Today’s entire episode is focused on the art and science of compression. Joining Scott is Jason Moss, a veteran mixing engineer and the founder of BehindTheSpeakers.com. He has worked with Glassnote, Disney, and Sony, as well as dozens of indie artists, and often lectures on mixing.
Compression is something that lots of mixers and engineers struggle to understand and apply well. When you grasp the concept that compression is nothing more than an automatic volume knob, you’ll start to make some serious strides in the quality of your mixing. There are a lot of different ways compression can be executed, but that idea is key.
The audio tip of the week is about serial compression. Previous episodes have covered parallel compression, and this is another way to compress for great sound. It’s a useful technique to add to your bag of tricks.
Later on in the episode, Scott and Jason get more specific and actionable with their tips. They cover techniques specific to compressing vocals, drums, and complete tracks. All compression is not created equal, and you should build your mix up gradually, rather than in one bold compression move. You will leave this episode with fresh ideas, new moves, and a broader perspective on how to utilize compression!
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
- Audio tip of the week: Serial compression, the practice of using multiple compressors in a series or chain, will give you smooth results and a lively sound. This is a common practice for vocals, often used by mastering engineers.
- Jason’s background as a musician, songwriter, audio engineer, and mixer.
- A basic definition of compression.
- How to avoid over-compression and squashing your sound.
- Jason’s best compression tips for vocals and drums.
- Secrets of multi-band compression.
Featured on the Show:
- Connect with Jason Moss: Behind the Speakers
- Click here for a special Compression Pack for AudioSkills Subscribers!
- Bob Power
- Fletcher–Munson Curves
- Connect with the Show: Website | YouTube
Don’t miss an episode – subscribe to the AudioSkills Podcast!
Full Transcript of This Episode
Scott: Hey, what’s going on everyone? Scott here with you for this latest episode of the Audio Skills podcast. Before getting into today’s show, I wanted to give a huge thank you to everyone for listening. We are closing in on 15,000 downloads all time, and that is just incredible, and simply wouldn’t be possible without your support. If you like the show, and you like what we do here, then I’d really appreciate if you could go to iTunes, and please rate it and review it. We’ve got a bunch of downloads, as I mentioned, but currently only 11 reviews of the show. Partly because I haven’t asked you guys for them. So if you could help me out by giving a rating and a review, that would be really huge in helping our show continue to grow. So thanks again so much guys.
All right. Now let’s jump into our show for today. I’m really excited about what we’ve got for you today, because this show is going to be all about compression, and giving you some tips and advice on that. Compression is one of those things that can really make or break a project. I wanted to dedicate a whole show to it. Joining me to help de-mystify compression will be Jason Moss who is a fantastic mixing engineer, and founder of behindthespeakers.com. Before we chat with Jason though, it’s time for yet another audio tip of the week. As always, this tip of the week is my way of giving podcast listeners actionable takeaways, just like people who are members of the Audio Skills site, read my articles, or watch our YouTube videos, I want you to get new skills.
My audio tip for this week is about using compression in series, and more specifically doing it for vocals. Now, we’ve talked about using parallel compression before. Having a compressed signal, and an uncompressed signal in parallel that you would blend together. But another thing that you can do, something which was actually pioneered more by mastering engineers is to use multiple compressors in a series, or in a chain, which is called serial compression. So instead of trying to get 10 dB of gain reduction from one compressor, using two compressors each with five dB of gain reduction to total up to 10. This can get you smoother results, and help you avoid choking the life out of a track with a compressor by kind of spreading the compression across multiple compressors. Now you can also use two compressors in series on vocals for better results. For example, for the first compressor in the series, give it pretty light settings maybe between you know, one and four dB of compression with a fast attack. Now this is designed to just control the peaks of the vocal a bit. Then you can add a second compressor next in the chain with a slower attack, and maybe a little heavier compression or to your taste to really shape the tone of the vocal.
