As a music producer, you’re probably no stranger to dynamic range control and the role of audio compression techniques in shaping your sound. But do you know the ins and outs of all the different compression techniques?

From downward compression to upward compression, parallel compression to multiband compression, and beyond, there’s a whole world of audio dynamics to explore. This comprehensive guide is your one-stop resource for mastering these techniques and enhancing your audio production skills. Let’s dive in!

Introduction to Audio Compression

Audio compression is a fundamental aspect of music production and a powerful tool for dynamic range control. But what exactly is it, and why is it so crucial?

At its core, compression reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. It’s all about controlling the peaks and valleys in your audio, ensuring that the loudest and softest parts are not too drastically different. This process is vital for maintaining balance and consistency in your tracks.

Audio compression is indispensable in music production. It can ensure that each element in a track can be heard clearly and cohesively. Without compression, some parts of your track might appear too loud, while others appear too quiet. Compression can help create a more balanced and professional-sounding mix.

Dynamic Range and Compression

The dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of an audio signal. A wide dynamic range can sometimes lead to issues, especially when it comes to the final stages of mixing and mastering. To put it simply, think of audio compression as a way of controlling the dynamics to create a more balanced and pleasing sound.

In the following sections, we’ll delve deeper into the various types of audio compression techniques and how to use them effectively in your music production process.

Comparison between a compressed and uncompressed audio signal, highlighting the changes in dynamic range, demonstrating audio compression techniques.

Types of Audio Compression Techniques

When it comes to audio compression techniques, there are a few different main types of compression. Each technique has its unique characteristics and applications, making it suitable for different aspects of music production.

Downward Compression

Downward compression is the most common form of compression. It reduces the volume of loud sounds, pushing them down, which reduces the dynamic range. This technique is often used in music production to prevent clipping and distortion caused by overly loud signals, but also to reign in tracks with an overly high dynamic range.

Upward Compression

Upward compression is the opposite of downward compression. Instead of bringing the loudest sounds down, it increases the volume of quiet sounds without affecting louder ones. This technique is less common but can be useful in situations where you want to bring out subtle details in a mix.

Up/Down Compression

Up/Down compression leads to a more dramatic type of dynamic range control, drastically decreasing the dynamic range by both reducing the loud parts and increasing the quiet parts of a sound. This technique is famously used by the OTT ‘Over The Top’ compressor and is often used in EDM production.

Parallel Compression

Parallel compression is also often called New York compression. A heavily compressed version of the audio is mixed with an unprocessed ‘dry’, or lightly processed, version of the same audio. This can either be done by routing the audio to a different track, heavily compressing it, and mixing it in at a low volume, or with a ‘Mix’ knob on a compressor. Both versions have their place. This technique can add character to your mixes without sacrificing too much dynamic range. It is often used on drum tracks.

Side-chain Compression

Side-chain compression is a popular technique in electronic music. The output of one track controls the compression on another. For example, a kick drum can be sent to the sidechain input of a compressor on a bass sound, reducing the volume on the bass track every time the kick hits. This can create rhythmic ‘pumping’ effect that is typical for EDM music, which also creates space for the kick drum in a mix.

Multiband Compression

Multiband compression allows you to compress different frequency bands independently. This can be useful for managing complex mixes with a lot of frequency content. Or it can be used to only affect certain frequency bands of a mix. I often use it to bring up a bit of high-end on my bass sounds.

Mid-Side Compression

Mid-side compression is a more advanced and less common technique. It allows you to compress the middle and sides of the stereo field separately. This can be useful for making precise adjustments to the stereo image of a mix. For example, reducing the dynamic range for elements that are the same in both the left and right channels (mid), while keeping the elements that are different in each channel unaffected (side).

Limiting

Limiting is an extreme form of compression used to prevent clipping by setting an absolute ceiling on the output level. A limiter is basically a compressor with an infinite ratio. High compression ratios above 8:1 or 16:1 can already function as limiters. This is used most during mastering, to ensure the track doesn’t clip at all.

Each of these techniques has its place in the music production process. Understanding when and how to use them can significantly enhance your mixing and mastering skills.

Vintage compressor stock plugin in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), showcasing the settings displayed in a way that is typical to hardware compressors.

Basic Compression Parameters

Now that we’ve covered the different types of audio compression techniques, let’s quickly delve into the basic parameters you’ll encounter on most compressors. Understanding these controls is key to mastering the art of compression. For a deeper look into how these work check our article on how compressor plugins work.

ComponentDescription
ThresholdThe level where the compressor starts to work. Any signal that exceeds this level will be reduced in volume. Determines how much of your audio will be compressed.
RatioDetermines the amount of compression applied once the signal exceeds the threshold. A higher ratio means more compression. For instance, a 4:1 ratio means that for every 4 dB over the threshold, the output will only be 1 dB louder.
Attack and ReleaseControls the compressor’s response speed. The attack time is how fast the compressor starts after the threshold is exceeded, and the release time is how long it takes the compressor to stop after the signal falls below the threshold.
KneeDetermines how abruptly the compressor engages as the signal crosses the threshold. A “hard” knee means immediate compression at the threshold, while a “soft” knee results in a gradual increase in compression around the threshold.
Makeup GainUsed after compression to bring the level of the audio back up. This allows you to maintain a consistent output level, regardless of the amount of compression applied.

