An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 2

An Introduction to Compression:
Basic Compression
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An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression
© Audio Masterclass MMVII
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 5
Contents
Important inIormation on how to use this e-Learning Module 2
Viewing this e-Learning Module 4
Copyright inIormation 4
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression 6
Connecting the Compressor 10
The Basic Action oI the Compressor 17
Compression Ratio 18
Gain Reduction 20
Setting the Threshold Control 22
Fixed-Threshold Compressors 24
Setting the Gain Make-Up 25
Setting the Release Control 26
Setting the Attack Control (Basic) 29
The Stereo Link Button 30
Noise and the Compressor 32
Breathing and Pumping 33
Artistic Considerations 35
Conclusion 37
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 6
An Introduction to Compression:
Basic Compression
The compressor is a magical and mysterious component oI the recording
studio. But it is practical too. Compression was invented decades ago to
solve a particular problem. It can still solve that problem now, but at the
same time it can add allure and sparkle to music, whether instruments or
voices. This text will prepare you to operate the compressor eIIectively.
and also use it to the Iull to improve and enhance your sounds.
Firstly, we need to understand why the compressor was invented, and to
do that we need to examine the sounds around us in the real world.
Imagine it`s autumn season. or Iall as it is known in some parts oI the
world. A leaI drops Irom a tree branch and gently foats down to ioin its
Iellow golden-brown leaves that are already covering the ground. You
watch it Iall in completely silent surroundings. and you can iust. but only
iust. hear the tiny sound it makes when it lands.
You have iust experienced the quietest sound it is possible to hear. II the
sound had been any quieter. you would not have heard it at all. even in
those perIectly silent surroundings.
There is a special phrase Ior this the threshold of hearing. It is the level
where sound is iust audible.
OI course. whether or not you hear the Ialling leaI also depends on how
Iar you are away Irom it. So we must measure sound Irom the listener`s
perspective. In almost all circumstances we take into account not only
how much sound is produced. but the eIIect oI distance and surroundings
leading to a measurement oI how much sound is heard.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 7
We have other more technical ways oI describing the threshold oI
hearing…
A sound that is iust on the threshold oI hearing is said to be at 0 dB SPL.
dB` stands Ior decibels. SPL` stands Ior sound pressure level.
Also, we can say that the sound pressure that corresponds to the threshold
oI hearing is 20 micronewtons per square meter. That is the same as 20
micropascals. One newton per square meter is the same as one pascal.
Thirdly. we can say that the threshold oI hearing corresponds to a sound
power oI 1 picowatt per square meter. One picowatt is a millionth oI a
millionth oI a watt. That`s pretty small and yet we can hear it!
II you don`t Ieel comIortable with sound pressure and sound power.
micropascals and picowatts, then concentrate on decibels. They are more
relevant and easier to understand.
Let`s return to dB SPL. As I said. the threshold oI hearing is 0 dB SPL.
The scale goes all the way up to the threshold oI pain where the sound
is so loud it actually hurts. This occurs at around 120 dB SPL. There are
oI course even louder sounds. Naturally they are best avoided by human
beings.
It is quite common to come across decibel scales that show the SPL Ior a
range oI sound sources. OIten a iet engine is quoted as producing a level
oI 120 dB SPL. OI course this depends totally on distance. A plane in the
sky produces a much lower level as heard on the ground. Very close up to
a iet engine would be much more than 120 dB SPL.
Here we have thereIore the range oI sound levels it is possible to hear in
real liIe Irom 0 dB SPL to 120 dB SPL. To make an accurate recording.
the equipment used should be capable oI handling this range oI levels.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 8
Let me introduce another technical term here dynamic range. We say
that human hearing has a dynamic range oI 120 dB between the quietest
audible sound and the loudest sound that can he heard without pain.
But there is a problem. Firstly, even with the latest cutting-edge
technology it is diIfcult to achieve a dynamic range oI 120 dB. So
the human ear is in Iact better in this respect than our latest and most
wonderIul equipment!
Secondly. when we enioy recordings. broadcasts and movies. we
subiectively preIer the range oI sound levels to be controlled. Yes. in
a movie an explosion should be considerably louder than background
woodland atmosphere. Ior instance. but not 120 dB louder.
Thirdly, background noise is present in almost all places where
recordings, broadcasts and movie soundtracks are heard. A domestic
living room might have a background noise level oI 30 to 40 dB SPL.
Even the quietest recording studios struggle to achieve background noise
levels lower than 15 dB SPL or so.
So. because oI background noise in the listening environment it is
impossible to hear very quiet sounds in a recording.
There is a problem at the other end oI the scale. II you played back a
recording in your living room at such a level that the peaks reached 120
dB SPL, your music would almost certainly be heard by your neighbors,
unless you live in a desert. Even iI they share your taste in music. this
intrusion will certainly be unwelcome.
In practice thereIore there is a window between about 40 dB SPL and 90
dB SPL that all sounds on a recording. Irom the quietest to the loudest.
should stay within when played on loudspeakers
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 9
And this. quite simply. is why we need compression. We like compression
Ior other purposes. but we need it to control dynamic range.
dbx 266XL Dual Compressor with Gate
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 10
Connecting the Compressor
There are a number oI ways in which a compressor can be used.
To compress an individual signal as it is being recorded.
To compress an individual signal as it is being mixed.
To compress the entire stereo mix during the mixing process.
It is also possible to compress groups oI instruments together the drums
oI a drum set Ior instance. However. this is an advanced topic that will not
be covered here.
ART Pro VLA Two-Channel Compressor



