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5 Compression Techniques and How to Use Them

Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Creative Session: All About Compression.
How to Use Buss Compression
Mastering Elements Part 1: The Buss Compressor

Inspired by the great reception I received from 6 Frequencies and How to Spot Them I decided to do something similar with different types of compression. Compression is a tricky subject for many, and there is no “one” great method for any situation. Compression is subjective depending on what you are workings with. However, in the following tutorial I'm going to give you a few quick “go-to” techniques when you want a specific sound.



Technique 1: Fitting in the Vocal

Sometimes you don't really want to compress the vocal but it seems like you just pasted the vocal on top of the track. There are just a few peaks in the vocal phrases that stick out just a little too much. Using compression to just push the vocal a tiny bit into the track to make it all gel together is what you need to do. But what kind of parameters do you need to set your compressor to if you want to achieve that?

Listen to a short example of a very sparse track that only has piano and vocal. When you are working so so few elements it's all the more important to make them fit together.

There are just a few peaks in the vocal track that jump out. The lyrics “Running from our fears” kind of jump on top of the track instead of blending in, so we must be careful when we're applying compression to them. We just want to take care of those peaks, not really using compression as an effect—more as a level handler.



Don't let the threshold deceive you. This is actually not a lot of compression since the vocal track was recorded too softly. If you have a low level track you need to compensate the threshold accordingly. If the sound source isn't loud enough to go past the threshold there will be no compression.

I'm trying to just compress those peaks so I want the compressor to react quickly. A fast attack will enable the compressor to clamp down on those peaks immediately and a fast release will also help to minimize the effect the compressor has on the rest of the signal, or phrases. The ratio is fairly high since we want to flatten those particular vocal phrases and the compressor is set to Peak.

I've set it to attack only those peaks so that it blends better. Listen to the result below:


Technique 2: Flattening the Vocal

Basically, if you need to make the level of the vocal extremely level and unchanging then compressing the complete waveform is needed. By turning the threshold all the way down so it affect the whole signal makes each and every phrase compressed. This is not a particularly good sound, but if your singer doesn't handle dynamics well then you might need to keep him flat. Also, using this type of compression in rock and metal tracks can keep the vocal from being drowned out by the instruments in the track.

Here is the dry vocal track without any compression:



Listen to how a really high threshold affect the whole track, making the vocal track sound flat.


Technique 3: Timing the Snare to the Track

A great technique to make your drum track breathe is to compress the snare drum in time to the track. A snare drum that breathes in time with the track pushes the drum sound forward and just makes it sound tighter.

I'm using this snare drum track below:

Now, if we want to compress it in time with the track we are really only using the release parameter of the compressor. We obviously want a nicely compressed snare drum so we'll put a little compression of 4:1 with a gain reduction of a few dBs. You don't want to dull the attack of the snare drum so put the attack all the way fast and then slowly pull the attack slider back until the “snap” of the snare hit comes through. By playing with the release you can make the snare compression breathe with the track. Think of it as trying to make the snare drum exhale with each hit. You want the compressor to let go just as soon as the next snare hit occurs.



Compare the dry, untreated snare drum above with the new one here below:

The effect is subtle, but there is definitely a shape to the snare drum caused by the compression in the second sample.


Technique 4: Making a Kick Thump

Once again, the attack and release can shape your sounds differently. For instance, if you want a thumpier kick drum, one that's more meat than bone then a fast attack will cut off that initial snap in your kick drum sound.

Listen to the uncompressed kick here:

If we want to reduce the snap from the beater and give it a mellower and rounder sound we would make sure our compressor had a fast attack. By cutting down fast on the initial beater attack we accent the boom of the drum much more than the snap of the beater.



Listen to how it sounds thicker than before.


Technique 5: Making a Kick Snap

Similarly, by just slowing the attack time you can get that snap in without the compressor clamping down on it. A slower attack time is usually more desirable to get the beater through, although there are some times where you might want a more earthier, rounded bass drum tone.



Conclusion

I hope some of the examples above have shed some light on the different ways you can use compression. Depending on the situation, sometimes a tweak in the attack and release time is all you need. Other times you need to flatten out specific parts by heavy compression across the board or just subtle peak compression to make things fit. If you want more examples for different instruments check out my latest Premium tutorial, Creative Compression With Guitar and Bass.

What kind of tricks have you been up to? Anything you want to share with your fellow readers about any trick's you've discovered? Let us know in the comments!

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