How to Use a Compressor in 4 Easy Steps

This article is part of our FAQ series, published on our blog. Click here to view the blog archives.

Question: How do I use a compressor the right way?

Compressors can be your best friend or your worst enemy in mixing.

To put it very (very!) simply, compression makes loud sounds softer, and soft sounds louder.

It brings peaks and valleys of the audio waveform closer together.

Unfortunately using compression while mixing isn’t always that simple… which is why this question is such a good one!

Now before I go further, here’s a quick disclaimer:

  • Understand the settings on your compressor and how they work. If you’re unfamiliar, click here to get a compression cheat sheet from AudioSkills to get you started.
  • Treat every mix and every track differently… a technique that may work for some tracks, may not for others.
  • Your ears are key in using any mixing tool, so be sure to really listen, that’s crucial.

Now without further ado…

Here are 4 simple steps to follow to use a compressor the right way.

Step 1: Determine Your Compression Goals

Like anything in mixing, you can use compression in many ways to achieve many different goals.

So before you ever reach for that compressor, you should know WHY you are doing it, and what you’re hoping to achieve.

If you ever find yourself reaching for it “just because” then I’d challenge you to stop and re-think it!

That said, here are just a few of the goals you may want to achieve with compression:

  • Balance out the levels of a track (be it a vocal, guitar, or something else) to make everything more even.
  • Create more “glue” among the mix tracks to bring everything together.
  • Give your mix (or a specific track) more “punch” “power” or “energy”
  • To get just a bit of gain reduction.
  • To shape the dynamics of the track.
  • To control (tame or enhance) transients.

Of course there are many more things compression can address! The point is… make sure you know what your goal is.

Step 2: Decide If Compression is Still Necessary

One of the most common mistakes people make is using compression when it’s not needed.

Sometimes you can reach your goal without compression.

Other times, you can get a better result by trying a more manual technique instead of just letting a compressor handle it.

When in doubt, don’t compress!

Step 3: Dial in Your Compression Settings

Here’s a quick step-by-step technique you can use to dial in a compressor.

  1. Set the threshold as high as it can go (so that it has no effect on the audio), set the ratio to 10:1 or higher, set the attack to as slow as possible, and release to as fast as possible.
  2. Start adjusting the threshold downward until you can see some moderate gain reduction (anywhere from -6 to -10 db)
  3. Turn the attack faster until you can hear it almost “catching” the front of the note in a way that sounds pleasing to you.
  4. Then repeat this for the release, except making it slower until it releases in a way that is pleasing to you.
  5. Then carefully and deliberately walk your ratio back down to a normal or comfortable level.
  6. Continue to adjust the threshold downward until it sounds perfect to you.

Step 4: A/B’ing

Listen to the track with the compressor engaged and with it bypassed.

  • Does it sound better when it’s engaged? Great, you’re all set then!
  • Does it sound worse when it’s engaged? Time to adjust or start over completely.

Also make sure to listen to it in context of the mix!

Closing Thoughts

Compression can be intimidating, but the key to using a compressor correctly is being careful and deliberate with your moves. It’s as simple as that!

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