And again, this is just something that you can do to try to, I guess, be a little lighter with your compression, and have a little more control over the compression, and make it smoother and not so jarring, which is the thing that can really make compression sound not ideal, to put it one way. So try it out and see if you like what it’s doing to your vocal. If not, hey, at least you have something else there in the bag of tricks should you want to use it someday. That is your audio tip of the week.
All right, so now we’re going to move on to our main interview and topic for this week. I am so thrilled to introduce our guest who is going to help shed some more light on compression. Jason Moss is a professional mixer whose clients have included Disney, Sony, Glassnote, and many, many independent artists. He’s a graduate of NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and frequently goes back to lecture on mixing there. And he’s written how-to articles featured on Sonic Scoop, Berklee Tune Choir, and many other places. Most notably, he’s the founder of behindthespeakers.com, which helps people take their mixes from good to great. So Jason, what’s up, man? How you doing?
Jason: Hey Scott. That was great, so thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Scott: For sure, for sure. How are things going in your summer so far?
Jason: Everything is good. I don’t spend as much time outside as I probably should, as I’m sure many of us probably don’t.
Scott: Oh sure.
Jason: It’s beautiful here in sunny California, so everything is well.
Scott: Right on, yeah. I’m actually getting ready to go on a vacation where it’s not looking so sunny. I’m going to the United Kingdom, so there’ll be lots of rain, but hey, I expect that. Not so much if I was going to California.
Jason: Yeah, well hey. I hope you have a good time.
Scott: Thank you. Okay, to start us off, can you just tell us a little bit more about your experience with mixing, and what you’re doing over at Behind The Speakers?
Jason: Sure. My journey into mixing really started like most people, as a musician and a singer-songwriter. When I was in high school I was playing shows and recording my own music. My first studio was basically built from an old HP computer that I pulled out of my neighbors garage can.
Scott: Wow, I love that.
Jason: Oh yeah. It could only do two tracks, and you really had to make decisions very quickly. But it was a great start. So I was lucky enough to attend NYU’s Clive Davis Institute, which is a really wonderful, small school and recording program. When I first got there, it was really this moment of like, I grew up in a small town, and in that small town I was kind of known as the music kid, so I was going to the big city, and kind of being surrounded with all these incredible, talented people for the first time.
Scott: A bigger pond, as it were.
Jason: Yeah. Exactly. So that first year was really this kind of realization of, “Okay, maybe I’m not the best artist or singer or songwriter in the world.” But what I could do that nobody else could do was make really great sounding records.
Scott: Right on.
Jason: I was always really into technology. So that was really the beginning of my transition from singer-songwriter to engineer. Along the way, when I was at school, I was lucky enough to study with some really incredible mixers and producers and engineers. Bob Power, Jim Anderson, who’s a really great jazz engineer, Kevin Killen. Just some really incredible people who were gracious enough to share their knowledge with me. So when I got out of school and started my mixing career, the original inspiration behind starting Behind The Speakers was to share some of that, to share some of the knowledge and the experience that I gained from this amazing education, and my brief journey as a professional engineer with some people who maybe didn’t have that same opportunity. So this was kind of a relatively new step for me. Behind The Speakers is about a year and a half old now, but the reaction has just been incredible, and it’s just given me this amazing opportunity to connect with so many incredibly talented people from all over the world. I’m still learning, and I’m still growing, as we all are, but I’m lucky to be where I am today.
Scott: Right on. I love that you mention that you’re still learning. That’s something that I think, especially folks who might just be starting out, or people who are at a point of frustration, they’re not happy with their results. We are all still learning. If you’re doing it right, you should try to be learning something every day no matter what it is. It is a lifelong pursuit, recording, mixing music, doing all these kinds of things, producing.
Jason: 100 percent.
Scott: And so yeah. I love that.
Jason: One of my big realizations back in college was one of my mentors, Bob Power, who is in his 60s now. He’s an incredible mixing engineer. He’s been mixing most of his life. He took me aside one day, and said, “Jason, you know, my mixes have improved more in the last five or 10 years than they have in my entire life.” This is the guy who’s been mixing for decades.
Jason: If he can say that, I think we all can, too. I agree. There really is never a point of arrival. It’s kind of just always looking for that next step.
