There’s a host of ways to have your music be amazing. And there’s 8-million youtube videos out there telling you how to mix music. But this is independent media, and there’s almost nothing out there which supports a holistic mixing whole that helps us know how best to work with music in a media mix. Most all of that kind of education is covered in the MZed Pro Member Education and in articles here on Cinema Sound. This article will cover the 4 biggest reasons to use a single-band compressor on music. Buckle our seat belts, because these apply whether you’re a sound mixer in Pro Tools or Audition – or you’re an editor in Premiere or Davinci.
The thing to keep in mind about compression for music is this: when using compression IN a music mix, we use compression to change the sound of instruments and vocals. But a media mix where we use compression ON music, it’s much more volume oriented. Still, there are take-offs we use from the music side all the time which include reason #1 here to use a compressor on music:
1. You Can Add Punch
I’m not talking about Kool-Aid here. That’s for brainwashing – which I suppose is what I’m trying to do here. Never mind.
By careful use of the attack and release settings in your local compressor plugin with a reduction in the -5 to -10 or more range, you can add a significant amount of “snappiness” or “punch” to music which might be lethargic or needs to “pop” in a scene. Music is a finicky beast, however, and unless the music already has transients, drums or big hits, changing the attack of the compressor isn’t going to make a badly written lethargic piece of music all of sudden feel like an EDM piece. But if there are transients, instead of doing what most folks do which is turn the fader up – which otherwise messes with the balance of ambience and SFX, getting a snappy attack does the same thing without ruining carefully mixed layers. It also has a fun emotional “punch” to the audience. Depending on the plugin, an attack setting between 5 ms and 20 ms with a speedy release between 40 ms and 100 ms will render a “crack” on the initial sound which really adds that Kool-Aid Punch to the mix. You can use this technique on just about anything that’s apathetic. Why does this work? Because the short attack keeps the compressor from engaging briefly until after the sound has “poked over” the threshold. The lower you drop the threshold, the stronger this effect (and the quieter the overall sound will be – counteract by raising the gain).
2. You Can Crush Transients
If you have the opposite issue of #1 above, and the hits, drums or attacks are too poppy or punchy, you can
reduce the attack value to zero, using a “peak” setting instead of an “RMS” setting (when available), and the opening of such attacks will be as smooth as an android’s face. Here you’ll want a release setting greater than 75 ms. When would you do this? Well, especially in a situation where the composer has had a lot of fun with her percussion or loops, and they’re just interfering with the other aspects of the mix. In this case, instead of pulling down the volume of percussion (boo-hiss) we just chop off the transients. Why does this work? Because the fast attack disallows any sound to “poke through” the threshold and everything gets mashed down. The higher the ratio and lower the threshold the greater the crushing of the initial peaks of the sound. Think about using this kind of technique with percussion busses or instruments, orchestral hits in general, or snare drums in anything with a back beat. You can certainly apply this to an entire mix if you don’t have stems and get a similar – if not more crunched sounding – result.
3. You Can Make a Compressor GROUP for stems! (Dark Ninja Tips)
If you have a ton of transient instruments happening during a particular scene or moment, you can bus those tracks to a channel where you’ve added either a nice easy/slow compression for smoothing things out or a fast draconian compressor to shave off anything transients which might poke through the mix unwarranted. For example: if you had a situation where there was a percussion ensemble filled with tambourines (notorious for ruining mixes), taiko drums and sticks, you could bus the tambourines and sticks to a special channel which had a strong, short attack compressor which would tame the hard transients of those instruments. Then, you’d just route those back to the music bus. On the other hand, if you had a ton of slow rolling music which was just too dynamic, you could do the same thing but have strings, vocals, brass and woodwinds bussed to a slow/easy compression which would happily balance them all.
4. You can Smooth Out The Music In General
Smoothing out volume is what most people think of when they consider using a compressor. For good reason.
Music, however, is a tough beast to tame with a single, single-band compressor. Instead, use two compressors in series on your master music bus. One with a slow attack and release and a threshold and ratio that does a 3-5 dB attenuation when things get loud. Then do the same thing on your second compressor, only reduce the threshold to where the new 1st-compressed signal lies, and speed up the attack and release by a few milliseconds. The second compressor should be doing 3-5 dB of attenuation as well. You drop those compressors in, and your music will be calmly and passively tamed. So nice.
Start experimenting with compressors in your next mix whether you’re in an NLE or DAW and see if things don’t get under control real fast.