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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.
Now that we know we can use limiters inside our mix to tame transients and plosives, let's take a look at an example where taming those nasty things actually helps other dynamics processors in our mix work better. In this example, you can clearly see that the signal's waveform has a few spots that really stand out from the rest. This signal is in need of compression to even out the performance and sit it firmly in the mix, but all those hot spots may cause the compressor to work too hard, since I would need to pull the threshold down so far under where the transients are sitting to grab the meat of the signal that I really want to compress.
What I like to do in these situations is insert a limiter before the compressor to create a layered-compression signal flow. The limiter will be set with a higher threshold to catch and tame the hot spots, while the compressor will work more on the true average level of the signal. Listen as I play and adjust the L1 limiter to tame just the peaks of the vocal track. Watch the gain reduction labeled Atten as it grabs the hot spots. Again, I'm linking the threshold and output so I get no makeup gain; I'll add that later with the compressor.
(music playing) And I'm just going to find a sweet spot that just grabs those, right around -6. (music playing) Now I allowed my compressor to work on the average or body of the signal.
I've already set the compressor up with a good starting point for this vocal. Notice that with the limiter engaged, the compressor's gain reduction is working more uniformly on each word. (music playing) Again, the limiter brings the transients down and the compressor works more evenly over the entire piece, not compressing so hard on the peaks spots that the limiter has been able to grab already.
This helps the whole compression signal flow some more transparent and natural, as no one processor is doing all the work. This trick is especially cool when you want to bring out the tonal character of one compressor, say as slower tube compressor, but need more extreme dynamics control. Using a faster compressor or limiter to grab the stuff that is really moving around allows you to focus the tube compressor more on the average level of the track. Most compressors have a point where they begin to work too hard and they start sounding iffy. Layering your compression and limiting in small amounts can really help overcome these obstacles.
I've even seen mastering engineers discreetly layering four to five compressors, each with tiny amounts of gain reduction, in very small ratios to create a loud master without pushing any compressor limiter in the signal flow too much. So the next time you're doing a mix try this layering trick on any instrument of vocal that has a lot of transient material that's confusing the compressor, like guitar chicks or pick scrapes, vocal Ps or Ts, or anything that sticks out too far that might cause the compressor to work too hard.
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