Captain’s Analog

Posted on March 1st, by Mark Verbos in 21, Analog, Mark Verbos. 1 Comment

Over the last 2 issues we have taken a turn for the technical and, although I am not sorry, I feel we should come back to the world of the music makers.  There are still many things in a producer’s arsenal that we haven’t even thought to discuss yet.  The one that jumped into my mind this time is not a synthesizer or a processor.  Actually, it is not a specific piece at all.  It is a type of machine that everyone should have and know how to use, but I think is generally a tool of the big boys- the compressor.

A compressor is a dynamics processor.  That means that it doesn’t make sounds or add to them, it processes the dynamics of them.  Dynamics are the louds and the quiets.  A compressor actually narrows the gap or compresses the difference between the louds and the quiets.

In my opinion, a compressor can make the difference between your music sounding like a bedroom production and a professional recording.  They allow all the sounds to “sit” in the mix.  Because the volume of sounds is not moving up and down so much, it is much easier to find that perfect volume.

A compressor can also be useful as an effect.  It can be used to butcher sounds that didn’t even seem usable before this beast got a hold of them.  You can bring out the attack of a sound by compressing only the tail of the sound.  The timing of a sound can even be effected by the change in the attack time.  Sounds that always seemed to lag in the rhythm could jump into time when compressed.

Perhaps most important of all, an entire mixed track can benefit from a touch of compression.  Tracks that seem to be a little weak compared to the records in the bins sometimes practically release themselves when compressed.  All the flabby weakness of a homebrewed production can often benefit from a touch of this wondertool.

The mystique of the compressor is how to use it to propel yourself to mega-stardom. If you understand the controls you are one major step towards making it happen. There are 5 basic controls on almost all compressors, except retro tube ones.  These controls are:  Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release and Makeup Gain.

The threshold control is how one controls the level at which the compressor kicks in.  Input signals clip along unaffected until they become louder than the threshold.  As long as the signals are louder than the threshold setting, compression takes place.  When the signal falls below the threshold, the compressor returns the signal to its original, inputted state.  How much the signal is compressed is the property of the ratio knob.  Settings of ratio appear as compared to one.  No compression is represented 1:1.  The knob usually sweeps from 1:1 all the way to infinity:1, which theoretically means that anything coming in will come out the same level.  The attack control selects how fast the compressor will catch on to the sound crossing the threshold.  The release control selects how quickly the compressor will stop compressing after the signal has fallen below the threshold.  Since the compression process can dramatically reduce the volume of the program material, the makeup gain control is used to bring the signal back up to a reasonable line level.

Knowing how to tweak the given controls is the real art of this machine.  If you just set and forget you are wasting a valuable tool and potentially doing more harm than good.  If you actually put in the effort to doing it right, you can make a sound happen when you thought it had no chance.  I usually find that small ratios are good for entire mixes and higher ratios are good for making things sound compressed.  Fast attacks are good for crushing a sound, and slow attacks for bringing out the sound’s attack.  Fast releases are good for percussion and slow releases for whole mixes.  These rules are made to be broken.

Perhaps the greatest thing to come out of compression is the perceived loudness that can be obtained.  This is used to great effect on all pop music.  In fact, the reason you can hear absolutely everything in a pop song even on a clock radio is that radio stations compress the hell out of their signal in order to maximize the difference between the music and the interference.  Techno can benefit from this idea too, but any mastering engineer could tell you that!

I would be a fool if I told you my picks for the best compressor, but that’s why I’m here!  However, there is no simple answer to that question.  Depending on what you are going to do with it, I would suggest different models.  For the transistor-style compressor that will give you goose bumps well into the next century, I suggest the DBX 160s (about $2400 stereo).  Not only does it have all the controls I covered, it also offers DBX’s patented “overeasy system” which allows the compressor to set its own attack and release times and also ease into the set ratio.  This makes a very smooth transition from below to above the threshold.  Not only that, but this machine is hands down the prettiest one on the market.  It is anodized blue with silver cast aluminum knobs and has a blue LED in the middle of the unit to show that the power is on.  For nice, soft, can’t-even-notice-it-is-compressing-except-that-all-your-problems-have-disappeared kind of compression (always welcome on vocals) I suggest the Amek 9098 ($3000? stereo).  This Rupert Neve-designed beauty is plain and simply a gorgeous box that does what it is supposed to do- compress and not color.  For the most kick ass, harsh, in your face, hear-the-compression, change-sounds-in-ways-you-never-even-imagined, craziest machine on earth, I suggest the Empirical Labs Distressor (about $1500 one channel).  This is a digitally-controlled analog unit.  It allows you to use even or odd order harmonic distortion to shape your sound.  It is great for both tearing apart your world and soft tube emulating compression.  These babies are obviously not in the price range of many.  In a wider market, I have had a DBX 266 (around $300 for stereo) in my rack for years and have used it with pleasure for some of them.  It also throws in a free noise gate on each channel.

In my experience, the moment that people catch onto compression is a turning point in their music production.  I suggest you run to your nearest compression experiencing possibility and begin to appreciate this secret weapon in the same way I have.  Send all vintage compressors from Grandpa’s attack to me care of Massive.