Scott: Absolutely. On this episode, I really wanted to talk about compression, which I know is something a lot of people struggle with. It really doesn’t matter what your skill level is, or how long you’ve been doing it. At some point, you may have some frustration with compression and there’s no shame in that. To start us off, I know some people struggle with just really, I guess, understanding what compression is. I’m wondering, how would you describe or define compression to someone who’s maybe newer to all this or might be, I don’t know, thinking about it in not the best way, or maybe looking for a new way to think about it.
Jason: Got it. If you’re struggling with compression, you’re definitely not alone. I think that for many mixers and producers and engineers, like Scott was saying, I think it’s probably one of the most challenging parts or tools in the mixing process. But really to break it down, compression is nothing more than an automatic volume knob. In the same way that you grab a fader, and turn that fader up and down to make a track louder or softer, a compressor is basically just turning down the level of a sound. It can do that in a lot of different ways, and that can lead to a lot of different results, but really all that compression is doing is basically turning things down when they exceed the threshold, which is a control that you set on the compressor. So where that gets kind of confusing is that there are so many different things that you can do with that, and so many effects that that can create. But really, simply, it’s nothing more than a glorified volume knob really.
Scott: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now one of the first things maybe people kind of figure out, oh, this is what compression’s all about, then the next thing they might hear, and I know I kind of shout about this a lot is you want to not over compress things. You don’t want to squash the life out of your mix, and do that, unless you’re going for a specific effect, of course. There are types of music where you might want that. My question to you is do you have any advice or rules or techniques to help people avoid over compressing, and having kind of an amateur or over compressed, squashed sound?
Jason: Sure. A couple things I’ll say on this. The first is that in general when it comes to anything that you do in the mixing process, I think where people get into trouble is that they don’t really have an intention or reason behind the decisions that they make. So whenever we’re adding plug-ins or processing to tracks for no reason, based on something that we read online, or because we think we should be proactive and compress something. Not based on the sound that’s coming out of the speakers, but based on some other reason, that’s when people really get into trouble. The first thing that I would say is that you really gotta know why you’re using it. You gotta have a goal that you’re aiming for. If you’re just grabbing compression and throwing it on different tracks for no reason, I think that’s when you get into trouble. That’s number one. If you have an intention and if you had a reason for what you’re doing, then I don’t think there are any rules or kind of hard and fast guidelines, like you were saying before. There are certain genres where heavy compression is kind of a hallmark part of that sound, and there are other genres and sounds where you might want to be more subtle. I think it really goes back to having an intention and a reason behind the decisions that you’re making. That goes for anything you do in the mixing process.
Let’s say you’ve kind of got that down. Specifically on over compression, I think that one of the challenges or one of the struggles that people run into is they try to get that massive, larger than life sound at one point in the process. People think they want a mix that sounds really loud, so they’ll just add a ton of limiting and compression to their mix bus. The way I describe this is if you want to create a mix that sounds larger than life, and has impact, and sounds impactful, but it doesn’t sound kind of lifeless and over compressed, you gotta approach it in stages. It’s like if you think of a painter painting a wall. The best painters don’t just do it all in one coat. They’ll apply-
Scott: Yeah, they don’t just throw it all on there.
Jason: Exactly. There’s a base coat, the primer, and then they’ll do multiple. The way that I think about it is kind of in stages. You might apply some compression on individual tracks. And then you might apply some compression on group buses. Like maybe all your drums you compress together. And then you have some compression on the mix bus, but in each of those places, you’re maybe just compressing a little bit, but together you’re getting a kind of larger than life, so-to-speak, sound, but it’s not sounding super over compressed. So that’s kind of philosophically how I would go about it. The last thing I would say on this is you want to watch your attack time. I think that one of the main things that really makes things sound kind of lifeless, and when you’re dealing with compression is when you have an attack time that’s too fast, because you end up removing or taking away a lot of the initial punch, and the impact of notes, if you’re attack time is too fast. That can make things sound really flat and lifeless. You really just want to pay attention to that attack time, and make sure you’re not so fast that you’re shaving off a lot of that initial impact and in transient of the notes themselves.