An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 11
To use a hardware compressor in conjunction with a microphone
preampliher and a digital audio workstation (DAW).
Connect the microphone to the input oI the preamplifer.
Connect the output oI the preamplifer to the input oI the
compressor.
Connect the output oI the compressor to a line input oI the DAW. or
to the line input oI the audio interIace iI it is a soItware DAW.
ART Pro Channel Microphone Preamplifer and Compressor Model 215



An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 12
1o use a hardware compressor in conjunction with a mixing console,
using the mixing console's internal microphone preampliher.
Connect the microphone to the microphone input oI one channel oI
the console.
Connect the channel insert send oI that channel to the input oI the
compressor.
Connect the output oI the compressor to the channel insert return oI
the same channel.
Note that in some consoles the channel insert point comes beIore the
EQ. In other consoles it comes aIter the EQ. In some consoles. this is
switchable. Compressing beIore or aIter equalization are discussed in An
Introduction to Compression: Advanced Compression.
Empirical Labs EL8X Distressor Compressor



An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 13
1o use a hardware compressor in conjunction with a mixing console to
compress the entire stereo mix, if the console has mix insert points.
Connect the mix insert point leIt channel send to the leIt input oI the
compressor.
Connect the mix insert point right channel send to the right input oI
the compressor.
Connect the leIt output oI the compressor to the mix insert point leIt
channel return.
Connect the right output oI the compressor to the mix insert point
right channel return.
Activate the stereo link Iunction oI the compressor (to be discussed
later).
Samson SCOM4 4-Channel Expander Gate Compressor Limiter





An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 14
1o use a hardware compressor in conjunction with a mixing console to
compress the entire stereo mix, if the console does not have mix insert
points.
· Connect the mix output leIt to the leIt input oI the compressor.
· Connect the mix output right to the right input oI the compressor.
· Connect the leIt output oI the compressor to the leIt input oI the
stereo recorder.
· Connect the right output oI the compressor to the right input oI the
stereo recorder.
Activate the stereo link Iunction oI the compressor (to be discussed
later).
BBE MaxCom Dual Channel Compressor Limiter Gate





An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 15
1o use a compressor plug-in with a software DAW to compress
individual channels.
Note that many soItware DAWs by deIault apply plug-ins to the
monitoring and mixing processes. They do not record the output oI plug-
ins. This is a complex issue that is discussed in detail in An Introduction
to Compression: Advanced Compression.
Insert a compressor plug-in into an insert point on the channel strip.
Chandler Compressor/Limiter Plug-in

An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 16
1o use a compressor plug-in with a software DAW to compress the entire
stereo mix.
II there is no mix (master) strip visible. make it visible or create one.
Insert a compressor plug-in into an insert point on the mix (master)
strip.
Level Devil Compressor Plug-in


