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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What is EQ?

EQ PulginEQ stands for “Equalizer.” In it’s simplest form, you can think of EQ as a fancy tone control.

You’re probably familiar with the typical bass, midrange and treble controls found on guitar amps, bass amps and some mixers. EQ is just like that, only more so.

If you have bass, midrange and treble knobs, that’s a “three-band”, or three channel EQ system. Each knob controls a different part part of the sound. That’s all well and good for some things (like guitar amps) but for recording it’s not all that useful.

We don’t want 3 bands, we want 20 or 30, or at least 10, so that we one can target a much narrower portion of the tone spectrum.

Why is this useful?

There are several reasons, but the most obvious is that it can help make the recording sound better. Let’s say you have a boomy kick drum and a deep bass guitar playing on a tune. They both have a lot of information in the low end of the sound spectrum and things can start to sound muddy or mushy. With EQ, you can lower the volume of, or attenuate, certain frequencies in the boomy kick drum so it doesn’t “compete” with the bass (or vice versa). It’s kinda weird in that the kick drum might sound less full by itself, but it will sit better in the mix and the overall sound of the song will be clearer, less muddy and more distinct..

EQAnother common example of tone shaping is applied on rhythm guitar parts. Lot’s of guitarists come in with a really full, thick tone and it sounds fantastic BY ITSELF. But when you add in the drums, bass, keyboards & so-on, again, the thing starts to sound like a muddy mosh pit.

What to do?

You cut or “roll off” the low end of the guitar using a high-pass filter to make sonic space for the other instruments. The result is that the guitar will sound a little “thin” by itself but will sound great in the overall mix.

I’ll be diving into which frequencies affect which parts of the sound and what emotional effect or impact different frequencies can have on the listener. (We’re in this to have an impact, right?) For now, just think of EQ as an essential tool that will soon become one of your best friends in the home studio.


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Editing For Newbies
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QtractorSo, you’ve finished recording all your tracks. The guitar sounds pretty good and the bass player really nailed it. The vocal sound is good and everything is pretty much the way you want it. Now you’re ready to start mixing, right?

Er, well… No.

There’s an intermediate step between recording and mixing that makes a huge difference in how the final song will sound. That step is (wait for it)…

Editing

Editing is done in two basic steps. Well, actually there are more, but two is a good start. First you’ll want to listen carefully to each track, one track at a time, and fix stuff before you even start mixing. Stuff like pops or clicks that happened during the recording; noise or talking at the beginning or end of a take; the squeak in your chair that found it’s way into the vocal microphone.  All the stuff that doesn’t really belong there. Do this for each track, one track at a time.

Tweaking

The second part of editing is to make subtle tweaks to individual notes or beats to put things “in the pocket.” Maybe the drummer was doing a great job but rushed a couple kick or snare hits. Or maybe the bass player missed the downbeat in a couple spots. With digital audio, it’s easy to nudge them just a little so they sit right where you want them.  This is what I call “pocketing the groove.” It can be time-consuming and some of the tweaks are very subtle, but the end result is that the whole thing just “feels” better and tighter.

But Isn’t that “Cheating”?

Well, it is and it isn’t. Playing live is one thing. Recording is another. In the studio you have many more tools at your disposal to improve the overall sound of the song and there’s no reason not to use them.

Pocketing the groove can make an average tune feel a lot better and will make the job of mixing a lot easier too.While the purist may object, I think it only makes sense to do everything you can to make the song sound it’s absolute best.

There are some other things you can do in the editing process too, before you start mixing. Personally I sometimes will use a pitch-correction plugin to tame any errant notes, especially on the vocals. This doesn’t have to be anything drastic like the “Cher” effect where every note is absolutely perfect. In the real world, when everything is perfect it just doesn’t sound, well, real. You want to bring things close to perfect but not overdo it. That goes for pocketing the groove too.

Drum Programs

We’ve all heard drum machines that sound kind of robotic and stale. That’s often because the notes have been moved to the exact beat position, or “quantized”, A real drummer has slight variations in timing and hits some notes slighty before or after the beat. Same thing for bass players and other musicians too. Humans aren’t perfect and for the music to sound “real” there needs to be some of this human feel left in the recording.

Editing In a Nutshell

So editing, in a nut shell, is just tweaking the tracks, removing unwanted sounds and pocketing the groove. Once all that’s done, you can start mixing and working with EQ, compression and processing. It sound tedious, and it can be, but it’s a crucial step that will help turn a decent recording into a good one, and a good recording into a great one.


