Compression in EDM, an effect that can either make or break your track. Today, we see many amateur artists stumbling their way through compression.
This can crush the dynamics of their element, creating a blanket effect, or blast the volume of the element to extreme volume if not used correctly. Now the art of compression is found in-between these two extremes.
There are multiple types of compression: over the top compression, parallel compression, meaningful overcompression, multiband compression, sidechain compression…
Today, we’re just going to focus on what exactly a compressor is, when to use compression, and exactly how to use a compressor to enhance your music.
Compression is when you lessen the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of your audio.
In order to achieve this, your compressor will make the quietest part of your audio louder; while taking the loudest parts of your audio and make them quieter. As this happens, the dynamics are squished more and more creating a type of “flat-lined,” or “brick-walled,” audio file.
Do this, and you’ll quickly notice how distorted your audio is as you turn the track up. Let’s go over, in brief, the controls you are given with your compressor.
- Ratio – this determines how intense the compressor will duck/cut out the peak dynamics of your audio – or the loudest part of the audio.
- Threshold – This tells compressor at which point it will actually begin compression. If you want it to start to compress the peak dynamics at -10db, then once your audio goes above -10db, the compressor will turn on and start its compression process.
- Attack – How fast the compressor takes to start compression.
- Release – How long the compression will remain active.
- Make-Up Gain – This is used to turn up the audio signal after its peak dynamic range – or loudest part of the audio – is reduced. This will help make up any volume loss after you have compressed, also helping to accentuate the compressed audio.
Something to keep in mind when it comes to compressors, a lot of them have the same basic concept, but can generate different sounds. When playing around or choosing compressors, do some research into the sound they generate, as different ones will generate different tones; distortion, saturation, smoothness, glue etc.
Now that we’ve gone over exactly what a compressor is and its parts, let’s discuss WHEN you should use a compressor.
When to Use Compression in EDM
When I first started to get into production I didn’t have a clue what a compressor was. When I found out what a compressor was all I thought was, “WOW… This is how producers make their tracks sound loud!” Boy was I wrong… STORY TIME!
In 2014 I met some producers who were pretty deep in the game and knew what they were doing. They were kind enough to invite me into their home to go over the current track I was writing and to give me some feedback. When I got there and opened up my project, they were in utter disbelief.
I had added a compressor to every single track, lowered the threshold, and turned the makeup gain way up.
What I ended up with was horrible distortion when turned up and a “blanket” like effect over my entire track. What I mean by that is it sounded like someone was playing my song while a blanket rested over the speakers/monitors.
After they saw this they taught me one of the most important lessons I could ever learn when it comes to production and mixing: The order in which you should be following processing and the reasoning behind it.
- Make sure your levels are perfect
- If you can’t get a specific sound to stick out then move to EQing that sound and its surrounding sounds as well
- Once you’ve leveled and set you EQ, then, and only then, should you move to compression if the first 2 steps have not solved your issue
Now one key thing to point out here is that when I talk about solving your issue, I’m speaking in regards to making the track or sound more present in the mix. If you’re also wanting to go for a specific sound/tone with your compressor.
This is when you decide if you’re wanting to use a specific compressor that will help you achieve that sound/tone; i.e. distortion, saturation, warmth, clean etc. Now that we know when to use compression in EDM, let’s talk about how to actually use compression in EDM.
Using a Compressor in EDM
Now that we’ve discussed when you should approach compression, let’s talk about how to use the compressor. Let’s say you’ve got a 3-layered lead for your drop and the bassline also includes an additional 3 layers. On top of that, you’ve all sorts of drum elements sitting in the mix, hi-hats, snares, kicks, toms, cymbals, etc. When you get to this point, you’re usually going to be dealing with some muddiness, and that’s only with 6 sounds layered on top of each other, including drum elements.
I know some of you probably have 6 individual lead layers, and 4 – 6 individual bass layers.
When you get to this point, you’ll definitely start to experience overcrowding and muddiness.
Once you’ve leveled everything and EQed as much as you can without making your sounds too thin, this is when you want to move to your compressor. Let’s say that the main element of the main lead is just not sitting right within the mix. When you turn it up, it sticks out like a sore thumb, as soon as you turn it down, it’s nowhere to be found in the mix. Throw on your compressor and we’re going to make some minor adjustments.
When we’re finished with the compressor, we’re going to add a little bit of make-up gain to correct for any loss in volume.
With this in mind, you won’t want your ratio to be too high, otherwise you’ll have the same issue as before, the peaks will be getting cut out too much, not only giving an overcompressed feeling, but also a loss in some volume of the sound. A solid 3:1 ratio should be a good setting here, just enough to start ducking the volume once it hits those loud peaks, but not too much to wash out the sound.
Make sure that the sound is looping while you’re adjusting these settings as well, it’s best to play the entire track so you can actually hear if the compressor is doing anything to help in the entirety of the mix.
As the track plays, take your threshold and move just above where the bar is jumping up and down, and then move it about 1db – 2db below that line. This will tell the compressor when to flip on and start cutting out those peak dynamics. Depending on how fast you want the compression to start, or how long you want it to last, you can adjust the attack and release as you see fit, toy around to see how it fits in your track. If you want less aggressive compression, use a slower attack, and vice versa for aggressive compression.
Check out the video below where I show an example of how to use a compressor in this setting.
At this point, your track/sound should be sitting in the right place. Adjust the make-up to boost the compression and overall volume in the sound, if it needs to stick out a little bit more. Likewise, lower the threshold to aggressively take out the peak dynamics. In fact, I would say to test out what happens when you throw the threshold down all the way and then slowly bring it back up, really listen to what is happening to the sound.
Congratulations, you just used proper compression in your EDM track!
What I taught you here are the real minor/basics to the use of a compressor, there’s many more techniques to use, and most of all there aren’t really any rules. Use the compressor however you want as long as it’s the sound you’re going for and what you’re wanting to achieve. Just don’t do what I did… Throwing a compressor on every track while simultaneously turning up the gain 5db is NOT the proper way of using compression in EDM!
Do you still struggle with compression and limiting? Maybe your mixing and mastering just isn’t up to par… Head to my homepage and check out some of my portfolio, I might be the best fit to help you out with mixing and/or mastering; request a quote today!