Bass Management: Compression Do’s And Don’ts

Compression can be like a mischievous god of Greek mythology. It can bestow upon you a bounty of grace, riches, and stature, or it can wave a dismissive hand and transform you into a turnip. And, as with dealing with those bipolar deities of Mount Olympus, the key to happiness is always keeping well within compression’s favor. Using too much—or too little—compression on a bass track can absolutely affect the quality of the instrument’s tone, vibrancy, and drive. You can enhance the player’s subtle performance gestures, or you can ruthlessly destroy all evidence of musical dynamics. And here’s the kicker: In these endeavors, you control your own fate. You can’t blame Zeus for your mix misfortunes if you’re the one squashing the life out of a once-fabulous bass performance. Here are some templates for keeping the compression gods on your side.
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BUT FIRST, SOME BASICS . . .

I’ve always been the guy who doesn’t read gear manuals. I just dive right in, spin knobs, and take my lumps for dialing in crap, or bask in the wonderment of some surprising and cool sounds. You can certainly take this approach with compressors, but I’d recommend a quick get-to-know-you session with the basic parameters.

Attack: This control sets the time it takes for the compressor to react to the input signal and reach its maximum processing level. Fast attacks can catch percussive explosions, slap them down, and let you crank up the overall level of the track.

Release: Once the compression is activated, this control determines the amount of time the compressor keeps working on that input signal. A long release time can goose sustain considerably.

Threshold: This is the point—measured in decibels—where the compressor is activated.

Ratio: Don’t be frightened—it ain’t algebra. This control simply determines how much the input level is smacked down in favor of the output level (or amount of compression). For example, a 2:1 compression ratio means that for every 2dB of input you’ll get just 1dB of output. A 10:1 ratio gives you 1dB of output for 10dB of input, and so on.

Output: Okay, I’m aware you know what “output” is, but in the world of compression this is also referred to as “make up gain.” The grooviness of this control is that it allows you to compress a signal to taste, and then raise the level of the compressed signal as desired without slamming your channel faders.

Rockin’ Pulse

Effect:A meaty and consistent throb that can move SUVs, aircraft carriers, and small mountain ranges.
Basic Settings:Ratio at 4:1, fast Attack, medium-long Release, Threshold at –6dB.
DO:If you want the groove of a rock or dance track to explode out of the speakers to get booties shaking.
DON'T:If you want the player’s touch and dynamics to be experienced by the listener.

The Girdle

Effect:A subtle tightening of the low end.
Basic Settings:Ratio at 3:1, fast Attack, short Release, Threshold at 0dB.
DO:If you want some relatively consistent thud, but also wish to spotlight the player’s phrasing and dynamics.
DON'T:If you tend to get all sweaty and nervous when the low end isn’t pounding as forcefully as a mammoth taiko drum.

Freedom!

Effect:The low end ebbs and flows with the gestures and attack of the player.
Basic Settings:Ratio at 2:1, medium-slow Attack, fast Release, Threshold at 3dB.
DO:If you’re tracking jazz, world music, or any other genre that depends on the musicality of the performer to deliver a journey through the low-end dynamics.
DON'T:If your track requires a consistent and forceful low end.

Funky Stuff

Effect:Pop and slaps move the groove, while the low end stays consistent and solid.
Basic Settings:Ratio at 4:1, medium-slow Attack, medium-slow Release, Threshold at –2dB.
DO:If you want those barrages of funk wonderfulness to dance around your track.
DON'T:If you feel the pops are too distracting. In which case, you may want to switch to a faster attack and a higher threshold in order to tame to dynamics more aggressively.