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Gear and Talent

AKG C414This will be a pretty short post.

I don’t often get riled up. I’m generally a pretty level-headed guy, but this time I just gotta say what’s on my mind.

No amount of GEAR will help you, if you don’t first learn how to use it. Well, that’s not quite true, because how can you learn how to use something if you don’t have it yet, right?. Point taken.

Thing is, (and I get this all the time), some peeps seem to think that they can’t make a great home recording until they get certain pieces of (usually expensive) equipment.  Like, “If I have the right equipment, then I’ll be able to rock it!”  Somehow, the equipment will make their recordings sound good.

I hate to break it to ya, but it’s ain’t true. Here’s the deal:…

Gear Will Not Save You!

Let’s say you’re on a budget (like DUH!) and you only have a limited amount of gear.  The absolute BEST thing you can do is learn how to use what you have. I don’t mean just  knowing what the knobs & buttons do.  I mean really using them and listening carefully to what they do.

For Now, Use What You Have

DON’T bust out the credit card to buy more stuff, dude.  That probably won’t help you as much as taking a bit more time with what you already have, and using it to make your recordings the best they can be.

I can’t say this enough. don’t buy more gear until you know, without a doubt, how to use what you have. A laptop, free software and a $25 mic can sound awesome if you do it right. If you do have more equipment, that’s awesome!  Use THAT too. The point here is just this:

Use what you have and learn what it can and cannot do. When you find something you really need, and your gear can’t do it, THEN (and only then) start looking at buying some more stuff.

Mm kay?


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Pre-Production in the Home Studio

Tangled CablesSometimes it’s all too easy to get excited about doing a recording session, whether it’s in a full-on pro studio or in your bedroom home studio. I’ve done both many times over the years, on my own music projects and as a session guitarist and bassist for other artists.

The gear is ready, all the little lights are on, you’re tuned up and ready to rock!  And then, after a few hours of recording, you realize that you screwed up…

Pre-Production!

The arrangement is wonky, or maybe the snare drum sound isn’t right, or maybe (gack!) you need to rewrite part of the song that isn’t working.

Pre-production is the first step, the planning stage, where you review the big picture. Figure out the right keyboard voicings, the synth patches you want to use,  the dynamics, the arrangement and guitar sound. And, for gawd’s sake, get the lyrics down.

Before you fire up the recording gear and spend all afternoon (or all night) working on recording a song, it’s really important to map out a plan for what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to do it.

I like to start by playing the tune start to finish with just a guitar or keyboard and the lead vocal all the way through and record a scratch take to see how it feels. Often I’ll find that some of the transitions aren’t quite right. so I’ll go back and fix those. Or sometimes I’ll notice that the tune doesn’t build to a climax at the right time, or that the dynamics are kinda lame.

Pre-production covers all those things BEFORE you hit the record button for real. It’s especially important if you’re recording a whole band.

guitars and drumsMost of the stuff I do in my home studio is done one track at a time. My recent Christmas album Midwinter Moon was done that way. I’ll start with a click track and
lay down a scratch guitar and then a scratch vocal. Once that’s in the can, I’ll listen to see if the overall feel, the tempo and arrangement fit with the sound I’m going after.  If it does, then I’ll start adding the other instruments.

Thing is, it can be hard to know what you’ll need on a given track before you get into the thick of it. that’s where pre-production can really be a time-saver.

Spend some time on your own, away from the studio, figuring out the little details that you want to include and the overall vibe of what you’re trying to accomplish. I can’t even tell you how many times a session was saved because I’d taken some notes ahead of time about different parts of the song and what we needed to do to make the tune work.

Pre-production is where you flesh out all the little details of a song and make a written plan for what each part of the song needs and how you’ll get from here to there. (Could just be some notes on a cocktail napkin if that’s your style).

As a recording engineer, I’m pretty detail-oriented and focused on stuff like mic placement, eq settings, levels & the like, and things like song arrangement, lyrics and dynamics come from a different part of the brain.

But if I put on my songwriter’s cap and think about the emotional impact I want the song to have, then I generally look at it from a bigger perspective, less about the nitty gritty and more about the overall “feel” and emotion of the song.

Generally speaking, pre-production is where you map out the big picture, figure out the details of the song, and get a feel for how you’re going to make it happen. It’s looking at the grand scale, knowing that the nuts & bolts of recording will come later, when you hit the “record” button.

Spend some time figuring out all that stuff before you go into the studio and I promise your session will much more productive!

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