How to Know If You’re Over-compressing (and How to Avoid It)

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

Question: How do I know if I’m over-compressing?

I spend a lot of time warning producers and mixers to avoid using too much compression.

Unintentional (not done deliberately for the genre or song) over-compression is an audio sin committed frequently…

Especially those who might be newer to mixing and music production.

That’s why I LOVE this question.

Now of course so much in audio comes down to personal opinion.

One engineer might find something over-compressed while another thinks it sounds great.

It’s important to have the knowledge to at least make those opinion calls.

So, here’s how to know if you’re over-compressing, plus a few tips on how to avoid doing it!

Over-compressed Sign #1: It sounds like it is.

I know some people are thinking, “Well, duh, Scott!” … but bear with me.

Over-compression can sometimes be heard very clearly, other times it might be tougher.

Still, here are some simple things to listen for to evaluate your compression:

  • There’s an absence of “punch” in the track. If you compress hard and with a fast attack, you can clamp down on “transients”. That first burst of sound in the waveform that cuts through a mix. If, for example, your drums just sound lifeless and empty, perhaps you’ve got too much compression on them.
  • There’s a lack of dynamics. – Music is meant to be dynamic. There are soft parts and there are loud parts, not only for a mix, but even on individual instruments. If something sounds like there’s simply no range and it’s just all loud, for example, then you might be in trouble.
  • It sounds “choked” and lifeless. To me, this is most obvious in vocals. It goes back to the lack of dynamics (which vocals need to be). But if on those powerful notes everything just sounds like it’s being smushed, over-compression might be the culprit.

If you’re really unsure what to listen for, here’s a great video showing the undesirable results from too much compression.

Listen to the difference!

Over-compressed sign #2: It looks like it’s overcompressed.

Yes we mix with our ears, but a pair of eyes looking at a waveform can get some solid information.

This is more applicable to bounced mixdown files, or certain plugins that show compression’s effect on the waveform.

Regardless, it’s really simple.

If your track (or tracks) are starting to look like solid rectangle blocks as opposed to something with more peaks and valleys… you might be in trouble.

Over-compressed Sign #3: The mix doesn’t follow the best practices for compression usage

There are few hard and fast rules in mixing, but there are good “rules of thumb” to try to follow.

With compression, if you find yourself breaking these, you may be heading down a dark path.

  • The gain reduction meter doesn’t return to zero multiple times per bar. This is a great rule originally from the brilliant Ian Shepherd. To put it another way, is your compressor constantly working? That’s probably not ideal.
  • All of your compression is done in just one or two plugins. Series compression (multiple compressors used in a chain) is something many pros use. If you have just a huge amount of gain reduction all happening on one plugin, one mix stage… you may end up with compression that’s too intense and noticeable.
  • Your gain reduction meter is going 10-12dB plus. Now remember, these are rules of thumb… I’m not saying you can never have that much gain reduction. Still, if you’re bringing things down that much it may be too much! Some recommendations say you shouldn’t compress more than 4-6db. I don’t know if that number is exact (again every mix is different). Just be mindful of going much above 10dB!
  • You didn’t follow the proper steps for using a compressor effectively. Not determining your goals before compressing. Not A/Bing your work and really listening. This can all lead to over-compression.

If you didn’t follow the best practices, you may have over-compressed in the process.

Mixing

Bonus Tips for Avoiding Adding Too Much Compression

If you want to make extra sure you don’t kill your mix with compression, here are some additional tips you can follow:

  • When in doubt, go with slower attack times. Like mentioned above, fast attack times clamp down on those transients and kill that “punch” so many mixers want.
  • Maybe leave the compressor off the master bus. I love adding a compressor to my master bus, but if you’ve got a lot going on in the mix and haven’t been mixing into a compressor on the master bus then maybe just leave it off.
  • Parallel Compression is your friend. It’s one of the best ways to make sure you are being subtle and blending in your compression moves.
  • Remember, not everything must be compressed. Compression should be done in stages. It should be done with intention. It shouldn’t be something that’s just “the next step” in the mix process. That’s where you get into trouble!

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