An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 17
The Basic Action of the Compressor
Compressors. as normally Iound. work by reducing the level oI loud
sections oI the signal. It would be possible to design a compressor that
worked by increasing the level oI the quiet sections oI the signal. but that
is very rare indeed.
So the quiet sections oI the signal are leIt unchanged. Only when the
signal rises above a certain threshold does compression start.
Let me explain that again. Sections oI the signal that are lower in level
than the threshold level that is set are not changed. Sections oI the signal
that are higher in level than the threshold have their level reduced.
II you compare the uncompressed and compressed signals at this point.
during quiet sections they will sound the same; during loud sections the
compressed version will be quieter.
In practice. it is not useIul to leave the signal like this. It is better to raise
the level oI the entire signal so that the peak levels are the same as they
were beIore compression.
This is called make-up gain, or gain make-up.
AIter gain make up. loud sections are as loud as they were beIore
compression; quiet sections are louder than they were beIore compression.
In some compressors, compression starts immediately when the threshold
level is exceeded. In others, compression comes in gradually. This is
called the knee oI the compressor. A hard knee is where compression starts
immediately. A soIt knee is where it comes in gradually.
Knee is explained in detail in An Introduction to Compression: Advanced
Compression.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 18
Compression Ratio
When the signal is above the threshold level, its level is reduced. The
compression ratio sets the amount oI reduction.
We would typically talk about a compression ratio oI. say. 2:1. This means
that when the input signal rises by 2 dB, the output signal rises by only 1
dB. II the input signal rises by 10 dB. then the output signal rises by only
5 dB.
A compression ratio oI 1:1 would mean no compression. nothing would
be changed.
2:1 is actually a mild compression ratio. although useIul in some contexts.
10:1 is quite a ferce compression ratio. Although it might be useIul in
some contexts, it will be clearly audible that compression is happening.
II the compression ratio is set to 20:1. then iI the input signal rises by 20
dB, the output signal rises by only 1 dB.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 19
When the compression ratio is 20:1 or greater. the eIIect is known as
limiting. There are devices called limiters that have exactly this purpose.
They allow the signal to rise up to a certain level, but then it can rise no
Iurther.
Limiters are used in broadcasting to ensure that there is no distortion in
the transmitter. They are used in live sound to protect the loudspeakers.
They are also used in recording as part oI the mastering process. They are
generally not otherwise used in the recording or mixing processes.
It is useIul to have some idea oI where to start with compression. A ratio
oI 4:1 is generally good to start oII with as the eIIect oI the compression
will be clearly audible. II a stronger eIIect is required. then the ratio can
be increased. II it is desired to make the compression less obvious. then
the ratio can be decreased.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 20
Gain Reduction
All good compressors have a gain reduction meter. It should really be
called a level reduction` meter. but the phrase is now stuck. This text will
reIer to the gain reduction meter oI the compressor. and the process oI
level reduction. The so-called gain reduction meter will show the amount
oI level reduction.
Although a compressor can be set purely by ear. it is useIul to have visual
confrmation oI how much compression is taking place.
The gain reduction meter will show Irom moment to moment how much
the level oI the signal is being reduced.
When the signal is below the threshold level, the gain reduction meter will
show 0 dB.
When the signal rises above the threshold, the gain reduction meter will
show by how many decibels it is being reduced. Irom moment to moment.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 21
Some compressors have an LED bargraph meter. Others have needle-type
meters. The bargraph meter is likely to be more accurate and quicker to
respond.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 22
Setting the Threshold Control
|Please note that some compressors have a fxed threshold and thereIore
do not have a threshold control. Instead they have a gain control. This will
be explained in the next section.]
As advised earlier, it is a good starting point to set the compression ratio
to 4:1. Set the attack and release controls (to be explained later) close to
their minimum values.
Now apply a music signal that has both quiet sections and loud sections
to the compressor. Set the threshold so that at in the very quietest sections
the gain reduction meter shows 0 dB, which means no compression.
Adiust the threshold so that when the signal goes any louder than this.
compression starts to take place.
From this point, setting the threshold and ratio controls is entirely up to
your iudgement. However. it is worth noting that there is rarely any merit
in setting the threshold to be lower than the point you have arrived at by
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 23
now. All that will happen is that aIter any period oI silence in the signal.
the compression will crash in suddenly, and unpleasantly audibly.
Try the controls one at a time.
Raising the threshold will cause less compression to take place and
the gain reduction meter will show less reduction in level.
Decreasing the compression ratio will cause less compression to
take place and the gain reduction meter will show less reduction in
level.
Increasing the compression ratio will cause more compression to
take place and the gain reduction meter will show more reduction in
level.
It is incredibly useIul to listen to what you achieve while watching the
gain reduction meter. It is good to practise on as wide a range oI signals as
you can.



