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Tracking compressor - hardware or software

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Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby Tim Harper » Mon Jan 18, 2021 12:58 pm

I'm considering picking up a simple transparent compressor for light compression during vocal tracking but seeing as Cubase allows effects to be applied while recording I'm wondering is there any benefit to using a rack based compressor versus a plugin?

My thinking is that it might be easier for me to make out levels/reduction from across the studio on a rack unit (seeing as I'm recording myself most of the time). Something like the SSL six or similar, which I could use/monitor in place might be an option idea either.

Any advice/experience from people who track themselves would be much appreciated.
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Re: Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby The Elf » Mon Jan 18, 2021 1:03 pm

Neither. Especially if you are thinking this is about transparent level control.

There are reasons to track with a compressor if you know what you are doing, have a compressor that imparts something magical that you can't achieve any other way - and are very confident you're not going to regret it later. But you could do all this after tracking, even with hardware.

To *track* through a plug-in? Nah! You can add the plug-in later, so there's absolutely no benefit at all.

Using a compressor to control recording levels is not the way - just track with plenty of headroom.

Plug-in compressors have meters, and some have large meters, so I don't see why a hardware meter would definitively give you any real benefit beyond occasionally having to stand closer to the screen - or add a second screen placed closer to where you sit!
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Re: Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby Sam Spoons » Mon Jan 18, 2021 1:07 pm

If you are recording into a computer DAW at 24 bit you don't need a compressor for tracking unless for the way it changes the sound but you say 'transparent' so I guess you don't want that.

edit :- The Elf got there first. But to add, the headroom available with 24 bit recording means you don't need to watch the levels like you would have done back in the days of analogue tape (or even early digital). Record with peaks of no higher than -10 dBFS and an average of around -18 dBFS and you'll be fine.
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Re: Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby CS70 » Mon Jan 18, 2021 1:33 pm

Tim Harper wrote:I'm considering picking up a simple transparent compressor for light compression during vocal tracking but seeing as Cubase allows effects to be applied while recording I'm wondering is there any benefit to using a rack based compressor versus a plugin?

Assuming you still want to do it after reading the pervious responses :), the answer is yes - there are differences and occasionally they can translate into benefits (and occasionally not)

An hardware compressor will be placed between your preamp outs and the interface line inputs. So it will compress before A/D conversion.

In opposition, a compressor plugin in Cubase will begin to see the signal after A/D compression, when it's already sampled into digital audio.

So say you've messed up your gain staging and you are recording too hot. Using a hardware compressor will put a band-aid on that and allow you to set the level that goes into the A/D converter so that this latter doesn't clip. A software compressor will be useless.

For a properly gain-staged signal, that can be successfully sampled by the converter without distortion, that is obviously not a particular benefit.

The other difference is that every component you add to the analogue signal path will, in some form, affect the signal a little bit. This can happen in a way that it, in some rare cases, can be dependent from your specific physical setup, and thus cannot be emulated (for the good reason that the plugin programmer knew nothing of you using 15m cables or having that nice lava lamp on top of the compressor box :D). So if you add an analogue compressor you might add some noise/distortion that the equivalent digital emulation might not add. Of course, this is totally insignificant in almost all cases.

Bottom line, the only reason for using a compressor when tracking into a 24 bit digital system is that you like the sound, you like knobs and you like to commit early.
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Re: Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby Tim Harper » Mon Jan 18, 2021 2:23 pm

Thats great, many thanks for the detailed replies and collective info!

Its seems to be slightly at odds with what Ive read in Mike Seniors Recording Secrets book thou (he doesnt mention character from what I can see) - "most professionals still record vocals through an analog compressor. Even engineers who usually record most things unprocessed often make an exception for vocals...because they're so dynamic...processing a vocal on its way to the recorder is therefore comparatively low risk....so long as you avoid overdoing it."

(I learnt a huge amount from his excellent Mixing Secrets book so have been tending to follow his suggestions and best practices).

From the character/magical side of it - does (using a characterful hardware compressor) really make that much of a audibly noticeable difference over using similiar plugins during mixing? I'd considered a Klark Teknik KT-2A based on the reviews for vocal tracking (coming from a budget DAW studio I'm aware that the novelty of a hardware compressor would be alot of the draw for me thou!).
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Re: Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby The Elf » Mon Jan 18, 2021 6:39 pm

Great though that book is, it's not a bible! Opinions differ and times have moved on.

It's fair to say that some engineers *do* still track through a compressor, but it's also fair to say that those engineers typically have their roots in tape and huge analogue mixing desks, access to very esoteric hardware and a very good idea of what they are trying to achieve.

And yes, I know there are always exceptions! (before anyone begins typing 'Ah but...')

Have I tracked through a compressor? Yes, many times. Would I again? Yes, if I felt it suited the moment. Through a 'transparent' compressor? Definitely not - what would be the point?

If you're doing this from home, don't make your life difficult - track with sensible headroom and benefit from the fabulous digital options we have at our disposal in this brave new world!
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Re: Tracking compressor - hardware or software

Postby Tim Harper » Mon Jan 18, 2021 7:47 pm

Thanks for clarifying that (and likely saving me the few quid on a compressor too!) :)
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