We look at how to get the most out of Live's compressors.
Compression, essentially, amounts to reducing the range between the highest and lowest levels in an audio signal. Live offers four audio effects devices for this — Compressor, Glue Compressor, Multiband Dynamics and Limiter — each of which yields a quite different result. Multiband Dynamics was covered in detail in the May 2012 Live column, and I'll delve into the many creative uses of Live's other dynamics processor, Gate, in a future issue. Here we'll look at how the remaining three audio devices work and touch on the alternative of using the Velocity MIDI effect to compress a MIDI instrument's output. Compression theory has been covered extensively in SOS over the years, and the 'Read All About It' box provides links to the online versions of many of these articles.
Although you probably couldn't bring this off manually, you can think of a compressor's essential settings — threshold, ratio, attack and release — in terms of riding a track's volume fader. The threshold is the level above which you start moving the fader. The ratio is how far you lower the fader per 1dB increase over the threshold; a ratio of 2:1 means that the level above the threshold is cut in half. Attack and release dictate how fast you're allowed to move the fader. So, while the threshold and ratio might dictate a radical change of level, a long attack setting could prohibit you from fully implementing that change when the level rises very quickly.
Compressor and Glue Compressor share many of the same features, but they differ in both philosophy and sound. Compressor is an all‑purpose design intended both for individual track and mix‑bus compression. Glue Compressor, adapted for Live in collaboration with Cytomic (www.cytomic.com), emulates the SSL G-Series bus compressor and is particularly well suited for use on submix and master buses. Both devices offer filtered side‑chain input for triggering compression from other sources and a dry/wet mix knob to easily facilitate parallel compression. A good approach is to try Glue Compressor first on mixes, which are typically less unruly, and to turn to Compressor for muscle jobs like taming aggressive percussion and lead tracks, but don't automatically rule out either device.
Compressor works in three modes — Peak, RMS and Expand — selected with buttons on the right. The first two provide compression with ratios as high as -inf:1 (which amounts to limiting, but with options not available on the Limiter device). In Expand mode the ratios range from 1:1 to 1:2. Expansion increases the dynamic range: at 1:2 the level above the threshold is doubled. You might use expansion, for example, to attempt to restore dynamic range to clips that have been irreversibly over-compressed. Finally, Compressor offers soft‑knee compression, lookahead of zero, one or 10 milliseconds and a logarithmic release mode that rebounds more quickly from sharply compressed transients. Glue Compressor's features include soft clipping above -0.5dB and a Range control to limit the maximum amount of compression.
Getting compression right is often as much a matter of experiment as experience. With Live's compressors, start with the presets; they're well designed, helpfully named and there aren't that many of them. When you don't find exactly what you want, tweaking the settings will often get you there. Beyond that, experiment with different device configurations. Here are four examples for taming a radical snare drum (to better focus on the results, try these with a clip containing a single snare‑drum hit).
Limiter is a special-purpose compressor whose job is to ensure that peaks never exceed the Ceiling setting. This makes it especially well suited for use on the Master track to absolutely prevent clipping. Limiter lacks most of Compressor's controls because strict limiting doesn't use them: Attack (as fast as possible), Ratio (–inf:1), Mode (Peak), Knee (hard) and Sidechain trigger (never). Of the controls that are provided, Limiter's Release knob and Auto button work just like Compressor's; there is always some lookahead, but you can choose from 1.5, 3 and 10 ms; and you can choose whether both stereo channels receive the same limiting or are processed separately. The Gain setting affects the input, so raising the gain will bring up the body of the audio at the expense of more radical clipping of transients that exceed the ceiling.
When working with virtual instruments, keep Live's Velocity MIDI effect in mind as an alternative to compression and limiting. It can often achieve what you're after without the negative aspects of radical audio processing. It works by altering the velocities of incoming MIDI notes so as to compress or expand the velocity range, or alternatively, to gate notes with out‑of‑range velocities.
One final thing to remember is that when you're compressing material with significant volume changes, track multing (dividing the material over several tracks with relatively consistent volumes) is often a useful precursor to compression. Otherwise, you'll probably need to make repeated adjustments to the compressor's threshold and quite possibly to the ratio and release settings as well as the dry/wet mix.
Compression is a huge subject, and we have covered it extensively in features and columns over the years. Here, by topic, are links to some worthwhile references currently available on the SOS web site.
Compression From Basic To Advanced
- 'Compressors' by Paul White: /sos/1997_articles/apr97/compressors.html
- 'Advanced Compression 1' by Paul White: /sos/dec00/articles/adcompression.htm
- 'Advanced Compression 2' by Paul White: /sos/jan01/articles/advanced.asp
- 'Compression Made Easy' by Mike Senior: /sos/sep09/articles/compressionmadeeasy.htm
Software Gating & Dynamics
- 'Software Dynamics Masterclass' by Paul White & Sam Inglis: /sos/mar03/articles/sequencerdynamics.asp
- 'Software Gating Masterclass' by Paul White & Martin Walker: /sos/apr03/articles/sequencergates.asp
Multi-band, Mix & Parallel Compression
- 'Multi‑band Workshop' by Paul White & Hugh Robjohns: /sos/aug02/articles/multiband.asp
- 'The SOS Guide To Mix Compression' by Will Haas: /sos/may08/articles/mixcompression.htm
- 'Crafting Loud Mixes That Sound Great' by Paul White & Matt Houghton: /sos/mar12/articles/loudness.htm
- 'Parallel Compression' by Hugh Robjohns: /sos/feb13/articles/latest-squeeze.htm