Compression is one of the most powerful tools in your mixing arsenal, and learning how to use a compressor properly is essential for mixing high-quality, radio-ready music.
Of course, trying to break down a bit subject like compression can be quite difficult, especially when you realize how many controls there are. In this article, we want to dive in and talk about finding the perfect compressions settings for your mixes!
What Is Compression and Why Do I Need It?
Compression is an audio processing tool that reduces the dynamic range of a signal.
The dynamic range is the difference between the softest and loudest parts of your audio signal. To help your audio signals sound natural on a recording without poking out of the speakers, reducing the dynamic range is important.
Let’s imagine for a second that we have a vocalist who whispers and screams during the same chorus. If we left the dynamic range wide open like you would hear it in real life, it would be incredibly distracting, not to mention potentially painful.
With a compressor, you attenuate the loud peaks in your track, which, in turn, boosts the quieter parts.
How Does Compression Work?
The basic idea of compression is that it reduces the volume of a signal once that signal passes a specified threshold.
Beyond the threshold, there are many other controls you can use to determine exactly how your compressor will behave.
How To Use a Compressor - Basic Controls
Let’s take a look at some of the basic controls found on compressors and our favorite dynamic tool in FL Studio, the Fruity Limiter.
The threshold is the level where the compressor will begin working. You will set the threshold level using a dB control, which will determine the portion of a signal that the compressor acts on.
If you set the threshold at a relatively high point, it will simply reduce the gain of the transients that are most aggressive. The lower you set it, the more of the signal it will compress.
Your ratio control is how much gain the compressor reduces when your audio signal goes beyond the threshold.
The ratio control is written like a ratio (2:1, 4:1, 8:1, 10:1, etc.), comparing the amount of compression in dB with the level of the unaffected signal. Higher first numbers mean more aggressive compression.
So, for example, a 2:1 ratio is very light compression, while a 10:1 ratio is extremely aggressive compression.
A compressor that has a 20:1 ratio or higher is usually referred to as a limiter. Brickwall limiters go even higher so that no portion of the signal can pass over the threshold. These tools are great for mastering, though can also be great for keeping ultra-dynamic instruments in check.
Attack and Release
Your attack and release controls determine how quickly or slowly your compressor reacts. So many people forget to adjust these controls when setting their compression, which is why they have such a difficult time getting their compression settings to sound musical.
You need to ask yourself a few questions, such as:
How should your compressor’s gain reduction react once the signal passes above the threshold?
Do you want it to act on the signal immediately or wait a split second to allow the transient to poke through?
Once it grabs on, should it let go right away or very gradually?
Here are a few attack and release tips that we find work really well most of the time:
Of course, these guidelines are very general, and it’s up to you to listen carefully while adjusting your attack and release settings.
The Fruity Compressor features a ‘Type’ setting, which is very similar to a Knee setting found on a traditional compressor. The type of compression is the rate at which the compression is applied.
A ‘SOFT’ setting introduces more gradual compression while a ‘HARD’ setting delivers immediate compression. For middle-of-the-road compression, we recommend using ‘VINTAGE’ and ‘MEDIUM’ settings.
Using The Fruity Compressor on Different Instruments
Now comes the fun part! Let’s take a look at some of the best settings for individual instruments
How To Compress Vocals
When compressing vocals, we typically like to start with a medium attack time, somewhere around 15ms. This will allow some of the transients through without making the vocals too spitty or accentuating sibilance.
Here are some thoughts to make setting attack times easier:
- A fast attack will give your vocals a thick and heavy sound.
- A slow attack will give your vocals some punch and aggression.
When it comes to the release time, it’s typically a good idea to start with a medium release time (around 40ms) and adjust to taste. The goal should be to get your compressor working in time with the music.
Once you’ve found the perfect attack and release times, you can dial your ratio back down to around 1:5:1. Lastly, adjust your threshold until you’re around 3-4dB on average. Of course, some genres will require heavier compression. I’ll often compress pop or rock vocals up to 10dB or more if they need it.
However, for this, I typically recommend using serial compression, which is multiple compressors, each taking care of a few dB of compression.
How To Compress Bass
When dialing in compression for bass, I often use a medium attack time. Of course, it’s important to listen to your bass in context with the rest of your track.
For example, if you’re dealing with a heavy-picked bass or a plucky synth bass where the attack sticks out too much, you might consider a faster attack time to tame that transient.
On the other hand, if your bass is lacking the punch you want, you might consider using a slower attack time to accentuate the transient.
The release time will also depend on the part. Shorter, more rhythmic bass parts require fast release times so that they don’t get bogged down by the compressor. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with long, sustained notes, it can be a good idea to use slower release times to maintain volume throughout the length of each note.
Again, I think it’s a good idea to try and follow the natural envelope of the bass performance when it comes to the release time. However, because Fruity Compressor does not have a gain reduction needle, you’ll need to use your ears.
I recommend soloing your bass when setting your release time so you can listen very intently.
When dialing in the ‘Type’ knob, I often like to choose between the MEDIUM or VINTAGE settings, as they provide a solid balance between the HARD and SOFT settings. The compression on these settings is far gentler than the HARD setting, though it offers a slight bit less transparency than the SOFT setting to keep your bass in line!
How To Compress Drums
I’m going to assume, for the sake of this article, that you are using electronic drums or samples. Now, more often than not, these kinds of drums won’t need any compression, as most drum samples and loops already have compression baked in.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t add a bit of flavor to your drums with bus compression.
Bus compression is great for gluing together your various samples and loops so that they all sound like a single, cohesive unit. This form of compression should not be heavy-handed, as the last thing you want to do is crush the life out of your drums.
When it comes to drum compression, the most important control to pay attention to is the attack time.
Your attack time will determine how much punch your compressor will add or take away from your drums. And, as we know, the punch of drums is what makes them sound so exciting! If you want hard-hitting drums, dialing in the correct attack time is crucial
With a slow attack setting, you can enhance the transient punch of your drums to breathe life into them and make them sound energetic.
It’s also important to set the release time correctly. Fast release times are great for drums, as they can add volume and density, accentuating any low-level details, such as ambiance present in the samples or the decay of each drum hit.
Understanding the Side Effects of Compression
We thought it was important to end this article with a small word of caution.
Depending on the compression settings you use, you may introduce distortion into your signal.
Is this a bad thing?
Not necessarily. Sometimes that added bit of clipping can sound really nice in a mix, giving your signal that extra bit it needs to stick out. However, if you want to maintain a clean signal and keep your compression as transparent as possible while taming dynamics, be careful with how aggressively you set your compressor.
When Should I Use Compression In MIxing?
In our experience, there are three reasons why you might choose to use compression in your mix. These reasons include:
- Transients are popping out of your mix
- Your mix lacks punch and doesn’t have enough transients
- You want to create a space in your mix where things feel glued together
Check out our video, How To Master in FL Studio, where we talk about using compression and other tools across your entire mix.
Even at this point, you might be thinking,
Do I really NEED a compressor?
Definitely not! While compressors can be super helpful for taming dynamics and shaping the tone of different instruments, they’re not always necessary. Sometimes, distortion or saturation can provide a more desirable effect while taming dynamics too!
Of course, if you ever feel like your mix is calling out for compression, you now have the knowledge to use it with ease.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to take your production and mixing knowledge to higher levels, there is no better way than taking an online course! Make sure to check out our bundle of online courses at FL Tips, which focus on everything from music theory to mixing and mastering in FL Studio!