Using Compressors for the Overall Mix: Part 1
by Rick Saxby
Mixes tend to come out better when audio engineers mix with their hearts and not just their heads. It can take a while to get to that point though. For example, any baseball player first has to learn the fundamentals of baseball and then, after years of practicing, they are able to play the game naturally without having to think about hitting the ball- they just do. Same goes for mixing music. First learn the fundamentals, then you won’t have to think about them, you can just focus on the music.
One of the fundamentals of mixing and mastering is learning how to use compression on your individual tracks and overall mix. In this two-part article, I will focus on using compression on the overall mix. First off, there are two different ways to use a compressor on your overall mix:
- Bus compression.
- Mastering compression.
In this part we’re focusing on bus compression. Two of the most legendary bus compressors out there are the Neve 33609 and the SSL Master Bus compressor. Working with plugins, you would typically put these as the first insert on your master fader. Next, you’d place another compressor for subtle “mastering”, and then other plugins (if you’d like) leading up to the brick wall limiter at the end of the chain. Last but not least in the mastering chain, you may need a dithering plugin as your very last insert when mastering from 24-bit down to 16-bit.
SSL AND NEVE BUS COMPRESSION SETTINGS
So what’s a good mix bus setting for these two compressors? Chris Jenkins, the engineer who made the SSL Bus Compressor (Waves, SSL and Propellerhead all make great plugin emulations of it), has a setting he uses pretty much every time. Remember, no two compressors sound exactly the same even at the same settings, but it will sound good. Here it is:
- Set the attack to .3ms
- Set release to Auto
- Set ratio to 2 to 1
After setting up the compressor to this configuration move the threshold setting until you get about 4db of gain reduction on the loudest peaks. Now mix your song. That’s right- mix your song into the bus compressor. This is how a bus compressor is intended to be used. You’ll notice that it’s a little easier to manage your audio now when you’re mixing than it was before. You can also try these settings on the Neve 33609 (UAD is the only company that makes a software version to my knowledge). The only thing different is the Neve has a limiter section (use it subtly or not at all) and the attack is program dependent. The attack is on a permanent setting- you can’t change it, but don’t worry, it works great for overall mixes.
DENSITY MKIII COMPRESSOR
Here’s another great compressor, and it is free! It’s right up there with the two I mentioned above. It’s the Density MKIII and can be downloaded at Variety Of Sound. This compressor is a little different from the two above but it still works great on a mix bus. Here’s how to get the same settings I told you about for the SSL and the Neve:
- Set the side chain filter to Off.
- Set the compressor to the Limiter setting.
- Now set the timing switch to P6 and move the strict/relax screw above the timing switch to get a .3ms attack.
- Finally, move the drive knob so the gain reduction meter goes up almost out of the green (4db of gain reduction).
I usually set the color screw so I don’t get any saturation but most people like it dead center, it’s all a matter of taste really. Now just mix into it! Remember, with all these compressors you don’t necessarily need 4db of gain reduction, so above all, let your ears (not your eyes) guide you to the sweet spot.
In Using Compressors for the Overall Mix: Part 2, I will move on to “mastering” compression. I put “mastering” in quotation marks because to us it is really just another bus compressor, but we will use it the way many mastering engineers use it so we can get better mixes.
Rick Saxby is a guest writer at HomeMusicProduction.com.
Rick Saxby lives in the Nashville area and since 1999 has produced and recorded various local independent artists in the area- starting on four tracks in 1998 and then moving on to computer based recording in 2001. He interned at Osborne Studio and Sound for five years and received a Bachelors of Accounting from MTSU. He currently runs a website where he sells hip hop beats, mixing services and his brother’s album art work at www.nashvillebros.com