Using Compression In Your Mixes

Ever felt like this approach might actually yield better mixes?

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If you have, then chances are you’re not doing it right. It always seems that – no matter how much we tweak – there’s some magic flick of the wrist that would make our mixes sound amazing. So we continue to tweak. And then we tweak some more. After a stressful meal and frame-by-frame mental replay of each tweak we made, we start tweaking some more.

But have you ever considered that you might not need so much compression in the first place? Too many mixes are clearly identified as “amateur” due to over-compression. Especially in the vocals.

Compression can be a wonderful thing when used appropriately. But a 8:1 ratio and -20 dB gain reduction on a lead vocal almost never sounds good. So try backing off the compression and only using a little bit at a time. You’ll spend far less time “tweaking” and your mixes will sound much more natural and professional in the long run.

A few go-to numbers for me:

Lead vocal – about 4-6 dB of gain reduction on a rock or pop track, 2-3 dB on a country or ballad.

Bass – about 5 dB of gain reduction on almost any electric bass

Kick – about 3 dB of gain reduction with a slow attack (to leave the transient alone and get more of the front end)

Snare – about 4-5 dB of gain reduction with a slow attack and slow release (to fatten it up)


Have you stumbled upon any go-to numbers for your compressors? Let us know what they are!

5 thoughts on “Using Compression In Your Mixes”

  1. When I want a track to sound very natural, which is most of the time, I add compression using the much same method I use to add reverb. I lower the threshold and bump up the ratios until I can barely see it and hear the compressor needles move, then try to back off a little. When you’ve got it to that point, the best thing then is to close your eyes and LISTEN very carefully to what you are getting by moving those knobs.

    As George Martin says, all you need is ears.

    If I am wanting to use compression or verb as an big effect, then all bets are off. I step on the track hard and let the devil beware. But still, you gots to listen and listen and listen again. And again.

    • So true – listening is always key when finding the perfect amount of any effect – compression, reverb, eq – you name it. Great insight!
      Having some go-to system (whether it be numbers, plug-in presets, or something like your method of setting it until you barely hear some compression) is always an important first step. I like that method and know a lot of folks that use that when mixing!

  2. What about starting out with the Attack knob on it’s slowest setting and the Release knob on it’s fastest setting simply as a starting point?

    This way all the transients get through and the tail of the sound is sustained only minimally by the compressor .

    Then slowly adjust the Threshold until you start to get the desired amount of gain reduction for the track.

    At this point you can sweep the Attack knob around to find the sweet spot for the desired transient response and the Release knob to add the desired sustain.

    Re-adjust the Threshold at this point so you are still getting the desired gain reduction then set the Make-Up Gain to compensate for any gain loss.

    Adam’s “gain-reduction” numbers listed above are great staring points.

    * Special Note:

    If you change the RATIO — (i.e. 2:1, 4:1, 8:1, etc)


    — Most of the time less is better,but not always. —

    • Another great approach – definitely a good way to go about it! I’ve heard that a lot of people like this approach when compressing drums/percussion because it’s much easier to find the “sweet spot” you’re talking about with the attack.

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