Tagged mastering

Beginner’s Guide to Compression: Part 2 – Common Uses

Last time we looked at the basics of what a compressor is, and what it does. In today’s post, we look at common uses of compression in music production, so you know what you’re trying to achieve when you fire up your compressor – essential for using it well.

We won’t get into specific settings as that always depends on the material you’re compressing, rather, this is about reasons why you might use compression.

Consistent levels

The most basic use is to even out inconsistent levels by bringing down the loud bits. It’s often said that ‘the most transparent compressor is you’ which is true – if consistent levels are what you’re after, you might be better off with volume fader automation.

However, if you’re pushed for time, lazy, or after something more than just consistent levels (see below) then compression is the answer for you.

Thickness

Stillwell BombardierThickness is one of those near-mythical qualities often ascribed to compressors. Essentially, it’s a by-product of reducing the dynamic range, but the amount of thickness you get is dependent on what type, and model, of compressor you’re using.

Thickness is one of those things that people often say is far easier to achieve with analogue, and tubes in particular are renowned for sounding ‘fat’ (the Manley we use for mastering certainly does), but there are some very natural sounding plug-ins that do a great job.

Fabfilter’s Pro-C is a versatile and affordable compressor, and Stillwell Audio’s Bombardier is reputedly great for mix bus duties.

Punch

The level of ‘punch’ you get is again incredibly dependent on how the exact compressor you’re using reacts, but by and large any compressor can achieve it.

Punch is achieved by allowing transients (the ‘attack’ portion of the signal) through before compressing the remainder. It’s a consequence of the difference in level between the attack and the sustain.

It depends on the material, but greater punch (and more natural sounding compression) is usually achieved with slower attack settings, and medium release times.

Colour/character

Completely dependent on the compressor you’re using. Some compressors become famous for their tone, while others are known for their transparency. It’s really a matter of taste when it comes to character.

Our Manley gives a great tube vibe to anything put through it, but the TC Electronic MD3 is so transparent you almost wouldn’t know it was there (except that everything sounds better). Each has their uses.

Manley Vari-Mu

Glue

Another near-mythical quality of compression is ‘glue’. Generally referred to for sub-mixes or across the whole mix, compression can make everything sit together in a cohesive way that is difficult to achieve without it.

Again, some compressors are better at it than others, and you probably won’t get that close to ‘glue’ with a generic stock compressor or workman-like plug-in. This is what high-end outboard (and emulations thereof) is essential for.

Loudness

It’s been said that loudness is the mastering engineer’s job, and compressors are his weapons. This is a simplification of course, but it’s also very true.

Achieving loudness across a whole track is an art, but in simple terms is a case of raising the level of the whole track without harming the peaks. If you compress too much you lose transients, and therefore the attacks of notes, and the music loses all impact. Compress too little and you have a quiet track.

(Naturally there is more to achieving loudness than just compression, but it does go a long way…)

The same principles can be used for amplifying individual parts – something live engineers struggling to get the vocal above a loud drummer will be familiar with.

Whatever you’re using compression for – make sure you know why you’re using it and you’ll get far better results.

Next time: different types of compressor and their uses.

What Makes a Pro a Pro

One thing almost every home studio owner has in common is a lack of confidence. Not having been to studio school or worked their way up in a professional studio has led them to question their ability. But it’s not a degree or years of making the tea that make a pro a pro, that’s just how a lot of people get there.

There’s no reason you can’t get be a professional without a laminated piece of paper or an aversion to tannins.

Knowing when it’s right

The major difference between professionals and amateurs (and this is true in any industry, not just recording) is knowing when it’s right.

This means two things:

  1. Knowing when to hold back
  2. Not accepting substandard results

The first is a case of knowing when something’s right and leaving it well alone. One of the most common amateur mistakes is over-processing, whether through not recognising a finished product or trying to justify themselves. Sometimes (very occasionally) your role as a live/mixing/mastering engineer is just to say that it’s right. Not everything needs your killer reverb preset.

The second is never calling a project finished until it is. If you’re under time constraints it’s fine to go for the best you can achieve in the time. But otherwise, if you know something’s wrong, don’t accept it and move on. Figure out how to fix it. If you don’t already know, experiment, Google it, ask someone else.

Knowledge

Of course, you won’t always know how to fix something, or what something should sound like. And that’s where experience comes in. You won’t always get it right, but another mark of a consummate professional is admitting when you don’t know something and ceding to someone who does.

Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ If you’ve tried everything you can and it’s still not right, don’t just say it can’t be done. Give it to someone who can do it and find out how they do it. Then next time you’ll be able to do it yourself.

There’s very little that can’t be done with modern recording technology – even with stock plugins. If you really can’t get something to sound right, chances are there’s some little trick out there that you don’t know (yet).

Tools

Notice how tools is the last section? That’s because although most of us in this industry geekily obsess over gear, it’s not the gear that makes the pro. It’s how you use it.

If you’ve got a reasonably up to date DAW, a decent set of speakers in a decent sounding room, you’ve already got the tools. Everything else is adjusting to taste.

This post is the last in a loose trilogy of posts about achieving pro results from home recording equipment – read the first two: The Biggest Mistake Home Producers Make and Making it Sound Deliberate.

Photo credit spjwebster

Dynamic Range Metering and Loudness Metering

They’ve been around for a couple of years, but dynamic range and loudness meters still aren’t that widespread. We’ve recently starting using both for mastering and thought it was high time we offered up a primer.

Dynamic range metering

Dynamic range metering is specifically for use in mastering, although there’s no reason you shouldn’t use it earlier in the chain. TT dynamic range meter is the only such meter we’re aware of, which is brought to you by the Pleasurize Music Foundation (a collaboration between various plug-in developers).

The production of the meter is part of a broader mission to reintroduce dynamic range to recordings and make them more pleasurable to listen to following the hyper-compression of the loudness wars.

Dynamic range infographicIt can operate in real-time, but more useful is the offline meter which gives you a single number value of dynamic range. This is broadly similar to the crest factor of the recording (the difference between peak level and average/RMS level) but slightly different due to statistical weighting.

Obviously you have to use your ears to tell you if something is over-compressed or not, but the dynamic range meter is a handy indicator of whether you’ve gone too far or not, particularly when used in conjunction with their lovely genre-specific infographic guide to what you should be aiming for (right).

Loudness metering

RMS meters have been used for years as de facto loudness meters, by giving the average level rather than peak level they offered a much more useful approximation of loudness than PPM meters. However, when it comes down to it, something that registers at 0dB on an RMS meter can sound much softer or louder than a recording of an equal level.

Loudness meters measure the average level of a recording, but filter it with a specific frequency weighting designed to more closely mimic how we actually hear recordings. This way you get a much more useful method of comparing subjective loudness between recordings measured in Loudness Units (Decibels are so last year).

They’re more widespread in broadcast work where standards have already been set for loudness. Although the use of loudness meters isn’t mandatory in the UK as of yet, it will be within a few years, partly in an effort to control the programme/advert loudness difference.

We’ve started loading one of these up in mastering projects (using the excellent PPMulator + plugin) and they’re very interesting indeed. They will undoubtedly become more common over the next few years, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with one if you’re serious about professional audio work (particularly in film and TV). Audiocation have produced a free loudness meter that you can download here.

Naturally, if you’re curious, we’re happy to provide Dynamic Range and Loudness Unit values free of charge when you use us for mastering. Just tell us you’d like them when you contact us with your project details.

Have you tried dynamic range metering or loudness metering?