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Getting Started with Creative Compression in Dance Music

This post is part of a series called Creative Session: All About Compression.
Quick Tip: Side Chain Compression in Ableton Live 8 - Part 1

Compression is often a misunderstood process. The importance of effective compression in the realm of dance music reigns absolutely supreme. Without the creative application of compression, entire genres of electronic music would not be here with us today.

In this tutorial we’re going to explore one of the most rewarding and enjoyable ways you can make compression work for you in your dance music productions.

Note: this tutorial contains embedded audio that will not display in a feed reader. Click back to the site to read the tutorial with audio or download the Play Pack at the end of the tut. Thumbnail image courtesy of El Gran Dee [bonus points to he or she who can tell me exactly what make and model of device is in the thumbnail - Editor].

What is a compressor?

A compressor is processor (whether it be outboard or software-based) whose sole purpose is to alter, squash, flatten or manipulate the dynamic range of a given signal. The dynamic range is the distance between the transient peaks and the lowest negative values of a waveform sample or sound. It achieves this by dynamically altering these values.

A compressor can also serve as a form of limiter, where your sounds are protected against a sudden rise in volume which would result in clipping. It’s almost as if a crazy rabbit at the mixing desk has both paws on the level sliders and is frantically reducing and increasing gain where necessary.

Compressors range in type from Variable MU, to Optical, Analogue and Valve. Every compressor has a unique personality and character and will colour your productions in a certain way.

Step 1 - Set Up

We’re going to explore a very cool technique that will elevate you to the next level of mastery in your chosen craft. We will be utilizing a multiband compressor found within FL Studio - of course, this technique applies equally to any DAW.

Aside from character and quality, all compressors serve the same purpose. If you are starting out and cannot afford high end plug-ins, do the right thing and work within the scope of your current tools. If you are really keen, begin to mingle with the people who share the same love for electronic dance music as you.

You will often be surprised how willing established artists are to offer advice and help, should you approach them the right way. When it comes to dance music, authenticity is your best vessel for successful communication with your fans.

When it comes to dance music, deploying a compressor across each single insert channel is a very common practice - one employed by artists such as Armin Van Buren, for example.

The benefits to this are twofold. Firstly, it’ll give you greater creative control over your individual sounds and secondly, when applied correctly, it will have your mix pumping and weaving harmoniously and in sync with its own groove.

Although slightly off topic, I feel now would be a good time to dispel a common myth amongst many upcoming producers. This is the misconception that it’s necessary to layer kick drum sounds in order to achieve punch in their mix.

The truth of the matter is, although layering sounds such as the kick has been done, it is usually a raw sine waveform which is pinned beneath the kick itself. If you begin to layer kick samples, unless correctly adjusted with attack and release parameters, you are also doubling the attack and transient stages of the kicks.

This can cause all sorts of unwanted side effects, and in general will make it difficult for you to sit your kick correctly within the mix. Layering kick drums is not a common practice today amongst dance music artists.

This technique also serves to put a lot of stress on commercial PA systems, and your typical “club banging” sound systems. Dance music is the perfected and sublime art of creating apparent loudness via the use of contrast. The sound you are probably
craving will be found in the precise and skilled application of creative compression, good source material and some kickin’ skills.

Step 2 - Gain Pumping

Those of you familiar with underground techno will be aware of the sound of gain pumping in a tune, consciously or not. Some highly respected and contemporary artists who put this method to exemplary use include:

  • Chris Liebing
  • Chris Liberator
  • Speedy J

And a very large majority of artists under the hard house or techno banners.

Here, I’ve got the same audio treated in different ways. The first audio example is a 16 bar loop being fed directly out of FL Studio, and the second is the signal that has been treated with gain pumping.

Those of you who are sharp-eyed will have noticed that since version 8, FL Studio will launch with a limiter plug-in assigned to a channel insert by default. This is an interesting decision on the part of FL Studio’s developers, but it will not interfere with our example here.

Raw loop

Processed loop

What you are listening for is that breathy, pumping sound. It’s that sucking sound you can hear as the gain pumping kicks in. It is this sound that is most sought after in slammin’ techno tunes.

Of course in comparison to the $25K hardware alternatives, FL’s multiband compressor may appear to some as impressive as watching your grandma play Grand Theft Auto 4. But its character is there, it is modest and it fits in perfect correlation to the results that are achievable within a DAW enviroment.

Step 3 - Configure the Plug-in

Go ahead and download the Play Pack and open up the example FL Studio project. You will find the the Kick Drum and the synth bass included within the zip package. Upon opening the file, you will have the multiband compressor in front of you.

As illustrated in the screenshot above, a multiband compressor is exactly that: a compressor that takes care of both the low, middle and high frequency bands for us.

To achieve gain pumping within your tunes, the parameters that will require the most attention and experimentation are attack and release as highlighted in yellow above.

The gain control is there for you to monitor and adjust the input and output of your signal. If those levels are clipping, you need to reduce them. This applies to all three bands.

Utilize the visual feedback of the DB meter and the dynamic waveform to indicate whether your kick and bass are pumping in time with the beat. If you spot any of your DB meters sticking, your signal is too hot or being overcompressed and the gain or threshold reduction needs to be changed accordingly.

It’s a good practice to take note of this infomation in FL’s detail pane, located at the top left of the screen.

The ratio and threshold is entirely dependent on what you’re setting out to achieve. In any case, here are some guidelines for a techno beat:

  • Ratio 5.1 to 10.1.
  • Threshold -5 to -15db.
  • Attack 1-15 milliseconds.
  • Release this will be entirely tempo-dependent, so tweak on the fly with a continuous loop.

In our example, which is set at 145BPM in tempo, 45ms is effective and creates wicked gain pumping.

On higher end compressors the knee is also of importance, and as a rule of thumb is set to hard knee. In this case, the knee adjustments are almost inaudible.

Application of Gain Pumping

When attempting to create a kick drum loop that’ll pump and breathe in a rhythmic fashion with the bass, the attack and release parameters are of most importance. The settings you apply will vary in relation to the tempo of your track. Your best solution is to experiment on the fly with a continuous loop.

Remember, each movement of the parameter pots is measured in units of milliseconds. Be attentive and patient when listening and know in advance what you’re listening for. Once you’ve trained yourself to recognize a groove’s “lock,” this process will become much easier.

Essentially, you’re wanting the kick drum to trigger the compressor, in turn causing the other sounds such as the synth bass to drop in volume. This is gain pumping in effect.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it, just one more skill to add to your armory of skills, and one that will work towards seriously enhancing your skill set. Use it wisely, and most importantly of all, get creative and enjoy yourself.

The only limit is your imagination and willingness to learn.

Thank you for the kind words on last month’s Drum N’ Bass Breaks tutorial here at AUDIOTUTS. I hope this tutorial will also serve to enlighten others in the same way. If you enjoyed this, drop me a comment and of course feel free to let me know what you would like to see in future.

Download the Play Pack for this tutorial (102KB)


  • FL Studio 8 Source Files
  • WAV Samples
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