Scott: For sure. And I love too, the kind of way you’re describing about building something. It’s like you’re building something brick by brick, and it’s not this kind of thing where, “Okay, I’m at this stage, and now I’m just gonna try to do everything to get it as loud as possible.” It’s like, “Well, you should have been doing that kind of the whole time you’re sort of building that. That energy or what have you.”
Jason: Totally. And I think people get into this trap too with mastering, where they feel like that loudness happens in mastering, and so they have to do a ton in the mastering process to really make a mix sound loud. But the truth is that mixes that sound loud are kind of built in the mixing stage. Really in the arrangement stage. It happens in these stages. It doesn’t happen all at once.
Scott: For sure. And kind of tied to that, I always had the philosophy of if you’re mixing, you should really be working to make your mastering engineer have the easiest job in the world.
Jason: I agree.
Scott: If I were to say it that way, they just go, and it’s like, “Oh, all right. This was good.” Maybe they’ll play with a couple things. But then that’s it. To really approach that, one time I was asked, they’re like, “You recommend using reference tracks.” It’s like, but how does that help me if I’m using a reference track that’s been mastered and all this stuff, how does that help my mix? And I’m like, “Well that gives you a target, and you should go for that target in the mixing phase. It doesn’t necessarily mean that just because you’re not gonna have it mastered, that a reference track is useless to you.”
Jason: I agree 100%. The thing is if you’re dealing with clients, and a lot of my audiences are … they’re music makers. They’re mixing their own music, but some of my audience is also people who are mixing for other clients. That’s where I come from. If you’re dealing with clients, they want to hear it sound like a record from square one. If you send a mix to them, and the excuse like, “Oh, it’ll sound great in mastering.”
Scott: That’s not gonna fly.
Jason: It’s … totally. So you gotta make it sound great from your first mix. It really has to sound like a record.
Scott: Absolutely. If you could give only one tip, your best or your favorite about compression, what’s your best or favorite compression tip to help someone maybe get a better result?
Jason: My best or favorite tip would probably be along the lines of kind of what we had spoken about. I’m not trying to make this a cop out, but really that foundational thing of knowing what you’re going for, and just to make it really actionable. The way I like to think about it is mixing is a responsive process, so it’s this kind of feedback loop of listening to the sound that’s coming out of the speakers, noticing that there’s a problem, or something that we don’t like, and then figuring out how do we solve that, and then applying that solution, and figuring out if that fixed the problem. And then you do that again and again and again and again, until there are no problems left to solve, and then your mix is done.
Really the key here is that when it comes to compression or anything else, the best tip that I give anyone is that make sure every decision you’re making is a response to the sound that’s coming out of the speakers. Whether what compressor you grab, whether or not you grab a compressor at all, what the settings are, the truth is you gotta listen and make those judgements and decisions based on what’s coming out of the speakers. It sounds obvious, but the reason why I want to hark on this is because we all slip into these modes, I do it, where we’re tired, or we’re just thinking, “Oh, we’ll just be proactive and add a compressor to that vocal from square one without there being a reason for it.” There have been records that I put out that don’t have any compression on the vocals, and then there have been records that are hyper compressed with the vocals. The truth is all this stuff varies, but the one thing that’ll always guide you in the right direction is really remaining in that responsive place where you’re responding to what’s coming out of the speakers.
Scott: No, I love that. That makes total sense, and yeah, it’s the idea of we talk about these tips and techniques and things like that, but I always have the caveat, “You gotta listen to the song, and what you did this one time may not work on another time.” That really kind of ties into what you’re saying is, you need to respond to what the mix is telling you, or what problem you’re hearing or what it is about what you’re doing that you’re too far away from where you want to be, and how you can get closer to that.
Jason: And that’s where I think people get into trouble especially people who are just starting out where they want that answer of, “What should my attack time be on a compressor?” Or, “What’s the right ratio for vocals?” And so we get in these zones where we want those easy, quick answers because that’s what we think we need. But the truth is it really comes back to really understanding the fundamentals of what these tools are doing, and then having a goal, having a sound that you’re trying to achieve, and then twisting the knobs until you get there.
