Introduction – Why use compression?
Why are compressors so fascinating, and why do so many people find them a mystery?
I often get the feeling that people are struggling when trying to understand compression, and that some engineers tend to make it more complicated than it really is. Also, with all the plugins around today, and the overwhelming amount of choice, it can be even more confusing. Which compressor should you pick and which one is “the best” for what you are trying to achieve?
However, after reading this book, all this will hopefully be a lot clearer.
Compressors all do basically the same things – they duck the signal whenever the sound exceeds a set threshold – yet they are all so different. There are compressors that are used purely for controlling the volume of a signal (without affecting the character of the sound in any way), compressors that are just as much “colour-boxes” as level-controllers, and even compressors that I would use only for their character and colour (without even using them as compressors).
At the age of seven I was blown away by the compressed drum sound of The Beatles’ Come Together. A few years later, when my brother Fredrik and I started making our own recordings, we spent hours trying to replicate those drum sounds (especially Ringo’s drum sounds from the later Beatles albums). Later I figured out that a large part of the sound (apart from his playing) came from one specific compressor that they used at Abbey Road Studios – Fairchild 660. No other compressor can replace a Fairchild 660, and only a Fairchild sounds like a Fairchild. Apart from just compressing the signal, it also does something to the attack of the drums, and it seems to make cymbals sound larger than life.
Learning ‘the art of compression’ is not only about being able to operate the controls of a compressor, but also about learning and understanding the characters and colours of different compressors. I always look at a collection of compressors (or other pieces of gear) as a colour palette, where each compressor (or EQ) represents a specific colour.
The most important thing, and the first step to becoming a great engineer, is to know ones tools and equipment. In other words, you need to know them so well that they almost become an extension of yourself, to the point where using them becomes second nature. After years of practice, your brain will simply do all this automatically. It is like when you learn a new language and you finally stop thinking about the grammar.
As a rule, whenever you are mixing or recording, never reach for a compressor without first asking yourself these two questions:
1. Why do I want to process this particular instrument in the first place?
2. What do I want this compressor to add to this particular sound?
The answer will most likely be one of these five, or a combination of two or three of them:
1. In order to control the sound
2. To add some character to the sound
3. To reinforce the attack, or to make the sound appear smoother
4. To bring out the ambience or nuances of the sound, and make it more exciting
5. To make the sound more aggressive
After answering these questions, you can start making a decision on which compressor to use (or which combination of compressors to use). This is the first step.
TO READ MORE ABOUT COMPRESSION, CHECK OUT MY E-BOOK, THE ART OF COMPRESSION
Note: You don’t need a Kindle to read it, as it can be read on any device.