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Dynamics Compression, Dispelling Myths and Avoiding Common Errors

Articles BASIC AUDIO Series

This series of elementary level articles branded as BASIC is designed for amateur sound engineers seeking to increase their awareness and competence in the mixing and in theaudio recording in general.

In the delicate balance of audio mixing, dynamic compression plays a key role in shaping the sound of a song. In this short article, we will focus on compression, exploring its essential objectives and dispelling some common myths. We will provide a clear and concise introduction, ideal for amateur sound engineers who wish to be initiated into the understanding of this crucial aspect of music production.

Objectives of Compression in Mixing

In the context of the mix, dynamic compression in audio mixing has two main objectives:

  1. control the overall dynamic range of an audio track or its fragment to make the volume more even, reducing peaks and enhancing the volume of the weaker parts of a performance;
  2. modelling the character of sounds, in particular through the management of attacks and transient release; this makes it possible to emphasise the perceptiveness of attacks, such as the strike of a snare drum, or to control the duration of decay, such as the reverberation of a guitar note, thus enriching the texture and coherence of the mix.

Dispelling Common Myths

  • 'More Compression is Better'Excessive use of compression can result in a flat sound with no dynamics. It is essential to use compression in a targeted manner to preserve the energy and expression of the song.
  • "Compression Solves Mixing Problems".Compression is a tool for shaping sound, but it cannot replace a good recording of a dynamically expressive yet controlled performance, just as it cannot solve all the problems of an unbalanced mix.

Common Compression Errors

  • Overcompression: Compressing too much can lead to an unnatural and boring sound. It is important to avoid completely flattening the dynamics of the track and song.
  • Inappropriate Settings: Unsuitable compression settings for the sound material may alter the original expressive intention of the music. Each track requires a customised and careful approach.
  • Ignoring Release and Attackare the elements most unknown to amateurs. Setting release and attack times incorrectly can negatively affect the naturalness and rhythm of the sound. It is crucial to understand how these settings interact with the sound material. The attack and release settings in a compressor are crucial in determining how the sound is shaped. An incorrect understanding of these settings can lead to unwanted results in the mix:
    • Attack Too Fast: If the attack is set too fast, the compressor starts working immediately, flattening the attacks of sounds and reducing their presence and impact. For example, too fast an attack on a snare drum can deaden the characteristic 'hit', making it less defined.
    • Attack Too SlowOn the contrary, an attack that is too slow allows the initial transient to pass uncontrolled, potentially causing excessive peaks and uneven dynamics. This can be problematic in some percussive sounds where peaks need to be controlled.
    • Release Too FastToo fast a release can cause a 'pumping' effect, where the volume rises too quickly and unnaturally. This is often audible in tracks with continuous dynamic changes, especially with soft attack transient sources without decay, such as a pad or vocals.
    • Release Too SlowToo slow a release causes the compressor not to 'reset' fast enough, leading to constant compression that may merely lower the volume of the track without having any real compression effect. In fast or rhythmic tracks, this can stifle the energy of the track altogether.

Understanding how to adjust attack and release according to the sound material is fundamental to using a compressor effectively in mixing.


For more on compression

To deepen your knowledge of compression and mixing techniques, the Digital Audio Mixing Manual (Best seller on Amazon in December 2023) is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to hone their digital audio skills.

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