Audio production tidbit – The compressor – Beginners, have no fear.

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Compression

Compression has always been the big mystery for me personally, and many others. It’s one of those magical things that can both make a horrid sound amazing, and any sound utterly useless if used badly.

There’s almost limitless resources these days to learn about it, and at times an article can make your head hurt. So I say it’s better to start with the basics. The controls. This I found today because I felt like I had no good understanding of the specific definition of compressor release. Read more about it on Humbucker music — Compression explained

Most compressors have pretty much the same controls:

1. Threshold sets the level where compression starts to take effect. Sounds below the threshold pass through unaltered and only sounds above the threshold
are compressed.

2. Ratio sets the degree of compression above the threshold level. A ratio of 2:1 represents mild compression and means that when the incoming level (that
is, the level above the threshold) rises by 10dB, the outgoing level will only rise by 5dB. Ratios of up to 5:1 are regularly used for vocals and other
instruments, and can pass by unnoticed by the listener if the other controls are set properly. Higher ratios are used for more serious limiting, where
the level needs more severe control. Ratios of 10:1 and higher are nearly always noticeable to the listener.

3. Attack is measured in milliseconds and determines the time taken for the compressor to start working once the signal has passed the threshold level. 
Why have Attack?  Because sometimes if you leave just a hint of attack (say, for instance, a snare drum hit, or a powerful downstroke on an acoustic guitar)
then it sounds a bit more realistic.  Removing too much attack can sound a touch fake.

4. Release sets the length of time it takes for the compressor to return to its normal state once the signal has gone back below the threshold.

5. Gain is provided because compression always reduces the peak level: the more compression, the lower the level of the outgoing signal. This control is
sometimes referred to as ‘make-up’ gain because it makes up the level that is inevitably lost during the compression process.

The best way to learn the compressor is to first understand the controls, find those places online where you can listen to examples. The effect is, and often should be subtle and is very difficult to hear when first starting out. Then experiment. One thing to remember is that a compressor is a compressor. There are hundreds, if not thousands of compressor plugins out there; free and far from free alike. In most cases, and as a beginner in particular, It’s not going to matter which one you use. You will never hear the difference between them. The controls are what they are and a top radio hit and a bedroom recording can use the same compressor and no one will ever know. It’s how it’s used that’s paramount, not the brand.

So, relax, have another beer. Learn how to do it, then do it. Use the compressor. It won’t bite.

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