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  1. Music & Audio
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Music

How to Use Compression in Different Genres

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Let's face it, mixing is a subjective art. Put two top mixers in a room together and there'll be a number of things that they disagree on: different techniques, different methods and different styles.

But there's one thing they are more likely to agree on—results. There are hundreds of ways to make a song sound great. There is no right way to approach mixing. There's no wrong way, either. There are, however, fewer disagreements on what constitutes a great sounding mix.

This the catch, though. Different genres sound different. We expect Rock music to sound a certain way. And we expect Pop music to sound a certain way. 

A great mix in one genre could be wildly inappropriate for another.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges, as a developing mixer, is understanding the nuances of different genres and how consumers expect the music to sound. 

In this tutorial, I'll demonstrate how the use of compression varies in five key genres:

  1. Rock
  2. Pop
  3. Hip-hop
  4. Jazz, and
  5. Electronic

Compression is one of the key tools as a mixer, and its use varies considerably between genres. 

When you approach a mix with a clearer insight of how it should sound, it will be easier to make decisions and you'll ultimately provide a better experience for the end listener. 

Win-win!

Making Pop Sound Professional

Many genres fall under the label of Pop. Most songs that appear in the Top-40 fall under this label. Any tracks that should sound mainstream, modern and professional will require this approach to mixing.

Any music that you would hear on the radio could be processed this way
Any music that you would hear on the radio could be processed this way

A lot of Rock, Hip-hop, R&B, Gospel and Electronic music will fall under this category too. There is a lot of overlap. If the track is designed to appeal to a wide audience, and sound familiar on the radio, treat it as pop.

There are two main ways to use compression when mixing—for dynamic control or to shape the tone. In the case of pop you should focus more on dynamic control.

As you'll see later, using compression to shape the tone in rock music is essential for achieving aggressive, punchy mixes.

Of course, there is an element of this with pop music, particularly on vocals. But primarily, you want to use compression to really reign in the dynamics and make everything sound super consistent.

Pop music is all about polish. Your mixes need to sound larger than life. They need to sound clean, consistent and clear. The bass needs to provide a solid foundation. The vocals need to sit on top of the mix at all times. The kick needs to be loud and you need to feel every hit in your chest.

If the vocal suddenly sounds too quiet, or the kick doesn't provide a solid rhythm, the track won't sound modern or professional.

These things require heavy dynamic control. But compression alone isn't enough. If you rely on compression, you'll need 8-10dB of gain reduction before you get the levels of consistency you want. In turn, this will drastically affect the tone of the source material.

Instead, use volume automation, parallel compression and serial compression to reign in the dynamics without making things sound too punchy (slow attack time) or thick (fast attack time).

Heavy volume automation on a pop vocal
Heavy volume automation on a pop vocal

Everyone will approach this differently, but I try to apply no more than 5dB of gain reduction on most things when mixing Pop, and maybe 10dB or less on the kick and bass.

Rock That Smacks You

With Rock music, you can be far more liberal with your use of compression. There is less need for meticulous volume automation, and tip-toe compression. Instead, be bold.

A rock band rehearsing
A rock band rehearsing

Slam the vocals with 7-10dB of gain reduction. Use a slow attack time and make them sound aggressive.

Slam the kick and snare. Often, the snare is the focus of the mix. Make it sound punchy. Make every hit almost the same volume. The same goes for the kick.

Mix buss compression will give you even more aggression. Heavy parallel compression on the drums will give them the power they need without causing pumping on the cymbals. You could even use heavy parallel compression on the entire mix, Andrew Schepps style.

Making Rock music sound like Rock music is about big, confident moves. Don't be afraid to push the compressor and EQ further than you normally would.

Multiple compressors on one channel
Multiple compressors on one channel

Hip-Hop and the Middle Path

Traditionally, Hip-hop shares more traits with Rock music than pop when it comes to stylistic mixing.

In Pop, the top end is often exaggerated and boosted with EQ. One expects a certain level of sheen and airiness from Pop music. But Rock and Hip-hop should be approached differently. It's more about aggression in the upper mids than a sparkly top end.

When it comes to compression, Hip-hop is somewhat of a halfway point. Generally, you wouldn't want to be as aggressive as with Rock music. But you can be heavier handed than with Pop.

Nowadays, any Hip-hop that you would hear on the radio will be approached like Pop music. But for a more traditional sound, treat it more like rock music—except this time the kick drum is the focus, not the snare.

As for rap vocals, you will need to use faster attack and release times to get the compressor working. I start with roughly 2ms attack and 10ms release and work from there.

Don't Touch Jazz

Traditionally, Jazz and other acoustic, more natural genres require little to no compression. This time, it's all about maintaining the integrity of the original performance.

Traditional jazz music should be treated with care
Traditional jazz music should be treated with care

If you do notice some words becoming unintelligible in the vocal, just automate them up. You could try some light mix buss compression to add some glue and cohesion, but generally it isn't needed.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. A lot of modern Jazz sounds full, bright and loud—like Snarky Puppy. It's treated like pop music, not Jazz. This is a creative decision that you or the artist needs to make.

Electronic Music and Unnecessary Compression

One of the main reasons you use compression is to make things more consistent in terms of dynamics. But this only really applies to live, recorded instruments.

Samples, on the other hand, are consistent by nature. Unless you purposely vary the volume, each sample will be a similar volume. For example, a kick sample in a house track is already perfectly consistent. Every hit is exactly the same.

In this case, compression is far less useful. You can still use compression to shape the tone, but there is no need to control the dynamics.

Electronic music requires less use of compression
Electronic music requires less use of compression

Don't just compression for the sake of it. In Electronic music, you will still need to compress the vocals, or perhaps electronic keys with varying velocities. Other than that, though, you will use it far less than with other genres.

Conclusion

These are just guidelines. Don't be afraid to break them.

Some of the best mixes come about by drawing influence from other genres and setting new standards. Do what's best for the track.

But when you want your mix to sound characteristic of a genre, think twice about how you are going to approach compression, and try to stay within these guidelines.

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