Scott: For sure.
Jason: And so you’re being guided by the goal that you’re going for, versus some thing that you read on some forum online about how you should always use a 4:1 ratio…
Scott: Yeah. It’s kind of funny we’ve been discussing this, because now I’ve got a question that might seem like I’m trying to get that out of you. But what advice or maybe a technique would you have for compressing vocals, and getting great results? Keep in mind I understand there’s no specific settings that are just perfect here.
Jason: Let’s get actionable because I don’t want to cop out on these answers, so I want to give you some practical stuff here.
Scott: For sure.
Jason: Or actionable, so to speak. Two things I have here. The first is a lot of people don’t think about this, but you can actually use your volume knob as a tool to help you zero in on different areas or frequencies in your mix. Not to get into the whole geeky science behind it, but there are these curves called the Fletcher–Munson curves. Basically these two guys, Harvey Fletcher and Wilden Munson back in the 1930s did all these tests. They played all these different tones for all these different people and discovered that we don’t hear the same at different volumes. So when we listen to things very loud, we hear more low end and high end, but when we turn things down and listen at quiet volumes, our ears are much more sensitive to mid-range. So actionably, the way I like to think about this is that you can actually use your volume knob as kind of a magnifying glass to spotlight different areas of your mixes. The vocals are most often really in the mid-range. That’s where the heart and could of the vocals lie. When I’m mixing vocals and really zeroing in on the vocals, whether it’s compression, or automation, or that stuff, I like to listen at really low levels because it’s almost like putting a magnifying glass up to that area, your mixes. And it just helps you make much more critical decisions about that area of your mixes.
The first advice I have is listen at very low levels. When I say low levels, oftentimes it’s like someone typing over it would be distracting. I mean like really quiet. The next thing I’ll say on this is that I think people rely a little bit too much sometimes on compression to get that pro quality vocal sound, and the truth is, it’s really compression in conjunction with automation that’ll get you there. Even the best compressor in the world is not gonna give you that sound where you hear every nuance on the vocal, and everything just feels like it sits at a perfect level. The way that I like to think about it is I try to get 80 or 90% of the way there with compression, and then really go through the mix, kind of 10 or 15 seconds at a time at very low levels, and ride up all the words and phrases and tail ends of the notes, and try to get a lot of that detail and nuance out of the performance. I think where people get stuck is they think that they can get that 100% with compression, and so they end up really slamming the vocals to try to get things to sit really consistent and even. They get that, but the vocal sounds kind of lifeless.
So think you gotta use both, and there’s really no substitute for automation, but they’re both important parts of the mixing process when it comes to vocals.
Scott: Absolutely. And yeah, riding the fader as it were is tried and true technique, so if you’re using some automation and things like that, that makes perfect sense to me.
Jason: That’s just what’ll get you there. I mean, I would love to not spend two hours riding a vocal, but I do a lot of pop mixes, and just to get that consistent sound where you really hear every subtle detail, you gotta do it. You gotta get real granular. It’s not particularly fun sometimes, but that’s what it takes.
Scott: Absolutely, to get the great result, sometimes mixing is about just grinding it out, and really putting in the time.
Jason: Yeah, and if there’s any place you’re really gonna focus on it should be the vocal, I think.
Scott: Absolutely. 100%. Okay a little different. We’re not talking a vocal here, but what advice or maybe a technique would you have for compressing drums and getting great results out of them?
Jason: A couple things. First of all you really have to watch your attack time with drums. Because the impact and that front end of the transient of the drum hits it’s so important and so crucial to a great drum sound. If your attack times are too fast, you’re just gonna destroy that, and you’re gonna end up with a drum sound that sounds really flat and just lifeless. In general, slower attack times with drums are gonna retain and really bring out a lot of that punch and impact, because again, what we’re doing here is we’re basically saying to the compressor, “Let through some of that initial energy before the compressor turns down the signal.” The impact of that is that, again, that transient, the initial onset of the sound when the stick hits the head, that kind of punch is really cutting through much more aggressively, and so we get much more punch and impact on the front end of the note. Slower attack times.
