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A Step-by-Step Guide to Compression

Dynamic range compression, or just compression, is an incredibly useful tool for audio engineers. It helps to even out the highs and lows of a recording so that it can be played back at consistent levels. But what exactly is dynamic range compression? And how do you apply it to your mix? In today's blog post, I will walk through everything you need to know about dynamic range compression, from the basics of what it is to a step-by-step guide on how to use it in your studio.


A step-by-step guide to compression.


Table of Contents:


 

1 - What?


Dynamic range compression (DRC) is a process by which the loudest parts of an audio signal are reduced in level relative to the quietest parts. This means that when a sound file is compressed, all of its peaks and valleys are flattened out so that there’s less dynamic variation between them. The result is a more controlled sound with less extreme highs and lows.


Compression plugins.


2 - When?


The main purpose of dynamic range compression is to make sure that all of your audio tracks are playing back at an even volume, no matter how loud they get or how quiet they become. This can be especially useful if you’re recording music with multiple instruments or voices, as it will help ensure that none of them overpower each other in the mix. But remember that compression won't do your leveling. As always, first do your leveling and after that add compression to add the cherry on top of the cake. Additionally, DRC can help add punch and energy to drums or vocals without having to resort to turning up the gain, which can lead to distortion or clipping, or adding more effects.


Leveling and dynamic range compression.


3 - How?


Using DRC isn't particularly difficult once you understand some basic concepts. Here's a breakdown of how it works:


Input level

Your input level determines how much signal will be sent into the compressor before any changes take place. Depending on your recording software, this may be labeled as “threshold” or “level”. However yours is called just set it according to what type of signal (i.e., vocal, guitar, etc.) you're working with and adjust as needed until you get the desired sound.


Fabfilter compression threshold.

Adjust attack/release times

Attack time affects how quickly the compressor reacts when a signal crosses above (or below) the threshold; release time affects how quickly it stops compressing when the signal falls below (or above) the threshold again. As a general rule of thumb, slower attack times work well for smoother sounds like vocals while faster attack times work better for percussive sounds like drums or guitars. Likewise, for release times—slower release times work well for sustaining sounds while faster release times work better for transient sounds like plucked strings or vocal syllables. Experiment with different settings until you achieve the desired sound quality!


Fabfilter compression attack and release.

Adjust ratio/makeup gain

Ratio determines by how much your signal will be compressed; makeup gain adds volume after compression so that there isn't any audible loss in level due to dynamic reduction alone. Start with a low ratio and increase as needed. Similarly, start low with makeup gain until you find the right balance between natural dynamics and increased volume levels!


Fabfilter compression ratio and makeup gain.

And that's it, if you are new to music production this probably sounds a bit confusing. As I mention everytime I talk about compression, you will get a feeling for it on the road. Don't try to nail it immediately. You can even just leave it a bit behind and learn all the basics like proper leveling first.



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