I was chatting with Rob Mayzes the other day about compression. Rob is a freelance mixer, musician, and educator. He has helped thousands of home studio owners produce better music and mixes through his website Musician on a Mission. After chatting a while I asked him to write a guest article on Compression techniques for Electronic Music. Here is his article. Love some of the ideas and reframing he shares:
If you find yourself applying compression because you feel you should, stop what you are doing. It took me a long time to truly understand compression. At first, I didn’t quite understand how it worked. But it didn’t take long to get to grips with the various parameters… Yet once I understood how compression worked, a new question came up.
Why do I need compression, and when should I use it?
I have spent 12 years mastering the use of compression and taught over half a million people about mixing in the process. Along the way, I have noticed one vital mistake pop up time and time again…
The assumption that the use of compression is the same in all genres.
It simply isn’t.
You’re about to learn why compression can make your electronic music sound far worse if used incorrectly… and what you should be doing instead.
Using Compression in Electronic Music
For most genres, compression is vital. After the volume fader and EQ, it’s one of your most useful tools.But most genres doesn’t mean ALL genres. In electronic music, this isn’t the case. You may have been misled by mixing tutorials that refer to genres with more acoustic elements, like rock music. In genres that contain a lot of acoustic instrument, compression is an absolute necessity.
But electronic music?
Samples are consistent in volume by nature. As are most virtual instruments. And managing dynamics is a natural part of the sound design process. In this case, there is no reason to use compression to tame dynamics. If you find yourself applying compression because you feel you should, stop what you are doing.
If you find yourself applying compression because you feel you should, stop what you are doing.
This is a fast way to completely remove the life and energy from your mix. Use compression just for the sake of it, and your mix could end up like this…
Every move you make when mixing should be intentional. You notice a problem that needs addressing, then you figure out how to fix it.
If the levels don’t need taming, you don’t need compression.
But that’s not the whole story.
There are two main reasons why compression is useful – to control dynamics (and make the volume of a source more consistent) and to shape tone. So, you don’t often need compression to tame the dynamics when working with samples and virtual instruments. But compression is still useful for shaping tone. Does a sample sound dull and lifeless? Try using a compressor with a slow attack time to dial in more aggression.
Want to make something sound thicker and heavier? Use a fast attack time to add weight to the sample. Compression is still useful, but only when you have a clear intention.
Don’t Forget the Vocals
So, the instrumental part of your track doesn’t need a ton of compression. We’re missing a key element here, though – the vocals (if your track has them). You simply can’t argue against this. You NEED compression when mixing vocals.
Often, this will be the only acoustic element within an electronic track. For this reason, this will be the only channel where you will need compression every mix. Of course, if you have other acoustic elements in your track that need taming, compression will again be useful. But here’s another mistake the people make with electronic music, and vocals specifically…
They rely on compression alone when mixing vocals.
Modern standards require the lead vocal to be super consistent, with almost every word and syllable being the same level. As pretty much every genre of electronic music falls under the category of ‘modern’, you need to make sure your vocals are under control. But compression alone isn’t enough to reach the crazy standards of dynamic consistency we expect to hear in modern music.
Instead, you need to use volume automation to do all the heavy lifting. It’s a time-consuming process, but the results speak for themselves. Then, after automating the vocal, you reign it in even more with compression. But here’s another tip – don’t just use one compressor. Use two.
Adding two compressors to your plugin chain will sound far more musical and natural than forcing one compressor to do all the work. Apply 2-5dB of gain reduction with each compressor, and your vocal will be consistent, without the risk of over-compression.
Get Compression Right Every Time
Compression isn’t an easy topic to master. This is just the beginning. If you want to dive deeper into the topic of compression and get it right every time, Download the free compression cheat sheet on this page.