The most common compression mistakes

Compression is one of the most important mixing tools, and yet it's also one of the hardest to grasp. You must have a complete understanding of how every parameter works and what kind of results you want to achieve.
In this article, you will learn some mistakes being made by inexperienced producers and sound engineers. But even expert mixing engineers might find these tips useful.


IGNORING THE GAIN REDUCTION METER

One of the main rules of many mixing techniques – "Trust your ears rather than eyes". This means that you don't have to rely on visuals too much, but you also have to hear what exactly your device contributes to the sound. However, compression is one huge exception.

The gain reduction meter shows you how hard the compressor is working. You control the amount of gain reduction using the ratio and threshold knobs.


USING SUPER-FAST ATTACK TIME

Once you have grasped ratio and threshold, attack time is the next thing to focus on. Compression isn't just there to control dynamics – it can also be used to change tone. This is where attack time enters the picture.

A slow attack will leave the transients of sound unaffected. This adds aggression and attack to the source. On the other hand, a fast attack will catch the transient of the note, leading to a duller, thicker sound.

Try to listen to the result of compression and do not compress the audio signal too much, otherwise you can ruin the dynamics of your mix making it flat. When in doubt, opt for a slow attack time.


USING FAST RELEASE TIMES

The release control is perhaps the hardest one to master. At first, it seems unimportant. But in reality, the release time can have a drastic impact on how the compressor reacts to the source.

Fast release times are used for percussions: kicks, snares, fast rhythm guitars. Fast release time will make the source appear to be louder, which is useful in some situations.

But it is also dangerous territory. Fast release times can cause sound distortion. That's why, as with attack time, when in doubt, opt for a slower release.


ONLY USING ONE COMPRESSOR

When the source needs heavy compression to reign in the dynamics, it's tempting to just slam it with one compressor. But there is an alternative – use multiple compressors in a row.

Serial compression is an easy, effective way to improve your use of compression. Multiple compressors working together sound better than one compressor doing all the heavy lifting.

Experiment with using different attack times on each subsequent compressor. Start with a fast attack time to catch the louder transients, then use a slower, less aggressive compressor to apply lighter, constant compression.
RELYING ON COMPRESSION ALONE

It often happens, especially when live recording, that processed sound track is too unstable.

Let's use vocals as an example. A vocalist can go from a whisper to a shout within the same verse. If you try to reign in the dynamics with compression alone, the vocals will sound over-compressed, dull and lifeless.

Instead, use automation to make the volume consistent between different sections. Then use serial compression on top of that to really reign it in.


NOT HAVING AN INTENTION

When you start using compression and get to know about the importance of dynamic correction, you might feel like you need to use it on every channel. You don't.

Every mixing move should have an intention behind it – otherwise you are just blindly working around the mix making random adjustments. The need for compression should come before the application.

For example, if a guitar part is too loud on some notes, but too quiet on others or if the lead vocal need more aggression to help it cut through the mix – grab a preferred compressor and get to work.


NOT CONSIDERING GENRE

It's that simple. Certain genres call for more compression, others for less. It all depends on the distinctive features of the genre.

If the music should be loud and powerful, such as rock music or dubstep, a lot of compression is required. On the other end of spectrum, we have jazz and acoustic music that require a large dynamic range and little to no compression.

Bear this in mind, and use reference tracks when in doubt. Listen to a professional mix in the same genre, and take notice of the amount of compression.


BLAMING PLUGINS, NOT SETTINGS

Beginners producers and sound engineers often start learning compression with a web search query of "best compressors" or something like that. Then they find expensive plugins full of a huge amount of professional features that will definitely distract from the basic points.

We do not recommend to switch to other plugins until you thoroughly examine your DAW built-in compressor, if any. Only when you are experienced enough in compression, you will know exactly which features of expensive plugins you need for a comfortable work.

Everybody makes mistakes, especially dealing with such a difficult matter as mixing music. No unified approach or rule in mixing makes the situation even more difficult. Nothing of what works in 90% of cases may be helpful in your own case. So, it's not that simple just to follow somebody's tips and get the desired result.

Try and learn from your own mistakes. And we, in turn, will do our best to help you with our informative articles.


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ExpertMusic team.

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