4 Great Compression Techniques

Posted by The Audio Hunt

Thomas Juth is a multi-Grammy Award winning mix engineer, whose discography includes artists such as: Jamie Cullum, Jesse & Joy, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Luis Fonsi, James Bay, Joshua Radin, and many more. He recently took some time to share with us how he uses compressors in his work.

4 Great Compression Techniques

As a Mix Engineer, I have always had a fascination for compressors and compression.

It all started when I was a kid, after hearing the compressed drum sound of The Beatles’ “Come Together”. I was blown away by what I heard, and spent my teens trying to figure out how it was done and how to emulate it. This search eventually brought me to the legendary Fairchild 660 compressor, and a whole world of compressors suddenly opened up to me.

What I have learnt over the years is how compressors can be used in many different ways, and for different purposes. The most obvious reason for using compressors is, of course, to control the dynamic range of a sound. However, a compressor can also be used for other purposes.

Let’s look closer at four different examples of how a compressor can be used, apart from controlling the dynamic range.

1. Adding color and character

My favorite thing with compressors is how they are all so different. Even though they all basically do the same thing, each compressor has its own color, and adds its own texture to the sound.

A Fairchild 660, for example, will give the transients of the drums a different vibe than a SSL compressor. Some compressors add their own unique color to the sound, simply by running sound through it. So I would recommend experimenting with a selection of compressors, and really learn how each one can color the sound (in terms of color and character).

If one starts seeing compressors as “color boxes” (which doesn’t always have to be used for controlling the dynamic range) mixing becomes even more fun and creative.

2. Creating depth and adding size

Another great way of using a compressor is as an “ambiance control”. If you are working with acoustic sounds, which already have some natural ambience, a compressor can bring out more of that ambience. One good trick, for example, is to make a duplicate of the sound you are working on, and then totally squash it. This will leave you with a sound that has almost no direct sound, and almost only ambience. By mixing in a tiny bit of the compressed signal, together with the original signal, you will instantly add a new dimension and “life” to the sound. I love doing this with lead vocals that were recorded in a great sounding room (and which has a nice ambience to begin with).

3. Adding or removing attack/punch

Apart from reinforcing ambience, a compressor can also bring out (or reduce) other parts of a sound as well. For example, by compressing a sound using a very long ‘attack time’ the compressor will automatically reinforce the transients of the sound. The result will be a very punch and “in your face” sound.

On the other hand, if you instead use a very fast ‘attack time’ the transients will be reduced and smoothen out. This will move the sound backwards in the mix. So in a way, one can move sounds closer or further away by using compression as well.

One can take this a step further and use parallel compression (just like in the last example). Simply duplicate the sound, and then compress it a lot using a very long ‘attack time’. Then blend this punchy duplicate in with the original sound.

In this way, the original sound will stay intact and maintain its full dynamic range. However, you will add a lot of extra punch to the transients.

4. Side-chaining and creating pumping effects

The forth tip/technique is one that most people use daily when mixing electronic music. One simply has to send an external signal into the side-chain of the compressor  (not every compressor offers this option though), so that the external signal controls the movement of the compressor.

The aim when working with side-chains (in this way) is usually to create a pumping effect. This is a great way to create extra movement and rhythmic content in a mix, and to reinforce the groove of a song.

I sometimes use this in very subtle ways, even when mixing other styles of music. For example, one can side-chain (using the kick drum kick) an electric bass or an already rhythmic guitar, in order to make them groove better. I sometimes even side-chain reverbs, in order to tidy up the mix or to create cool effects.

So the next time you are working on a mix, try using this technique in creative ways (and in music genres where you normally wouldn’t use it).

Interested in learning more about compression? Check out my ebook.