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While working with The Beatles, EMI staff engineer DYNAMICS PROCESSING

Geoff Emerick is credited as being one of the first defines the sound of today’s popular music. So much so that there came
to experiment with limiting and compression as a a time when console manufacturers went from incorporating inserts in
sound. Since then, there has been a movement patch bays for external processing to offering desks with dynamics
towards using compressors and limiters to create processing on every channel. Though limiting, gating, compression and
louder, more present recordings. expansion are all forms of dynamics processing, for the purpose of our
Dynamic Range The dynamic range of a signal is buyers guide, we will be sticking with compressors and limiters.
measured in decibels from its lowest level to its
highest or peak. Compressors and limiters work to
shorten this range. Though the unit only reduces Both compressors and limiters are types of VARIABLE GAIN
the peak of a signal, the audibility of the quiet part AMPLIFIERS that control the dynamic range of a signal. Technically their
is also increased essentially bringing the loud and job is to keep signals from overloading circuitry and recording mediums,
soft limits of the signal closer together. which causes distortion. But creatively they are used in the studio to
shape sound. Over the years various circuits have been employed. Some
that are still very popular include ones using vacuum tubes, Field Effect
Transistors and light sensitive resistors.
The threshold setting determines the point at which the unit begins working. Once the signal level has crossed the threshold, it
is then reduced by the set ratio.

The amount of gain reduction applied to the signal is determined by the ratio. Using a setting of 2:1 as an example, for every
2db over the threshold the signal goes, its output is only 1db. So if the signal is 8db over the threshold, the compressor will
reduce the signal by half or 4db. Ratios of 10:1 and higher are considered limiting. Broadcasters use something called “brick
wall” limiting to ensure that the signal will not exceed a set level. This ratio is very high with some limiters having settings of
100:1 all the way to infinity to 1.

Attack refers to the time it takes for the unit to begin working once the signal crosses the threshold. Generally the attack time
in most units is adjustable although there are still quite a few older ones out there with fixed times. Limiters generally have
quicker attack times as they are often used as a corrective measure. Correctly setting the attack for signals containing
transients is critical. Not leaving enough time for the transient information to sneak through before the unit clamps down can
seriously degrade signal quality.

The amount of time the unit takes to recover and return to unity gain is referred to as release time. Just as with attack time,
release time is usually adjustable though it’s fixed in some older units. Careful adjustment is important here as well due to
something called “pumping”. When release times are set inappropriately to the program material, a rapid raising and lowering
of the signal is heard while the unit tries to compensate for the mismatch.


Hard Knee/Soft Knee refers to the units ability to either gradually apply gain reduction (soft knee) or make it quicker (hard
knee) and therefore more apparent. A hard knee may be desirable if a limiter is to be used to control peaks while a soft knee
may be more appropriate for a compressor set to squeeze a signal. “Knee” comes from the shape of the slope when the
response curve is shown on a graph.

Make Up Gain brings the compressed or limited signal back up to an optimal recording level.

A great technique for retaining the naturalness of an instrument while adding a bit of power and excitement to the sound.
Splitting the signal, you keep one channel clean and insert a compressor on the second. Adjusting the comp for the desired
effect, you bring the compressed signal up just under the clean signal. Subtle, this technique does a good job of giving an
open yet slightly more present sound.
Most often used for evening out vocals, Chain Compression links two or more units together in series. Like eq, compression
artifacts can be less audible at heavier settings when the job is split over more than one unit. In the vocal example, a ratio
setting of 10:1 or higher (which is considered limiting at that point) would be a good start for unit 1. With a light threshold
setting and fast attack, its job is to knock down any erroneous peaks in the signal. Unit 2 would have a much lower ratio
setting (for a natural sound), say 2:1 or 3:1 and an appropriate threshold setting for the desired amount of even compression.

Multi band compressors are essentially multiple units rolled into one, each dedicated to its own band of frequencies.
Generally used by mastering engineers, multi band compressors are a handy tool for mixers when dealing with instruments
with broad frequency ranges and also typically unruly signals such as bass guitar.

A favorite among mixers, this type of compression assigns a number of units, generally stereo, each to its own buss. Each
unit is set with parameters complimenting the others. In other words, unit 1 may be set up as a fast attack limiter. Unit 2 with a
fairly heavy 6:1 comp ratio. Unit 3 with a gentle 2:1 ratio and so on.