When it comes to dynamics processing, we’ve never had it so good. Once upon a time, even the largest studios had only basic compressors, noise gates and perhaps de‑essers. You were lucky if a hardware compressor offered fully variable attack and release times: luckier still if its actual behaviour bore any resemblance to the numbers printed on the front. Today, by contrast, our plug‑in folders bristle with brickwall limiters, multiband compressors, dynamic EQs, resonance suppressors, transient shapers, parallel compressors, upwards compressors and countless other options. But how much better are our mixes?
Now I’d be the last person to discourage readers from trying and buying new things. New equipment is the lifeblood of this magazine. It can inspire us, help us to get results faster, or just push us in different directions, and that’s all great. But the key to getting the best from it is to have a clear understanding of the basics. As the engineers of the past well knew, a straightforward compressor with the regulation threshold, ratio, attack and release controls is actually an incredibly versatile device.
Even now, understanding how to get the best from a generic compressor can get us out of some pretty big holes. In our studios we can cheerfully fire up the latest producer‑endorsed drum smashalizer or vocal smarmalator without bothering to find out what it actually does — but what will we do when the band asks if we’re available to mix front of house at short notice? And when none of the ‘bass guitar’ presets seem to work on the actual bass guitar in the project we’re mixing, how will we know what to change to make it right?
As the engineers of the past well knew, a straightforward compressor with the regulation threshold, ratio, attack and release controls is actually an incredibly versatile device.
Sound On Sound has published a few beginners’ guides to compression over the years, by experts such as Paul White, Hugh Robjohns and Mike Senior. All are available as part of the vast treasure trove of articles on the SOS website, and the great thing is that each of these authors brings a new perspective on a familiar topic. But with compression being such a basic technique in modern mixing, I don’t think you can have too many explanations, and this month I’ve tried to take a different approach to unravelling its mysteries.
One of the main barriers to learning in any field is jargon, and music technology is no exception. Standard compression parameters such as Threshold, Knee and Ratio can seem needlessly obscure to newcomers. With this 36th anniversary issue's cover feature Compression: What Do All Those Knobs Do?, my hope is that by providing a clear and concise explanation of what these actually do, we can help people overcome that barrier and begin to use compressors with confidence. After all, it’s only once we have a clear idea of what’s possible with these basic controls that we’ll really be in a position to judge whether those more exotic dynamics plug‑ins offer anything truly new.
Sam Inglis Editor In Chief