Why compression is killing your Mix
One of the first plugins most beginners run to is almost always compression. For some reason, I was guilty of it to in my early years, most amateurs believe that compression is that magical plugin that will take your song from the garage to the radio in an instant. Although compression is an immensely important tool when mixing and sculpting your sound, it is not the only tool in your arsenal that will take your mixes to the next level. Worse over, when used improperly, compression can really hinder the potential of a great mix.
When beginning, overused compression will get in the way of a good mix. You need to understand why re-recording and basic “eq’ing” are more important than creating lifeless mixes with too much compression. Learning the proper compressor ratios in the correct situations will lead you to creating mixes that contain a healthy amount of dynamic range and emotion. Let’s begin by examining the 1st option below before we even think of placing a compressor in our signal chain.
Re-recording unsatisfactory tracks
Even the most experienced, veteran mix engineers often find themselves trying their best to make an underwhelming track sound bigger than life. They use every trick or technique they have learned in the past to no avail. All they do is find themselves with very complex plugin chains that really just take up CPU power rather than add life to a track. Sometimes you simply need to start over and record a better take.
Compression is often the go-to when it comes to adding snap or attack to a track. With the proper settings you can take a track from dull to in your face using compression. With that being said, it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes no matter what you do, nothing is going to bring life to a specific track. A good rule of thumb in the recording industry is, you can’t add something that is not there.
If you had a drummer whose performance was subpar, that played with no dynamic range or a vocalist who sung with no emotion or attitude, no amount of compression is going to add snap and punchiness to his recorded tracks. Go back and re-record if you can. Sometimes the root of the problem is at the very beginning of the recording process. Learning to identify and spot lifeless takes and tracks is part of becoming an experienced mix engineer and producer.
If you notice that compression is the dominate plugin in your mix session, ask yourself why. Bypass all the plugins and just have your initial sound sources playing back. Truly listen to what you have in front of you and ask yourself, is there something that is just not there.
Examples of questions you should be asking yourself
- Did the drummer play with no dynamics?
- Is the bass guitar all low end with no mid-range punch?
- Were the guitars recorded to hot with no dynamic range?
- Is the vocal performance subpar?
- Did I record to loud?
These are the types of questions that you need to be asking yourself throughout the whole recoding process from beginning to end. As you go through your career however, you will learn to quickly identify these problem areas sooner and sooner in the recording process. This will lead you to being creative in the mix process rather than a doctor trying to fix problem areas.
Focus on Equalization first
When you finally complete the recording process and make your way into the mixing, you should always address equalization first. The art of “eq’ing” involves looking at each individual track’s equalization as well as the entirety of the whole song. Recorded music is an intense culmination of instruments that are dominant in all areas of the frequency range. You need to learn how to sculpt your equalization style to get your desired sound before you start heading into compression, reverb, delay and other effects.
For example, larger sessions like Session # 29 will involve a lot of equalization across the whole mix.
Mix Challenge Alert!
Download Session # 29
Task: Create a mix only using equalization across ever track. You cannot use any compression, reverb or delay. You only get to use 1 eq plugin on each track.
Outcome: Using only Equalization on this very large session will begin to show you the importance of maintaining balance across the frequency range.
When you focus only on equalization first you are unknowingly adding space and depth to your mix from the get-go. You are creating a sonic space for each instrument to live in. Because of this, their natural dynamics begin to come through. Each instrument can be heard clearly. Thus, when you begin to add compression, the track suddenly takes on a new life of its own.
Compression is now a tool of creation rather than a tool for repairing. You can now get creative, exaggerating certain settings to create your desired sound. Try beginning your mixes with a focus on Equalization first and watch where our mixes take you.
Ratios are too high
The ratio knob on a compressor is very simple to understand. All you need to know is, “What goes in and what comes out”
To put it plainly:
Decibels in = Decibels out
For example: a 2:1 ratio means, 2 decibels enter the compressor while only 1 decibel comes out A 10:1 ration means, 10 decibels enter the compressor while only 1 decibel come out This is why it is called a compressor because it is basically squeezing the signal output the higher the ratios get
So why are higher ratios bad for beginners?
Beginners need to understand the natural dynamics of a song first before they start compressing everything and creating lifeless mixes. Every band wants to sound loud with tons of in your face action. Most beginners will jump to a compressor to achieve this sound while not understating what they are doing.
Every beginner needs to understand that compression is about control. Lower ratios like 4:1, 3:1 and 2:1 act more like a volume knob rather than compressing and squeezing your signal. When you start to use high ratios like 6:1, 8:1, 10:1 to make your track louder or to add snap and attack, it comes with a cost. You will unknowingly transform your waveform to a lifeless sound clip.
Higher ratios create a specific sound. You need to understand when you need this specific sound.
Mix Challenge Alert!
Download Session # 5
Task: Place a compressor on every track of this session with an 8:1 ration setting. You can only use a compressor for this Mix Challenge. Your goal is a gain reduction of -10 decibels. No Equalization, delay or reverb.
Outcome: You will begin to see that too much compression can be a very bad thing to a mix, particularly when the sound source was recording so well.
We now live in a world where being loud is king. Loud over the radio. Loud over social media. Loud over the internet. Everything has to be big and grandiose in today’s age. Mixing music is no exception. Your clients are going to want their music as loud as it can get in order to compete with every other band or musician out there. There is nothing to worry about though. Being loud is easy if you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, most beginning mix engineers don’t.
Most get it wrong when they hear the word “loud” from the clients and immediately reach for their favorite compression plugin. This in turn means they begin putting compressor plugins all over their session with high ratios. They are unknowingly killing all the dynamic range within their session leading to a lifeless dull mix. Sure, it’s loud but it just does not have that edge that you were hoping for. It is because you took all the peaks and valleys, the high and low sonic information, and squashed it into a narrow valley. It is the dynamic range of a song that helps create the emotion and attitude in a song. You need to learn to let certain instruments breathe and allow them to go from loud too soft within a song. Part of becoming a good sound engineer is learning how to pack all this sonic information into a single stereo track.
Learning to use compression is part of creating great sounding mixes. Do not make the mistake that so many amateurs do and slap a compressor on every channel thinking your going to get an in your face sound. Always ask yourself:
- Why do I need a compressor?
- Is it to control the highs and lows a little bit better?
- Is it to add snap on a particular instrument?
- Do I want it to act like a volume knob?
- Which ratios do I need for my desired sound?
Always remember that a good mix easy if all the elements are in place before you even start mixing. Don’t let misused compressors ruin your mixes!