An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 24
Fixed-Threshold Compressors
Some compressors have a fxed threshold and thereIore do not have a
threshold control. Instead there is a gain control, sometimes labeled level
or input.
When using such a compressor, you would turn up the gain until you
could hear the amount oI compression you want. The eIIect is exactly the
same as a standard compressor. only the operational method is diIIerent.
The gain reduction meter oI such a compressor works in exactly the same
way as that oI a standard compressor.
The Empirical Labs Distressor Ieatures a fxed
threshold and a gain control
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 25
Setting the Gain Make-Up
It is usual to set the gain make-up control so that the peak levels oI the
compressed signal are the same as the peak levels oI the uncompressed
signal.
It will now be possible to press the in/out button to compare the
compressed and the uncompressed signals easily.
It is worth bearing in mind that compression does not always improve a
sound. so making a comparison like this will be a useIul check.
It may be apparent that there is some noise present during quiet sections
oI the signal. This is an inevitable result oI the compression process. At
this point, you should ignore any noise other than assessing whether it
is excessive. II so. back oII the ratio or threshold controls and apply less
compression. This topic is discussed later.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 26
Setting the Release Control
The release control is very much more important than it might appear. It
is in Iact the heart and soul oI the compressor.
The release control sets the length oI time it takes the compressor to
respond when the signal changes Irom loud to quiet. That is important.
Please read again.
A compressor works by changing the level oI a signal dynamically. When
the signal is quiet it does nothing. When the signal is loud it brings it
down in level.
Imagine now a Iader on a mixing console and you are listening to a signal
passing through that Iader.
At frst. set it to 0 dB. which will keep the level oI the signal exactly the
same as it was when it entered the Iader. Listen to the signal Ior a while.
Now reduce the level by 10 dB. In other words. set the Iader to 10 dB.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 27
The signal is now quieter. The loud parts oI the signal are quieter by 10
dB and the quiet parts oI the signal are quieter by 10 dB too.
THIS IS NOT COMPRESSION!
Lowering the signal level using a Iader is not compression because all the
various levels oI the signal have been reduced by the same amount.
Compression only takes place when the loud sections oI the signal are
reduced in level more than the quiet sections.
Let`s go back to the Iader.
Now. listen to the signal careIully. When it is loud. reduce the level. When
it is quiet. bring the level back up again.
Yes, this is compression. Manual compression.
Now let`s turn to the compressor. Set all oI the controls as previously
instructed. so that you see a maximum reduction in level oI around 10 dB
on the gain reduction meter.
Now set the release time to its maximum value.
As the signal level changes, you will now notice that the gain reduction
meter is showing a pretty constant 10 dB reduction in level. It hardly
moves.
This is exactly the same as lowering the Iader by 10 dB and leaving it
there.
THIS IS NOT COMPRESSION!
This point is vitally important and key to understanding how a compressor
works.
For actual compression to take place, the gain reduction meter has to
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 28
move. II it is not moving. then there is no compression.
Now experiment with the release control. As you lower the value oI the
release time, you will notice the gain reduction meter hopping about more
and more quickly.
You will also notice that the compression eIIect becomes more
pronounced.
This is why the release control is so important. Once all the other controls
have been set properly. the release control governs the eIIective amount`
oI compression.
The other controls have to be set properly oI course. But once that is done
it is the release control that wields the power.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 29
Setting the Attack Control (Basic)
The attack control sets the length oI time it takes the compressor to
respond when the signal level changes Irom low to high.
In general, the attack control can be set to close to its shortest duration
and leIt there. OIten it is Iound that the very shortest settings produce a
rather harsh sound. but you should iudge that Ior your own individual
compressor.
There will be no reason to change this setting other than Ior special
reasons and eIIects that are discussed in An Introduction to Compression:
Advanced Compression.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 30
The Stereo Link Button
In a two-channel compressor, the stereo link button connects the two
channels in such a way that they apply the same amount oI level reduction
to the leIt and right sides oI a stereo signal.
To put this simply, whenever you compress a stereo signal, you must press
the stereo link button.
The explanation oI why is a little more complex.
Let`s take as an example a recording oI a piano and a kick drum. An
unusual combination perhaps, but it will illustrate the point.
The piano is recorded centrally in the stereo image. so it is at an equal
level in both channels. The drum however is recorded only in the leIt
channel.
Both channels are compressed with the same settings, but with the stereo
link Iunction oII.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 31
The threshold is set so that the piano is always below the threshold. The
drum however is at a high level and easily exceeds the threshold.
So while the piano plays and the drum is silent, everything is normal and
the piano is heard as it should.
But at the instant the drum places. suddenly the threshold in the leIt
channel is breached. (Remember that the drum is only in the leIt channel).
