Posts Tagged ‘audio compression’

Soft/Hard Knee Compression

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this article for almost a year and a half. The back story behind it is that I was having a discussion with my eldest son about why I didn’t like the music he listened to. He was arguing that if I make the claim that I like all kinds of music, I shouldn’t contradict myself by saying I didn’t like his kind of (he was really into hardcore punk at the time). My response was that I actually liked the songs, but hated the vomit screaming vocals, and hated the total lack of regard for dynamic range in the music – it was all one volume from start to finish! I shared with him that I didn’t believe it was a function of the song, but a function of the mastering, and an endemic problem in music being produced these days.

To demonstrate, I grabbed an old Cars CD from my collection, and played a couple of songs for him. There were perceptibly distinct swells and dips in volume in all the songs – very dynamic. Then we put on one of his CD’s and listened to a couple of songs. After we finished, my son couldn’t believe the difference in recording technique used 20 years ago. Even he said the performances on my old CD seemed so much more alive, where the songs from his CD didn’t have nearly the amount of dynamicism, and they seemed almost muffled compared to the clarity of the Cars’ recordings.

I told him that it was due to the heavy compression that producers are using these days, and gave him a simple explanation of what a compressor does. I also shared that I believed that producers were just being lazy and using compression as a shortcut so they didn’t have to teach their musicians and singers proper mic and recording control. Heavy compression and limiting means you don’t have to fix the recordings as much, saving studio time, and thus getting a production out faster. I did say that compression is not bad, but it is overused. Correctly and judiciously applied, compression can really have a positive effect on a production.

But despite that, I didn’t write the article. I can’t explain why… Looking back, I suppose it may have been in large part due to wanting to focus more on getting gear reviews out, and focusing a lot on my own recordings. But I recently read an article in the new issue of Guitar World that covered compression: What it is, what it’s used for, and how to apply compression to vocals and various instruments. It was very instructive. As I eluded above, compression can be a very useful tool in the studio to tame wide swings in volume in a vocal or an instrument, and can add presence, and because of how it works, in many cases, a compressor is used to add sustain. At its most basic level, a compressor reduces the amount of dynamic range by reducing sounds that exceed a predetermined volume threshold; but because this also reduces the overall volume of the signal, makeup gain is added to bring up the volume of the quieter sounds. The end result is that you get a “fatter” signal.

I’m not going to go into any technical detail about compression. For that you can read this excellent reference. In fact, I’m going to assume you already know a bit about compression.

And while compression is very useful, as with anything you can have too much of a good thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t use it, but I am going to make an appeal: Don’t get sucked into the trend of creating a less dynamic recording. I can understand the need for compression over radio, but this trend is simply making for much lower audio quality and less dynamically expressive recordings.

Good Mic Technique

I was once speaking with this old timer named Patrick who, at 72, is still gigging and recording. I was talking to him about recording, and he said that young people don’t know good mic technique, and complained about the overuse of compression. His words, “Boy, back in the day, we didn’t have compression. So when a singer like Sinatra got to a phrase where he needed to pick up his volume, he just moved away from the mic. It ain’t goddamn rocket science. But compression made people lazy.”

Wow! What a statement, and it really is easy to do for a singer. But what about guitars? This is a bit tougher, but at least what I strive for is to make sure I’ve got a lot of dynamic range in my recordings by either tweaking the input or output gain so my waveforms have as much vertical travel variation on the track as possible. I will sacrifice volume for dynamics. After the fact, I may add a touch of compression, but only very limited, and to keep true to the natural output of the amp, use fairly short release times. This is approach can be a lot of work because it requires that I play fairly consistently, but that’s also good training. It’s also a lot of work to get a good mix, but in the end it’s totally worth it!

I believe if you just start with good mic technique, and use compression sparingly, your recordings will come alive.

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