Saturday, June 21, 2014

Compression as a gain reduction tool vs Compression as a tone shaping tool

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
This time I would like to share with you my thoughts about compression, and its dual role in the mixing phase.
So far in our many mixing tutorials we have seen compression for its main purpose: to lower the volume of the loudest parts of a sound, thus creating room to rise the quieter parts; this is the concept of Compression used as a gain reduction tool, the way it was created in the first place, and it is explained in the compression tutorials.

The other role of this tool is to shape the tone, that's why they say that equalizaton and compression are the two main tone shaping tools, because just with them we can create modify the source sound in the 90% of what we have in mind, the rest that cannot be done with them is to be considered just the icing on the cake.
With "tone shaping tool" I mean that we can use the compressor not only to intervene with the gain but also to modify the structure of a sound and make it better, in a way similar to the equalization.
This concept applies especially with drums and vocals: there are times in which we would like to give fatness to a sound and to make it more similar to what the radiophonic rock songs sounds like, and we use the equalizer trying to pump up the lower mids, with the results that our tone loses clarity and becomes boomy, while we could just use compression in an intelligent way, and we would get much closer to our target even without touching the eq.
Drums and vocals are instruments with a very high dynamic range, and if we don't compress the sound wisely we will end up hearing just the loudest frequences and lose all the rest of the content, which is what gives "the body" to a sound: think about the snare sound, its original tone is usually snappy and ringy, but we need it to make it sit in the mix in a stable way, and at the same time to make it sound fuller, and with some tail similar to a gunshot: if we start compressing it, beside the evident gain reduction that must be compensated, we will notice that the sound will gradually lose its snap, and will become more and more explosive until, if we keep turning the knob, the sound will become an almost inaudible "oomph".
Our target would ideally be somewhere in between, with the snare stable (which means that it doesn't disappear nor covers the other instruments), and with the right amount of snap and explosiveness.
Radiophonic rock producers tends to compress drums very much to leave the sound full and to make it always audible, even if the radio signal is low, and to obtain this they often kill most of the dynamics, but it's a trade that's worthy, speaking about music that will often be heard in the car stereo, with sub-par signal-to noise conditions.
Compression can be used as a tone shaping tool also for bass, giving it attack, roar in the lower mids and clarity, and to vocals, fattening the sound without intervening with the additive eq, that most of the times can damage the sound, somehow.
In order to use Compression as a tone shaping tool, the producers have also created Multiband Compression, which is a step in between a comp and an eq, and it's aimed mainly to compress some areas avoiding damaging other parts of the spectrum, and to modify only the tone of some parts of the mix/master.

I hope this helped you understanding some of the collateral functions of this powerful tool!

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