What is Compression?

In a nutshell, a compressor reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal by squishing, turning down the volume, or compressing the loud parts.

Do you want your recordings to sound louder, like the pro’s? Compression is how you do it.

Pretty much any recording you hear uses some kind of compression during the recording, mixing and/or mastering process. Compression is one of those “go-to” tools that you’ll need to get comfy with if you want your recordings to sound great.

Here’s an Example

Let’s say you’re recording a snare drum and every now & then the drummer hits the snare a lot harder than other times. Or maybe you’re recording guitar and everything’s cool except for a few too-damn-loud notes.  Dynamics are cool, for sure, but sometimes it’s just too loud, or too quiet, relative to the rest of the track.  That’s where compression comes in.

Compression is sort of like an automatic volume control

A compressor makes the loud parts quieter and (sometimes) the quiet parts louder. Only, instead of having to manually tweak the knobs or faders, the compressor does it automatically.

Why is that useful?  Well, there’s all kinds of cool, geeky stuff to learn about compression but, for now, suffice to say that it will make your life easier and the recording sound better.

Compressors work on the dynamic range, or loudness, of a signal. There are tons of different models, including hardware compressors and, more often now, software plugins that run inside your recording software.  The features between different brands differ somewhat but most all of the decent models have 5 basic parameters:

Threshold

This is the level or volume where the compressor starts working. Stuff that’s quieter doesn’t get affected. Stuff that’s louder gets compressed.

Compression Ratio

This is a measure of how much a given signal is compressed once the threshold is crossed. The higher the Ratio, the more pronounced the compression effect becomes.

Attack

How fast the compressor kicks in once the threshold is reached.

Release

How fast the compressor lets go once the sound drops back down below the threshold

Gain

Also sometimes called “make-up gain.” This is just a little amplifier that brings the overall compressed signal back up to where you want it to be. Since a compressor makes the loud notes quieter,  sometimes (usually) you’ll want to use the gain control to bring the whole track up to where it was before, only now you’ve reduced the dynamic range and tamed those pesky transients and wayward snare drum hits.

Just so you know, there’s actually quite a lot more that compression can do for your recordings. There’s stuff like multi-band compression, compressor/expanders and loads of tricks and techniques on how to use the controls to achieve a particular type of sound.  I have a nifty eCourse on compression, but basically, if you think of it as an automatic volume control, you’re well on your way.

One more thing: If you’ve done any recording at all, you’ve probably noticed that your stuff isn’t nearly as loud as professional, commercially-released recordings. There are a number of reasons for this, but judicious use of Compression, is the biggest one.

More about Compression.


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