Another thing that I found really helpful is parallel compression. Specifically with acoustic drums, I find that parallel compression can be really helpful to add some density and some body to the drums so they kind of hold up in a track. So I’ll just send the entire drum mix through to a compressor, and then just fade that in under the drums just to add some kind of weight and density. I find that really helps just kind of give the drums that presence they need, especially in a busy track. So I would definitely recommend checking out parallel compression on drums. I think it can give you some great results.
Scott: Right on. Okay, I’m curious. The overarching question is what are your thoughts on mix bus compression? Do you find yourself using it often? If you do, do you tend to add it earlier in the mixing process, or later? Because I know there’s a lot of debate and philosophies. I’ve seen some people say, “Oh no, you would never want to add it at this point.” Or, “You would never want to add it so late.” Or whatever it is. So I’m always just curious what other mixers might do.
Jason: Here are my thoughts. On mix bus compression, I tend to use it more often than not. Maybe 75% of the time. I don’t use it 100% of the time, and so it’s not kind of enabled from square one. But I do try to add it as early as possible in the process. Philosophically, the reason why I think that’s a better approach is because whenever you add something, if you think about it, whenever you add something to your mix bus, the changes that you’re making effect every single track in your mix. If you spend 12 hours making your mix sound absolutely perfect, and you have all the balances, everything dialed in, and then you add a compressor right at the end of the line, which is what a lot of people do, and start making changes, you’re gonna change and alter the fundamental balance of your mix. I think this can be a really dangerous thing. Oftentimes, people don’t even realize because their ears are already kind of burned out, and they’ve kind of lost their objectivity at this point. It’s really easy to screw something up at the end of the line by adding mix bus compression too late. There are some people that do it, and do it with great results, but for me I found adding it earlier, the benefit is that all of your decisions throughout the mixing process are shaped by what that mix bus processing is doing.
It ends up becoming a part of your mix, and it influences all your decisions, and you don’t have to worry about adding something too late in the line and messing up the kind of fundamental balances of your mix. The other reason why I think it’s great to add early on is I really enjoy mixing into mix bus compression, because it’s almost like mixing into a sheet of … what’s the stuff? The stuff that you cover pots with and the … cling wrap, or something like that. Where it kind of gives back a little bit, like it’s a little stretchy.
Scott: I see what you’re saying.
Jason: It kind of counteracts your moves. So if you turn up a vocal a little bit too much, the mix bus compressor kind of turns it down a little bit. It’s like there’s this kind of play going on between your moves and the mix bus compressor, and I think you can a little bit more bold and aggressive with some of your fader rides, and some of your moves, because you have that reigning in your decision. I just think it’s more fun. I think mixes come together much more easily and much more quickly. So I like mixing into it, and definitely kind of avoiding adding it at the end. For me, I think it minimizes the chance that I screw something up, which is half the job sometimes, just not making it worse.
Scott: For sure.
Jason: But that being said, there are great mixers that I know. Some of my mentors who added mix bus compression right at the end, and whose mixes sound amazing. I think you can certainly do it both ways. You just have to be very careful if you’re adding it at the end of the line.
Scott: I like that. No, that’s a really good philosophy to have on that. I’m curious, and maybe it’s different with everything that you’re doing, or it should be. Do you have a process for dialing in a compressor? Is it just, hey, I’m twisting knobs until I like how it sounds, or do you have like, “I have a general strategy that I follow.”?
Jason: Sure. A couple things here. I think first it really all goes back to the step one is determining, okay, what am I trying to do with this compressor?
Scott: Right. What’s my goal?
