When NOT to use a compressor

When I was asked to write this, I thought about a lot of different topics that I could delve into. The more I thought about those topics, the more I realized that they’ve all been done to death already. Questions like “How do I EQ X”, or “How many dB do you compress your kick drum?” are some of the usual lead ins, but for this one we’re going to flip it around and go over why you don’t want to use a compressor in Dance Music.

“Sacrilege!” I hear you scream. Well, there are a lot of times where you’ll get a better sound by not using a compressor. To understand why, you’ve got to first understand why we even have compressors.

Back when dinosaurs and tape machines ruled the earth, people used radio to broadcast their music, music which was made with “Real Instruments”. There were no VSTs, there were no DAWs, it truly was the dark ages. As this music contained real people, playing real instruments, being recorded in real time, there was a very real possibly of huge dynamic spikes. Some parts would be very loud, some would be very quiet.

Very large peaks and spikes would actually cause the radio broadcasting components to overload, causing the station to go dark. Engineers would manually ride the levels, but as you can imagine, that could get extremely tiresome.

Enter the compressor/levelling amplifier/limiter, which helped solve this very problem. Think of these compression machines like very fast volume robot engineers. When the volume reaches a preset peak, the compressor brings said peaks back in line so as not to exceed the set threshold.

Think of these compression machines like very fast volume robot engineers.

Compressors soon started being used and abused for other things, like artificially enhancing a transient smack on a bass guitar, or extending the release time of a ride cymbal by bringing up the quiet end tail. Certain legendary compressors have defined generations of music and are still a staple in most recording studios worldwide.

“So Tim, what does this have to do with my Deep Nu-Complextro track I’m working on?” you might ask? Well, a lot really. 

In the brave new world of dance and electronic music, it’s safe to say that the majority of newcomers work mainly ‘in the box’. Anyone can have a full mixing studio available for a couple hundred bucks these days, as long as you’ve got a computer of sorts. This means that all your sounds are digital, and therefore, able to be manipulated by a whole host of clever processes and algorithms. Parts that are programmed in now simply have parameters adjusted, without having to call in your session player to re-record.

Many of the issues that compressors were invented for don’t really apply when working with all digital samples, synth plugins and your trusty piano roll. You can just remove a lot of issues which were fixed by compressors in the past, simply by using your DAW or plugin directly. 

Not throwing another compressor on your track saves CPU cycles, keeps your signal path clear and free of another layer of digital processing, and often gives you more control of the sound.

Why put a band-aid on a problem that you can fix at the source! 

For example, if you’ve got a bass guitar part which has a couple notes which sound too loud over a certain part of your song, you can go into your MIDI clip and modify the velocity at the source. Now your guitar is playing at a nicer volume, and you didn’t have to throw a plugin over it. Is that initial smack on your piano VST a bit too overpowering? Simply lengthen the attack part of the volume envelope to soften it up, no compressor needed. Is the pluck on your Deadmau5 Sylenth patch just not plucky enough? Why not just tweak the filter envelope and amount instead of whacking a compressor after it? You can see where I’m going with this. Why put a band-aid on a problem that you can fix at the source! 

Of course there are going to be many times when you will use a compressor, they are still extremely prevalent in Dance Music, and all electronic genres. There are going to be lots of times where you won’t be able to get the sound you want without one. 

However, next time you reach for a compressor, regardless of which producer on which forum told you to, have a think about whether or not you really need it. You might end up getting a cleaner (or dirtier!) end result if you operate on the source sample or synth itself.

 

 

Timothy Allan

Releases on over twenty labels such as Toolroom, Baroque, Audio Therapy, Perfecto, Black Hole, Armada, Warner Music, Vicious, Virgin and EMI, Tim has firmly established himself as a global EDM producer and engineer. Not one to keep all his secrets under his cap, Timothy is Beat Drop's Mixing and Mastering instructor and enjoys sharing his expertise. These production methods are put in to practice every day at The Mixplant, a mixing/mastering facility focused on electronic music where Tim is the head engineer.

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DETAILS

Learn the fundamental tools of  EQ, compression, panning, level balancing, reverb and special effects so that your electronic music will sound like a commercial release.  

24 hours
12 classes (2 hours)
Instructor: Timothy Allan

WHO IS THIS COURSE FOR?

  • Producers looking to make their tracks sound like label releases.
  • Producers looking to understand key sculpting tools like EQ, Compression and Reverb.
  • Producers who are interested in learning the basics of Mastering and how to make their songs sound loud but still retain dynamics.
  • Producers who desire to learn how to use professional mixing plugins and understand workflow and process.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

  • Headphones and a notepad.
  • iMacs with midi controllers, loaded with Ableton 9 Suite, and Izotope plugins provided
  • You can purchase LIve 9 Suite through us at Educational pricing. HERE. 

UPON FINISHING THE CLASS

  • Students will learn the key fundamental tools to mix in Ableton Live, while gaining the skills and knowledge needed to conquer the final phase of the music production process using Izotope plugins and Ableton Live.  You will learn how to achieve a professional sound that will work in the club, in your cars and on your mobile devices.

TOPICS INCLUDE:

  • Equalization and Frequencies
  • Dynamics and Compression
  • Effects and the Stereo Field
  • Reverb and space
  • Distortion and Saturation
  • Metering and Referencing
  • Output and Codecs