Compression has, in recent decades, become one of the biggest crutches of the recording industry. The concept being that one wants control over their mix before it ends up in the mastering process – where even more compression will undoubtedly be added.
I recently heard the new Rush album, Clockwork Angels, and I love the music and the sounds the guys came up with for this. But I hate – absolutely hate – the amount of compression used in the mixing and mastering process. They took an album that could have sounded as huge as the original US Vinyl pressing of Moving Pictures (and if you have that pressing – done by Capitol back in the day – you know how “big” it sounds) and made it sound “small”. My girlfriend works at a coffee shop (shoutout to Little Skips in Bushwick Brooklyn and the great Counter Culture coffee they serve). They sometimes will play her iPod, and my favorite sounding vinyl rips that I gave her sound quieter than the mp3s she acquired from iTunes. But ultimately, if you turn up the volume a few notches to “match” the sound of the “other” mp3s when playing the vinyl rips, you’ll notice how much more clarity there is in the recordings – how much more space and depth there is. You can hear the music moving. You can feel the rumble of the bass and the tone of the guitars and the drumset. You can focus on a drumset and really “see” the whole kit. (What Apple should have had in the initial design stage of the iPod was a compressor built in if you wanted to use it for such purposes as random playlists at coffee shops and left the original recordings alone).
Let’s take a look at what compression does, and the unwanted side effects. Compression is certainly control. People think compression tends to make things “bigger” or use buzz words like “slam” and “boost” but in the end when you compress, you make things “smaller”. That’s the purpose of compression. To make things smaller.
I’m currently recording a great NYC rock and roll band called “The Deafening” in the studio, and we wrapped on tracking drums this past weekend. They wanted (and so did I) a huge 1970′s sounding drumkit. I bought classic remo heads (Coated emperors for the tops and Ambassadors for the bottoms – the secret of the John Bonham sound) and used a variety of close and room mics to capture the kit on tape. Then I played back the tracks and without any EQ or compression it already sounded like a big loud punchy drumkit. I started playing with some compression VST plugs just to get an idea of a direction to take the kit in, and ultimately scrapped all the compression on the drums save for the kick (low end is a different story – it’s the hardest to control, and needs the highest amount of consistency – kick and bass needs that constant locking feel for my money). Time after time this is what I notice when working with the tracks. Try it sometime – add some compression to all the tracks on a drumset, and then take all the compression off after getting used to the compressed tracks, and you’ll notice how much livelier, full, and big your drums sound. They will also have more room “around” them to breathe.
We all need air and breathing room to live. Your recordings are no different.
At the end of the day, I let the preamps and tape take care of a lot of my sound control, and I only add compression when necessary. Kick drums, Bass guitars, and Vocals are typically the only areas where I’ll use any compression in the mixin stage. And then the SSL 2bus post mix mastering is used very slightly (maybe a 10:1 with a 10 attack and an auto release – we’re talking minor glue purposes only). So many people use these SSL comps on the drum set alone before they even mix. STOP IT! It sounds like shit! Just cause Rush did it, doesn’t mean you should. As a matter of fact they shouldn’t have. They ruined an amazing record with compression. And that’s the idea here. Don’t ruin good art and real music with things they taught you to do in music recording school. Get great pre-amps, great (even really good) converters (AD/DA is a whole other part of the story – which I’ll get into in the future), and use compression minimally. If the mindset of the industry was more akin to this, I’d enjoy more modern records than I do.