Jason: And then that is so important, because again I think what people struggle with with compression is there’s so many things you can do with it. Setting the attack time to fast, and the release time to slow is gonna give you a completely different sound than the opposite. There are a million different things you can do. First you gotta figure out what you’re trying to do. For me, that is listening to the mix, and hearing some sort of problem, and saying, “Okay, maybe the vocal sounds like it’s kind of coming in and out, and it’s not very solid. It doesn’t sit consistently in the mix.” And so when I pull up that compressor, I’m already going in my head, “Okay, the goal is to make that vocal sit solid and evenly in the mix.” That informs how I approach setting the parameters and tweaking the different controls on the compressor. Given what I’m trying to do, I kind of in my head have an idea of what the settings might be. For example, if I’m trying to add punch to something, I know I’m gonna have a slow attack time, because I want that initial transient to come through the compressor, and so that compressor is gonna kind of retain that punch, and bring out that impact on the track or whatever it is that I’m compressing.
Scott: For sure.
Jason: Sometimes I might be using a compressor to shave off some of that transient. Maybe something’s poking out of the mix, and it’s just sounding too plucky and aggressive.
Scott: You want to reign that in.
Jason: Yeah, and so I might use a fast attack time. Again, kind of determining what the goal is is step one. For me, I have another way that I think about the mixing process as a whole, but it really applies to using compression or any plug-in in the mixing process. It’s a concept called concentric circles. This is something that one of my mentors, Bob Power, taught me. Basically the way he describes it is mixing is this series of circles. You start really broad and you make these really gross kind of big moves, and then as you move through the process, you kind of narrow in and make finer and finer adjustments. And so that’s kind of the way that I go about applying compression. I’ll start really kind of spinning the knobs, kind of not really fine detailing. I’ll go really broad when I’m starting out, and then as I’m dialing in a sound, and I’m starting to get the results that I’m looking for, that’s when I’m narrowing in on those finer moves, and making decisions that a little bit more fine.
Scott: Do you walk it back almost? Do you do like, “Okay, I’m gonna make a larger move here that’s kind of more wide-sweeping, and then I might dial it back to kind of try to fine tune it.”
Jason: Yeah. Oftentimes, like you mentioned, it’s like going overboard and being like … ‘Cause if I’m trying to figure out for example, what the right attack time is, or release time, I think the best way to do that is to add too much compression. And then those decisions and those changes on those knobs become much easier to hear. Again, yeah going really bold at the beginning, and then kind of backing up from there, and dialing in with a little bit more nuance. The last thing I’ll say on this is that you want to really try to make the majority of your decisions in context with the rest of the mix playing. This goes for EQ or compression or really anything. Our job when we’re mixing is to try to make a group of tracks sound good together as a unit. Nobody cares what the vocal sounds like in solo, or the kick drum-
Scott: ‘Cause they’re not gonna listen to it in solo.
Jason: Right. And so the problem when you solo something is you lose that context. You’re listening to something on its own, and so you have no idea what the right decisions are to make. Oftentimes on vocals, you have to compress them a lot more than you probably would if you soloed it. Un-soloing things and really listening to them in context with the mix is gonna help you make the right compression decision, and that really applies to any tool that you might use in the mixing process.
Scott: For sure. I kind of always mention that there is a time to solo, and I don’t subscribe to the idea … there’s some people that say you should never solo. I think that’s too broad. I think you’re 100% correct in that it’s like, you’ve gotta mix with context. You’ve gotta keep in mind that you’re trying to make all the tracks work together.
Jason: Yeah. 100%.
Scott: And that’s so crucial, and it makes sense to me that if you’re compressing something that seeing how that works with the rest of the mix is a good idea, and will ultimately net you greater results than you would if you were just like, “Well now I’m gonna solo this, and just focus on compressing this solo.” It’s like, “Well, but what are you doing? How’s this gonna fit with everything else?”
Jason: Right. And I really try to … that’s something I really try to hammer in on my blog and through my courses, and things like that is really trying to get people to think about their decisions in a broader context. We tend to be very granular when we think about mixing. You go to Google and you type in how to EQ. The thing that auto-fills is vocals. People think about tracks in this siloed way. The truth is that every decision in the mixing process affects everything else. You add too much compression to a vocal, and suddenly the rest of your tracks are gonna sound under compressed, ’cause they have too much dynamics compared to the vocals. It’s this process where you gotta consider everything as a unit. I think the more you can do that the better your mixes ultimately are gonna sound.
