The compressor is one of the three main tools for a mixer (compressor, eq, reverb). There are a ton of posts that explain how a compressor works (I even posted a video below if you’re looking for that information), so instead of adding to that library, I thought I’d post some ways I use a compressor in my mixes. These are not necessarily generally accepted techniques, but rather uses I have found for compression through experimentation and exploration.
Many times I will use compressors to direct attention toward another element in a mix. Many times I will automate the compressor to engage (or disengage) at the start of a new phrase or when I want to switch the focus of the mix. Depending on how you set your compressor, you can use it to bring elements forward or backward in the mix – but I generally tend to use it to bring elements forward by raising the makeup gain and not compressing the elements I want further back in the mix. This make the softer qualities of the element louder which in turn makes it sound closer. To think of it in spacial terms, I’ve moved the element closer to the listener while the uncompressed elements are still farther away. Lots of times I will be engaging the compression for one element in the mix at the start of a new phrase while simultaneously disengaging the compression of another element that I don’t want to be the focus any more.
Making soft qualities of an element louder can drastically change the timbre of the instrument. I especially like using compression to get the right snap sort of sound for percussion. A great example is the kick drum for dance music. Most kick drum recordings have very little high end. It’s through a combination of EQ and compression that the high end snap becomes so prominent.
Lastly, I enjoy using sidechain compression to carve out small spaces for an instrument to come through when it’s competing with another instrument. Recently, I had a piece that had a texture for a phrase, but I wanted to have another element act as a sort of stab – to play for a very short amount of time and to immediately leave. Unfortunately, no matter what EQ experimenting I did, the stab wasn’t cutting through well enough for me – I had another element that was competing with it. So, I used sidechain compression on the texture. Now when the stab came in, the sidechain compression was activated and since I had a low makeup gain setting, it was quiet during the stab and loud when the stab wasn’t playing. Now, I wouldn’t use this technique for general mixing of elements from phrase to phrase since the compression can noticeably change the timbre and sound uneven since it is reacting to another element which is inherently not at a constant level. But, in this short passage (1-2 secs) it carved out space for the stab. To listener it sounds like the texture didn’t change, there was just a stab that came in that was louder than the texture – even though overall the mix maintained the same loudness!
Compression is fascinating and I still have much more to learn on techniques of implementation. But these tricks are some of my go to’s in a mix. If you want to learn a bit more on the nuts and bolts of a compressor, watch the video below!