I often am asked which compressor I like to use on certain sources and my answer has never been clearly defined. There is no simple answer because like so much of what we do as artists, mixers and producers is subject to taste and there is no right or wrong way to make beautiful music.
I’d like to make a suggestion that might help those who are having a hard time understanding compression and may feel a little lost while sorting through what is likely dozens of options when it comes to plugins.
Over the years, developers have designed numerous mutli-faceted plugins with an ever increasing array of options that can even baffle a professional mixer. Options like mix blend control, saturation, side-chain, pre/post EQ sections, mid/side flexibility and multi-band compression can be very useful but what I’m about to suggest is something that no one who has spent thousands on upgrades wants to hear.
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH, WOULD YA?
I’d like you to forget all about these:
These are nice and all, but complex.
And focus on just these two:
Over the last several decades, many many records have been made using these two Bill Putnam, Sr. designed dynamics processors… and for good reason. They cover a lot of bases. The 1176 and LA2A compressors are two of the most versatile units you can have in your arsenal and have defined the sound of popular music. I’m not saying these are the only compressors you’ll ever need. What I am saying is that if you want to learn the intricacies of using compression both creatively and for it’s utility functions, stripping your toolkit down to these two temporarily can help tremendously.
The LA2A is about as simple as it gets. It uses a specialized optical gain reduction circuit that lends a particularly musical quality to it’s sound that can gently reduce dynamic range and control peaks or crush an instrument or vocal mercilessly. It has, for all intents and purposes, just two controls: Peak Reduction and Gain.
Operation is simple. Just increase the Peak Reduction … UNTIL IT SOUNDS GOOD, then add GAIN until the level is matched with the bypassed audio. I use this on either vocals, bass, guitars or anything that it SOUNDS GOOD on for just about every mix I do. The trick to deciding as to whether or not it sounds good is no trick at all, actually. Use your ears. Does the processor add something nice or does it subtract something unpleasant? If the answer is yes, see if it works in context with your mix. If the answer is no, time to move on.
The Swiss Army knife of compressors.
As the most often utilized compressor in my arsenal, the 1176 sees a lot of action. The hardware unit is a FET style compressor that can go from mild to insane with just a few tweaks. Universal Audio, headed by Putnam Sr’s son and a terrific crew, have exhaustively modelled several variants of this unit for their UAD platform. While other companies have nice emulations, I prefer the UA model of their own designs. I’ve successfully used this compressor on bass, vocals, guitars and of course drums. It’s the best thing for smashing room and overhead mics for a great roomy sound. Attack and Release controls allow for dynamic control at a wide range of speeds and the nuclear “all buttons in” setting is pretty damn impressive. Of course, every song and every track is different but here’s a good way to get started with the 1176:
Start with well known “10 and 2 o’clock” position for the input and output at a ratio of 4 to 1. Adjust the input until you get between 2 and 10db of gain reduction, trying extreme and modest settings until the compression shapes the sound in a way that suits your taste. Next, adjust the attack control so that a sufficient amount of the initial transient peaks through. Use the release control to time the effect to the material. I start with a medium attack time and a fast release. If you need more aggressive compression, try switching the ratio to 8, 12, 20 or “all buttons in”.