Mastering these basic compressor settings is the first step toward achieving a balanced and professional-sounding mix. Remember, the key to effective compression is subtlety. It’s not about squashing your audio, but rather about controlling its dynamics to create a more cohesive and impactful sound.

A typical compressor interface, with labels for the threshold, ratio, attack, release, knee, and makeup gain controls, illustrating audio compression parameters and audio dynamics.

Advanced Audio Compression Techniques

Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to explore some advanced audio compression techniques. These can add a new level of depth and complexity to your mixes, helping you to create more professional and polished productions.

Kick and Bass Ducking

Kick and Bass Ducking is what most people refer to when they say ‘sidechaining‘. It results in the typical pumping effect in electronic music, that lets the kick cut through the mix.

To achieve this, you set up a side-chain compressor on the bass track, using the kick drum as the trigger. Every time the kick drum hits, the compressor reduces the volume of the bass, creating space for the kick. This technique is particularly useful in genres like EDM and techno, where a clear, punchy kick is crucial. This can also be done with a multiband compressor, focusing the reduction only on the clashing bass frequencies. This can make the effect more subtle.

Full Mix and Vocal Ducking

This is a similar concept, but it’s used to make vocals stand out in a mix. Here, you apply a side-chain compressor to the instrumental tracks, using the vocal track as the trigger. When the vocals are present, the volume of the instruments is reduced, allowing the vocals to shine through. This technique is beneficial in any genre where clear, upfront vocals are desired. Instead of the full mix, this can also be applied to select channels that clash with the vocal.

Serial Compression

Serial Compression means using two or more compressors after one another, each applying only a small amount of gain reduction. This technique allows for more transparent compression. It’s particularly useful when dealing with dynamic vocal performances, helping to maintain a consistent level without squashing the life out of the performance as each compressor only affects the peaks. This can also be used in mixing and mastering to reduce dynamic range and increase loudness without making the whole track sound over-compressed.

Smooth Timbre & Transient Timbre Compression

Smooth Timbre & Transient Timbre Compression is a fancy way of saying you use two compressors to affect different parts of the signal. One compressor affects only the transients, while the other affects the body of the sound.

For instance, you might use a fast compressor to tame the transients on a snare drum or a vocal, and a slower compressor afterward to smooth out the overall dynamics of the sound. This technique can help preserve the natural dynamics of a performance while still controlling the overall level.

Post Reverb Compression

Post reverb compression means applying a compressor after a reverb effect. This is often used to control the level of the reverb tail, increasing it in volume without drowning the original signal and overwhelming the mix. This technique is useful when you want a lush reverb tail without losing clarity in your mix.

While useful, whether these techniques are the right tool will depend on the context. Always listen to the material you’re working with and make decisions based on what serves the music best. If you want a step-by-step guide for each of those techniques, check out this guide on sage audio. We’ll also do an in-depth guide for each of those techniques in the future, so be sure to check back when you need a reminder on them.

Using Compression in Music Production

Understanding audio compression techniques is one thing, but knowing how to apply them in real-world scenarios is another. Let’s delve into how compression can be used in different stages of music production.

Compression During Recording

During the recording stage, compression can be a lifesaver. Let’s say you’re recording a vocalist who has a wide dynamic range – their volume varies greatly from soft verses to powerful choruses for example. By applying a gentle amount of compression while recording, you can tame these volume fluctuations before the audio hits your DAW, ensuring the quieter parts are audible and the louder parts don’t distort. This results in a more consistent and balanced recording, making the production and mixing process much easier.

A person sitting in front of a microphone recording audio, showcasing the importance of dynamic range control and audio processing during the recording phase.
A music production setup with a compressor plugin open during the mixing and mastering process, highlighting the use of audio compression methods, signal compression, and multiband processing.

Compression in Mixing

While mixing, compression becomes more of a sculpting tool. It can help carve out space for each element in the mix. For instance, in a dense rock or EDM mix, you might use side-chain compression to allow the kick drum to cut through. By setting the bass to duck slightly every time the kick hits, you can ensure it’s not lost in the mix. Similarly, you might use multiband compression on a complex track like a full orchestra recording, allowing you to balance the frequency content and ensure no single section overwhelms the others. Especially when some frequencies might get heavily boosted from one section playing particularly loud.

Compression in Mastering

Mastering is the final polish on your track, and compression becomes all about fine-tuning. For example, you might notice that the choruses of a track are significantly louder than the verses. A mastering compressor can be used to gently reduce the dynamic range, ensuring a more consistent listening experience. This will also often be used to reduce the overall dynamic range to increase the perceived loudness of a track. Together with saturation and limiting this will boost the overall level to reach commercial loudness.

Tips and Best Practices for Audio Compression

While mastering audio compression techniques can significantly enhance your mixes, it’s also a delicate balancing act. Here are some tips and best practices to help you avoid common pitfalls and use compression effectively.

