use compression while recording is to change the input sound. If I have access to a great compressor and want to run my signal through it to warm it up a bit, I might take the opportunity. Well, what I'm looking for in that scenario is not really compression per se. It's tonal shaping, adding colorization, character, or depth to the signal before it hits the hard drive. While I certainly don't use compression on every track I record, it certainly can be useful. What I would suggest is if you want to experiment with compression while recording, start with very small amounts until you really understand the sound of your gear and get a feel for how everything plays out in the final mix.
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