This is Part 2 of an article series on Dynamics & Compression, so make sure you read the first part so you have all the necessary info. You'll need this in order to understand what we're talking about in this article!
In the first part we covered Compression and Dynamics; what a Compressor is, how it works, what the controls are, and some examples of the effects a Compressor can have when set differently each time. We also covered Multiband Compression and discussed a few examples of how that can work. In this second part, we will look at a few examples of using Compressors creatively, or to get better results than you may be currently getting. So, make sure you're all read up on all things Compressors, and let's dive right on in!
What if two are better than one?
Have you ever found yourself in a scenario when making music where applying an effect just isn't giving you the sound you're looking for? Well, have you ever tried applying two of the same effect, just to see what happens? You can get some cool results when doing this with a tonne of effects, but what if you were to do it with a Compressor?
Sometimes you can run into a problem if you're only using one Compressor, as no single setting works on a signal. Maybe there's just too much going on to be fixed by one Compressor. Perhaps some gentle compression is letting the peaks through despite adding density and evening out the sound. This is particularly common when it comes to bass guitar or vocal lines.
A good trick to combat this, if you have big peaks still jumping through, is using manual automation. Remember, Compression is a dynamic processor, so sometimes it could be necessary to go in and manually give the Compressor a hand. Manually reducing the volume of peaks using automation can get around this problem and give you a more even sound, but who has the time to do that? If you want to know another way you can do this, read on.
Adding two compressors in series with different settings can be a good way to tackle two different problems in an audio signal. Maybe your signal has really high peaks, but also lacks density. It's tough to solve that with one compressor, so why don't we set one to tackle one problem, and a second one for the other problem?
Get yourself a vocal sample and stick it on an audio channel. Preferably one with big peaks in the audio. Then, add a Compressor, and using a relatively low ratio (something in the region of 2:1), adjust the Threshold so you're getting a few dBs of gain reduction on the loudest sections. Make sure you've set your attack to somewhere between 10-20ms to ensure those transients pass through!
Next, insert a second Compressor and use a higher ratio. I've gone with 8:1 in my example, but do whatever works for you. It's important to really use your ears in this scenario. Try and get about 4 or 5 dB of gain reduction on this one. You can see the settings I've used below.
Then, the combined effect of both Compressors working in series can give you better control over the signal. This is an area where you need to be careful you don't over do it, because there's nothing worse than something sounding super over compressed! The pros will carefully consider the role of each Compressor when applying them in series in this way, so make sure that if you're using more than one Compressor, you're sure why you're doing it.
Using Parallel Compression
Parallel Compression is a dark horse. While it's capable of elevating a mix from sub par to supersonic, there are lots of elements to consider when you're doing this. You need to make sure you're doing it right, otherwise the results will not sound so great.
But what is Parallel Compression?
Confusingly, it isn't using two Compressors together, like in our previous example. It's actually blending a compressed signal with an unaltered one, and is sometimes called 'New York style' Compression.
So how do you do it?
You apply parallel compression differently to how you apply it in a regular setting. Instead of dropping a Compressor onto an insert slot on the channel you're wanting to process, instead you have to create a return channel and put your Compressor on there. Remember, Parallel Compression is used to ensure a compressed sound without sacrificing the dynamics of a performance, so we need two channels in order to blend the signals together.
So let's explore this.
As you can see in the image above, I've placed a Drum Loop onto an Audio channel. You can see from the waveform in the Audio Clip that it's a nice dynamic drum performance, with both large transient peaks and quiter sections.
You'll also see one of my Return channels labelled 'Compressor' which is highlighted.
The settings on my Compressor are intentionally drastic. I've set the ratio to all the way, and I'm doing this because when using parallel Compression, you introduce a highly compressed signal into the mix along with the same sound source without any dynamic processing. So the compressed signal has to have the dynamic processing applied to the entire range of loud and quiet parts. The entire signal because denser with the dynamics pulled back, so the quieter sections are almost as loud as the louder parts.
Solo the Compressor channel and listen to how it sounds. Pretty useless on its own, right?
However, when you blend in the uncompressed signal, you will hear the dynamics are brought back into the performance. The mixing of the two signals means you're getting the peaks from the uncompressed signal, and the dynamics. This technique is great for giving you an audio signal that has a larger-than-life sound and density, but without sacrificing those all important dynamics.
Used carefully, parallel compression can add weight and depth to your mixes. It's great on drums, bass and vocals, and can even be used on a full mix. But remember, it's a powerful technique, so needs to be respected. You aren't going to get good results by just slamming on a Compressor and leaving it at that. It rewards experimentation, so if you have several Compressors in your arsenal (either hardware or software) try them out.
You can even apply some light compression to the unprocessed signal, so you could use two compressors in this way. Set some time aside to mess around with your different tools and see what gives you the best results!