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Trust me, effective use of dynamics processors is really going to take your mixes to the next level. While it may take a bit of practice and you might not hear the subtleties at first, stick with it, because if there really is a big secret of mixing, it's hidden in the dynamics. Here are some of my favorite tips, tricks and considerations when working with compressors, limiters, gates and other dynamics processors. So, first off, every compressor sounds a little bit different and reacts to the signal differently. Even with the exact same Attack and Release ratio and threshold settings, two different compressors will likely sound very different.
So, we have heard the BF76, the 1176 emulation as well as the DigiRack Dyn 3 and there are tons of third- party compressors out there. Each one is going to sound different. Sometimes the differences are subtle, sometimes they are not. Why? Generally, this is by design. So a compressor's detection circuit and its amplification or gain make up stage is going to be different. It's going to be based on different technology. Some are based on solid state technology, some are based on tube technology and when we are talking about plug-ins, some model tube compressors while others model solid state compressors.
Some use different detection circuits, Opto compressors versus Electro compressors. What this is going to do, it's going to cause the way they measure a signal and then attack and release or hold on to this signal differently. Some compressors are more hard knee, some compressors are more soft knee and where they are called over easy. Some allow you to adjust the knee and there are going to be different situations of when you want to use this. For example, you might want to use hard knee compression when you are looking to get that snap out of a drum sound, but more soft knee compression characteristics when you are going for compressing vocals or an acoustic guitar or evening out notes on a bass.
It's really something that you need to listen to, when you are evaluating what compressor to use kind of listen to what character it adds to the sound and just understand how all these different features kind come together. Some are going to be more obvious in being able hear the characteristics versus others. Some compressors, especially compressors in the computer, tend to have these really cool features like program dependent release or what we called auto release and these actually can sort of adapt to the signal and give you the perfect release time or what the compressor thinks is the perfect release time.
And these can be really useful for stuff where you just kind of want to have natural sounding compression or you don't want to hear the compression at all. Whereas if you're trying to really squash out a snare drum, you really want that manual control of the Release. Some compressors do peak detection versus RMS or average-level detection and this means you are not going to just be able to swap out Thresholds and Attack and Release settings. You are actually going to have to do some listening. Another thing that I consider when I'm mixing is that the denser the mix, the more elements, the faster the tempo, the more compression I'm going to need, as the dynamics of all the elements can't vary too much.
So, if I have a mix that only has a few elements, maybe it's just a guitar and a vocal. Then I might not use as much compression. When I have a really big pop song, I'm using quite a bit of compression, but I'm using compression on most elements even if it's just a little bit and I'm really trying not to over compress things because that can actually take a way from some of the natural dynamics and the performance. But what I want to make sure is that I can hear everything in the mix and that everything is sitting nicely and just sounds tight and punchy and big, not so karaoke like notes popping out all over the place or dying under the mix, unless that's exactly what I'm going for, and that's an aesthetic choice.
Like I said, the Attack and the Release settings again are really the key to getting the sounds you want. It's the difference between getting that snare to really cut through a mix and totally missing the sound of the snare by sending your Attack to slow. So, you know, again, faster attacks are going to dull the sound out and control it more quickly whereas slower attacks are going to allow through more of the transient. Again, it depends on the sound that you are processing as to how much attack you can allow through.
The Release control, how fast does a compressor recover after the signal falls below the threshold. Really fast release times can cause the compressor to pump or breathe. So, when a vocal is being heavily compressed, it's bringing up the breaths at the tail end of phrases. So, you are really hearing that and that can be awesome, but it can also be really awkward depending on the context of the music. So, it kind of remembers your mix plan and your overall goals for a sound. So, a lot of people ask me, should I EQ before or after compression? So, in this mix, you see there is some EQ after the compression, sometimes it's before the compressor and really there is no hard and fast rule as to whether you should put your EQ before or after compression.
But there are some general considerations that you want to pay attention to. For example, if you are not doing too much compression, and just kind of light compression, you can get away with putting it before or after. And in fact, if it's something where you are removing a significant amount of the frequency content, like you are removing tons of low end, you are putting a telephone effect on something, it's probably a good idea to get rid of all that before you put it into the compressor. Why feed something into the compressor's threshold that you are going to cut out anyways? On the flip side of that though, when you are doing heavy compression, it tends to flatten out the frequency response.