Avoiding Overcompression

Overcompression is a common pitfall, especially for beginners. It can make your mix sound squashed and lifeless. To avoid this, always aim for subtlety. Start with a low ratio and only increase it if necessary. Listen carefully to your mix both with and without the compressor engaged. If the compressed version sounds flat and seems to sound ‘weak’ at the same volume, you might be overdoing it.

Properly Setting Threshold and Ratio

Setting the threshold and ratio properly is crucial. The threshold should be set so that the compressor is only activated by the parts of the signal you want to control. If you find that the compressor is always working, even during the quiet parts, your threshold is more than likely set too low. Similarly, if your compressor is hardly ever kicking in, even during the loudest parts, your threshold is too high.

The ratio should be set according to how much compression you want to apply. A higher ratio will result in more compression, but remember, more is not always better. Start with a low ratio and only increase it if necessary.

Utilizing Side-chain Compression Effectively

Side-chain compression is incredible for creating space in your mix. By letting one element of the mix ‘duck’ another, it can add groove and clarity. But it’s not just for kick and bass – you can use side-chain compression creatively with any elements that compete for the same space in your mix.

If you don’t want any ‘pumping’ though, try using a lower ratio, a higher threshold, or consider sculpting the side-chain input to have the effect only trigger on frequencies where it is necessary.

Understanding Attack and Release Times

The attack and release times on a compressor can dramatically affect the sound. A fast attack time will clamp down on transients quickly, which can make the sound more controlled but also less punchy. A slower attack time allows more of the transient through, which can make the sound punchier. Try starting with a medium-fast attack first, and adjust from there until you find the sweet spot.

The release time controls how quickly the compressor stops compressing. A fast release can make the compression less noticeable, but if it’s too fast, it can cause distortion. If it is too long, the compressor won’t stop compressing, leading to over-compression. Start with a medium release time and adjust it based on the tempo and rhythm of your track.

Using Compression Musically

Finally, remember to use compression ‘musically’. Listen to the material you’re working with and ask yourself how compression can enhance it. Does the vocal need to be more consistent? Does the kick drum need more punch? Use compression as a tool to serve the music, not just for the sake of using it.

Starting Points For Some Types Of Audio Compression

Use CaseThresholdRatioAttack TimeRelease TimeNotes
Vocal Compression-10 to -20 dB2:110-20 ms50-100 msGentle compression for natural sound; adjust to taste
Drum Bus Compression-5 to -15 dB4:11-10 ms30-60 msFast attack to control transients; slower release for groove
Bass Compression-10 to -20 dB3:15-15 ms40-80 msBalance between controlling dynamics and maintaining punch
Guitar Compression-5 to -15 dB2.5:15-15 ms50-100 msGentle compression to smooth out performance without losing dynamics
Master Bus Compression-2 to -4 dB1.5:130-60 ms100-200 msVery subtle compression to glue mix together; slow attack to preserve transients
Side-chain Compression (e.g., Kick & Bass)-10 to -20 dB4:11-5 ms20-40 msFast attack and release for rhythmic ‘pumping’ effect; adjust threshold for desired effect
Lead Synth-5 to -15 dB3:15-10 ms60-120 msControl dynamics while maintaining energy; adjust for desired texture
Electronic Drum Loop-5 to -10 dB4:12-5 ms30-50 msFast attack to shape transients; release time to match groove
Pad/Ambience Compression-10 to -15 dB2:110-20 ms100-200 msSlower attack and release for smooth, atmospheric sound

Those are just some general guidelines and notes for setting up some dynamic range control. This is by no means a be-all, end-all. Use these settings as a starting point, but always trust your ears! And don’t be afraid to experiment with those settings.

Wrapping Up

Mastering audio compression techniques is a journey, one that can transform your music production skills and take your mixes to new heights. Always remember to use compression as a tool to serve the music, not just for the sake of using it. Listen carefully, trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to experiment. With practice, you’ll develop an intuitive understanding of how to use compression to enhance your music. So, keep exploring, keep learning, and it will come to you!


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FAQ

There are several types of audio compression techniques, each with its unique characteristics and applications. These include downward compression, upward compression, parallel compression, side-chain compression, multiband compression, mid-side compression, limiting, and leveling.

The best compression for voice often involves a combination of techniques. Downward compression is commonly used to control the dynamic range, while a gentle ratio and appropriate attack and release times help to maintain a natural sound. Side-chain compression can also be used creatively to ensure the voice stands out in a mix.

The most common form of audio compression is downward compression. This technique reduces the volume of loud sounds, helping to maintain a balanced and consistent audio signal.

The amount of compression you should apply to vocals depends on the dynamic range of the performance and the style of music. However, a good starting point might be to aim for around 3-6 dB of gain reduction on the loudest parts.

Whether to EQ before or after compression can depend on the specific needs of the track, but a common approach is to do a bit of both. You might apply some corrective EQ before compression to remove any problematic frequencies, then compress to control dynamics, and finally apply some additional EQ for tonal shaping and enhancement after compression. This way, the compressor isn’t reacting to any frequencies you’re going to remove later, and you have the opportunity to make final tonal adjustments with the dynamics already controlled.

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