Scott: For sure. We could talk compression without talking about multi band compression, I think.
Jason: Ah yes, the infamous.
Scott: It is so powerful because of, in my opinion, the added control it gives you over your mix. For those who don’t know that’s being able to compress specific frequency bands. It’s really like multiple compressors in one. This obviously, again, gives you a bunch of other options and can get you some great results. My question for you, Jason, is what advice, or maybe a cool technique, or something like that, would you have for using multi band compression to get some great results in your mix?
Jason: Sure. To start, I think multi band compression is way over hyped.
Scott: Oh, okay.
Jason: And look, there are some people who swear by it, and for some people it’s a crucial part of their mixing process. For me, I think of it as a problem solving tool. I think people overuse it, and I think there are some serious drawbacks to multi band compression. With that being said, I think that it can be a fantastic tool in a very kind of specific set of circumstances. The way that I think about multi band compression is when I have a track where let’s say you have a vocal, for example. The vocalist is singing, and she didn’t … when she was recording the performance, maybe she didn’t have great mic techniques, so there are certain words where she came really close to the mic, and there was kind of a boominess. And then other parts where she kind of came away from the mic and it sounds kind of thin. Ultimately, you can try to fix that with EQ, but it’s always gonna be a compromise. If you add low end to those thin parts to kind of bolster them up, then the thick parts where she’s really close to the mic are gonna sound boomy and muddy. Whereas if you try to cut out the low end on those parts that sound boomy and muddy, the thin parts are gonna sound even thinner. You’re left with this juggling act of what do I do? How do I address this?
The way that I think about multi band compression is it’s a tool that you could use to solve those sorts of problems. When I have a track that’s tonally inconsistent, and I want to even it out … So I want the parts, like in that example, I want the parts that sound too thin to have a little bit more low end, and I want the parts that sound too thick to have less low end, that’s where you can use multi band compression to zero in on that area, and just even it out a little bit. So really controlling the dynamics of a certain part of the frequency spectrum. But going back to the downsides of multi band compression, splitting a track up into multiple different frequency bands, and processing them independently can create phase artifacts and some of the newer plug-ins are better at addressing those things, and there aren’t as many of the problems that you saw on some of the earlier multi band compressors. But I still try to avoid it, and really it’s only a tool I use maybe on one out of ten mixes. That’s how I approach multi band compression. I know other people like to use it more frequently, but for me it’s really a problem solving tool.
Scott: Right on. No, I think that makes sense the way you think about it, and like anything in audio if there’s someone out there who loves using multi band compression, don’t let us destroy your confidence in using that tool.
Jason: Absolutely. And look, this goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning. There really is, first of all, I’m still learning, so my opinion might change two years or three years down the line. I might love multi band compression, and be using it on everything. But furthermore, there really is no right or wrong way to go about any of this stuff, and so you gotta find the techniques and the tactics that work for you. If your records sound great, then at the end of the day how you get there is not super relevant to me.
Scott: Right on. Jason, I wanted to thank you so, so much for coming on the show today, and really sharing your expertise and your thoughts on compression.
Jason: Absolutely. It’s an honor to be here, and I really appreciate what you’re doing too. I think what you’re giving back to the audio community is fantastic, so thank you for what you do.
Scott: For sure, for sure. I wanted to thank everyone for listening. If you’d like to learn more from Jason, you can check out behindthespeakers.com and actually if you’re interested, Jason was kind enough to put together a compression cheat sheet, which has some tips and tricks, some compression mistakes that you don’t know that you’re making – nine of them – some of his favorite plug-ins, and you can actually get that being an Audio Skills podcast listener. Go to behindthespeakers.com/scott. You can check that out. Again, thank you so much for listening today, and as a reminder for links and information about today’s show and our guest, please check out our show notes at audioskills.com/podcast. No matter what you’re doing, no matter what your skill level is, what type of music you’re making, keep working at it, keep improving, keep learning, and no matter what just go out there and make some great music.
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