Level reduction is applied to that channel during the instant the drum
places. But it is not only applied to the drum, it is applied to the piano as
well. in the leIt channel. The piano in the right channel is unaltered.
Now. since the level oI the piano has suddenly gone quiet in the leIt
channel, the right channel dominates, and the piano suddenly swings to
the right oI the stereo image. Then it swings back again as soon as the
drum stops resonating.
The eIIect oI not switching in the stereo link when compressing a stereo
signal is instability oI the stereo image.
There is never a useIul purpose Ior this. so the stereo link Iunction must
always be activated when compressing a stereo signal.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 32
Noise and the Compressor
All signals contain a certain amount oI low-level background noise. It
is an inevitable consequence oI compression that this noise level will be
increased.
So iI you can hear noise in a compressed signal. it is not the Iault oI the
compressor (as long as it is a proIessional model). it is entirely due to the
process oI compression itselI.
There is no way oI compressing a signal without increasing the noise. and
as a consequence decreasing the signal to noise ratio oI the signal.
Noise can be controlled by using an additional noise gate, or an expander,
which is discussed in detail in An Introduction to Compression: Advanced
Compression.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 33
Breathing and Pumping
One consequence oI compression increasing the noise level oI a signal is
breathing`.
This is where the noise audibly rises and Ialls in level as the signal
changes in level.
Breathing corresponds very closely to the amount oI reduction oI level as
shown on the gain reduction meter.
When the gain reduction meter is low, the noise level will be high. When
the gain reduction meter is high, the noise level will be low.
II you reduce the release time so that the level reduction changes more
quickly. then the breathing eIIect will be more rapid and more noticeable.
Breathing is most strongly noticeable on speech where there is
background noise, such as air conditioning noise.
It is recommended that you record some speech with intentional
background noise so that you can observe the breathing eIIect clearly.
Once you have that characteristic sound in your mind, you will hear it
when it is not so pronounced.
In practice. Ior music signals breathing is normally not a problem.
Pumping is closely related to breathing and applies more when the entire
stereo mix is compressed than it does to individual tracks.
Imagine a song in a slow tempo with a very strong back beat. The entire
stereo mix is compressed.
During the Iew tens oI millisecond when the beat is actually present. the
compressor brings down the level oI the signal. In between. iI the release
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 34
control is set to a low value, the level will rise up again.
So the level oI the music continually and rhythmically swells up between
the beats.
Find a music track that has a strong beat and compress it with a short
release time. This will show the pumping eIIect very clearly.
Pumping is not always undesirable. OIten it can add excitement to a mix.
Some compression experts sometimes go to some trouble actually to
increase the degree oI pumping!
Avalon VT747SP Class A Tube Stereo Compressor/Equalizer
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 35
Artistic Considerations
At this point you have all the inIormation necessary Ior successIul
compression to control dynamic range.
Many types oI signal will beneft Irom this. purely to decrease the
diIIerence between the quiet sections oI playing and the loud.
Compression to control dynamic range is useIul Ior vocals. acoustic
instruments, bass guitar and complete stereo mixes.
Compression is generally not useIul Ior heavily distorted electric guitar. as
the distortion eIIect in itselI reduces the dynamic range oI the signal.
Compression may or may not be useIul Ior electronically and digitally
synthesized sounds. It is up to the engineer to iudge in individual cases.
But there is another point to compression as well as controlling dynamic
range it simply makes things sound nicer!
So Ior instance you could have a singer with a well-controlled voice who
didn`t vary much in level. so there is no real need to use a compressor to
control the dynamic range. But put his or her voice through a compressor
and it will sound, almost magically, better.
There are two reasons Ior this.
One is that iI you compress with a short release setting. the tiny details
oI the vocal are brought up in level. Subiectively. this seems to make an
improvement in itselI.
Also however. compressors are oIten designed using techniques that
produce distortion in the signal. Vacuum tube compressors. Ior example.
add subiective warmth to the signal.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 36
And somehow a vacuum tube compressor provides a better quality oI
warmth than. say. a vacuum tube preamplifer.
Judging the subiective sound quality oI compressors is an important sound
engineering skill that takes much experience to master.
An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression Page 37
Conclusion
Thank you Ior reading An Introduction to Compression: Basic
Compression. However. there is something else you have to do now...
You have to put your understanding into practice. And you have to listen.
This e-Learning Module has introduced you to the Ioundation knowledge
you need to master basic compression successIully. However. the only
way you will truly understand is to use compression in real liIe recording
situations.
The more you work with compressors, and the more intensely you listen
to the results you are achieving. the Iaster you will progress to being a
master oI basic compression.
When you are ready to move on, An Introduction to Compression:
Advanced Compression. Irom Audio Masterclass. will be your next step.
Good luck!
David Mellor, Audio Masterclass