Fun with Compression

Fun with Compression

Compression is a workhorse tool that is crucial to modern recording, yet rarely acknowledged by the clamoring masses.  There is a sexier way to use it though that’s worthy of more attention and it’s called sidechain compression.  Sidechain compression involves using a secondary signal to trigger a compressor that’s affecting another element.  This may seem like a weird thing to do,but it can be a very effective tool.  

The most common use of sidechaining is to duck (reduce the volume of) a signal every time another element plays by using the sidechain on your compressor. A good example of this would be to feed a copy of the kick signal into a compressor on your bass signal which then ducks the bass every time the kick is hit.

With subtle settings on your compressor this will result in a slight ducking of the bass which allows the kick to cut through the mix better.  This is cool, but you can get a more exciting effect by digging in a little bit more on the compressor. By increasing the ratio or lowering the threshold the ducking will become more drastic. This will create a noticeable dip in the bass signal and a pumping effect as the compressor releases the signal and it returns to its normal volume.  By playing around with your release time you can get the pumping to happen in time with the track which adds a lot of excitement. This effect is used extensively in dance music where  any rhythmic and harmonic element may be used..  

Another trick, is to create a rhythmic element that isn’t represented in the track as the sidechain input.  If I go back to our original example of kick and bass, I create a kick track whose output goes directly to the sidechain input (also known as the key input) of the compressor on the bass.  This allows me to have the bass pumping in a way that may be counter to my original kick pattern or to have it pumping even if the kick isn’t playing in the mix at the same time.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what you can do with sidechaining here, but you can see that the possibilities are endless.  It can be used to duck unwieldy effects while an instrument is playing or to get cool filtering effects by utilizing a multi-band compressor.  I suggest setting aside some time and exploring the possibilities!



By Glenn Sawyer

Last week I talked about the dangers of ‘fixing it in the mix’ and this week I want to touch on commitment.  Commitment means making a decision and sticking to it, and it can make life in the studio much better.  The idea of commitment is equally important when you’re thinking about shaping parts and tones, but I’m going to focus on the tone side of things for this post.

At the advent of recording, committing was the only option.  When you record a big band to a wax cylinder with one mic you get what you get. These days producers have a variety of tools at their disposal which allows them to change and adjust tones throughout the process so there is a lot more flexibility when it comes to ‘fixing’ things, but also a greater risk of things getting out of control.  

When Rich and I are producing we always look to commit to tones.  The reason for this is that every decision we make is dependent on the decisions we’ve made before.  Let’s say that we’ve got the drums and bass recorded and now we’re ready to track guitars.  The amount of low end in the bass will dictate how much low end we can put in the guitars.  Although the guitar by itself might sound good with a little extra low end, it’s not going to jive with the bass as they will be fighting for the same space. Because we’ve committed to the bass tone we can be confident that pulling out some of the low end in the guitars is the right decision as it’s already represented in the track. This allows us to know exactly where we are at at all times and we can dial each subsequent tone with confidence because of it.  

The other benefit to committing is that there are no surprises in the mix.  By committing fully to each tone and part as we build the production we end up with a track that sounds very similar to what it will sound like mixed. You can hear how everything fits together and, consequently, have a very clear idea of what the finished mix will sound like. So whether you’re working with us on your masterpiece or woodshedding demos at your house, give commitment a try, I think you’ll like the results.  

The Dangers of ‘Fixing It In the Mix’

The Dangers of ‘Fixing It In the Mix’ By Glenn Sawyer

If you’ve recorded before then you may have heard the phrase ‘fix it in the mix’. If you hear this phrase while you’re working then you should be concerned….very concerned. Modern producers and engineers have a wealth of tools at their disposal that offer the ability to change tones and effects well after the actual recording is completed but that doesn’t actually mean it’s a good thing to wait until later.

So what exactly am I talking about? We’ve all been in the studio working on a project only to find that for whatever reason, finding the right tone is eluding us. This is a crossroads of sorts and there are two main options for moving past the problem. The first option is to settle and often times involves the engineer or producer saying something along the lines of ‘that’s good enough for now and we’ll fix it in the mix’ or ‘it’s not a feature part so it won’t be a problem. They’ll tell you they have a wealth of options for changing things down the road and that they’ll fix it later*.

If this option sounds like a terrible one, that’s because it is. Rarely, if ever, does ‘fixing it in the mix’ actually work. The problem being that you’ve settled at that point and although the engineer/producer may be able to improve the sound in the mix, it will never be what it could have been, and more often than not it ends up a bastardized version of what you really want. As the old saying goes, ‘You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig’, and that’s particularly true here.

The second option, and the better one to boot, is to simply keep trying to improve the tone until you actually have. This is generally as easy as turning some knobs or trying a different amp, guitar or keyboard until you find the right combinations of settings and gear. Other times it takes more than that but the important thing is not settling. I always say that you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going as long as you know if you’re not there yet. In my experience, it may take another 10 or 20 minutes to find the sweet spot but rarely longer than that.

The benefit of taking the extra time to get a tone right is that it’s always right after that (before, during, and after the mix) and you don’t end up settling for something you don’t want. The other equally important benefit is that you have a better idea about what kind of space is left in your production for other things, which will then dictate the decisions you make in regard to other tones. Not to mention the fact that the extra time you spent getting it right to start, pales in comparison to the time your engineer/producer will spend putting lipstick on that pig in the mix.

*to this I would always say, if you’ve got the abilities, let’s see them…as in now, not later