So, if you think about taking sort of that unique frequency response of a signal and flattening it out like a pancake, you can really lose a lot of your low end and your high end, when you really squeeze something hard. So, what I'll do is I would like to put the EQ after. In that way, I can make up any of that high frequency or a low frequency loss and you can kind of play around with this. But it tends to matter more when you are doing extreme compression. When I'm first starting a mix during the balancing stage, where I'm just leveling things, it can be really nice to just add some quick compression in, just to help things sit better in the mix and I might go and adjust these compressors later.
I might even totally switch them out. What I like to do is just kind of have the default set up. Remember, we talked about the presets and setting the user default or picking my compressor, the one that's easiest to use, doesn't have a lot of controls on it and I might set up a nice preset that I can throw on and just give the track a little extra dynamics help, so that I can put it in its place in the mix and kind of get my levels kind of set right. A lot of engineers like to do their EQ after compression, not to say before or after as an insert, but they like to add the compression first and tune that in and then adjust their EQ afterwards in the context of the compression because it changes the sound so radically sometimes.
So again, the difference between compression and limiting that's going to come up in the mastering stage again is that a limiter is just a compressor with a really aggressive ratio. And so limiting is often used to really aggressively tame transients and wild plosives and things like that and it's actually really useful to use fast limiters after your compressors, especially if you got something, let's say, like an acoustic guitar that's got a lot of pick chops.
That pick chop kind of makes its way through the attack of the compressor and kind of bites you in the air in the mix. So you can use a limiter. Put a limiter after your compressor, put something like a maxim, which is a brickwall limiter, and I can go in and just tie the output in the attenuation together and just pull that down and just clip off those little plosives that are making their way through their way through the compressor. So, it's great for really fast and transparent level control. Sometimes I'll use limiters really lightly just to kind of give myself a transparent level control.
So, if something is sitting well but kind of gets a little karaoke once in a while, I'll throw a limiter on it, just to keep those things from kind of like popping out. We'll talk about limiting a little bit more in the context of mastering in the mastering chapter. You'll see that in my mix here, on a lot of my buses, I'm actually processing the bus with compression. So, if I look at my background vocals, I'm actually compressing all the background vocals with the same compressor and doing bus compression on groups of tracks can really help them gel together.
So, kind of play with independent compression as well as bus compression, this is really cool on the drums. I'm going to show you an example a little later with parallel compression on the drum tracks really get them to sit in the mix full and fat. I will also talk about using compression on a mix bus on your overall mix to kind of tighten things up when we are mastering style effect. Now, a question I get asked a lot again is should I track a record with compression from the outside when recording in, and this is really up to you.
Now, if you know your sound and you know what you want, get it. If you are a confident engineer and you now that you want compression and you want this flavor of compression and you have a really nice outboard compressor, track with it. If you don't know, you might want to leave it off and just record at a lower level. You can make better choices later. Generally, if you are asking whether you should track with it on or off, you probably aren't so sure of how you want things to sound at the end of the day. So, you just kind of keep that in mind when you decide whether to permanently commit to processing.
Now, one of the last considerations that I'll take when looking at how I'm compressing things in my mix is what instruments tend to be overly dynamic and benefit most of the time with a bit of compression and what instruments is sort of less dynamic and don't really need compression. Generally, the instruments that need more compression are acoustic instruments like the voice, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, clean electric guitars and drums to add that punch.
Electric instruments like heavily distorted guitars are generally already being compressed by the saturation of the amplifier. And keyboards and virtual instruments tend to have their own sort of natural compression and for me, the velocity quantization or the instrument itself is doing some sort of effect or compression to that instrument. So, these are just some of the things I would like to think about when using dynamics processors and mixes and I'm sure you can find tons more tips and tricks on the Internet, and in books and magazines.
Just remember, understand what the processors do and why we use them in the context of mixing. That is the key to unlocking all of these tips. So, once you have the basics down and you can put things into context, the sky is really the limit.
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