Dynamic Diamonds

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Bomb Factory BF-3A > An LA-3A emulator (see tip 3).

Compressors are like turntables, synths and any other favorite axes in our jam-crafting arsenals: They each have their own musical personalities. Although compressors have processed sound in the same way for decades, relatively recent quality digital versions of classic rack gear and inventive new plug-ins have brought new accessibility, configurations and parameter tweakability to DJs, producers and bedroom rockers worldwide.

Most of us have a taste and appreciation for sounds that bump, thump and bounce, and a good relationship with compressors will let you dial in punchier, juicier, thicker, deeper and fatter sounds. Still, compressors are doing their best work when no one is aware of them.

“Cold Compressin'” in the June 2007 issue of Remix dealt with introductory compression issues. These advanced tips assume a working knowledge of attack and release functions, key input and knee types in gain reduction. Chiming in on the tips, Remix has one of the most active, prolific and knowledgeable engineers in the world, Robert Musso, using some classic reference compressors as a jumping-off point.


Musso has been the engineering right hand to producer Bill Laswell since the '80s, and he's a tremendously prolific producer and remix artist in his own right, with work running a huge gamut from spiritual ambiance to avant-garde savagery. Recently Musso has worked on Matisyahu, Russell Mills, Nine Inch Nails, Dub Syndicate and Trojan Dub Massive projects. Although Bob has been working in top studios for decades and is accustomed to having the best vintage tools at his fingertips, it was interesting — and encouraging for the rest of us — to hear him speak enthusiastically about the quality and professional usability of the plug-in emulations of the classic compressors he knows and loves.

“The thing about the digital emulations of the old gear,” Musso explains, “is that they sound pretty good — not necessarily better than the originals, but their consistency [each one sounds the same from one unit to the next] makes all the difference, and being able to have as many available as I need for a mix is a luxury we just didn't have back then. I would have to strategize ahead of time where I was going to put the handful of 1176s and LA-2As I had. Usually they would go to vocals first and whatever was left would get split up among the rest of the instruments, but now I can have one of each on every channel of a mix! And they sound the same on both sides of a stereo bus and don't have failing tubes and components.

“These emulations,” Musso warns, “do a pretty good job of capturing the original unit's overall vibe, so you have to be careful not to pull more than 2 to 3 dB's of compression because they will squeeze the life out a sound — just like the real units.”

With that important caveat, below are some tips designed to deepen your relationship with your favorite compressors. Some of them may seem obvious to some people, and as always, there are no rules set in stone — use your ears. Vibe and feel are more important than perfection, and although compressors are a key element in getting things right, adjusting them is not something that should hold up the flow of a session. Musso states emphatically, “The music dictates and requires the adjustment and choice of the compressor — not vice-versa.”

  1. Know your compressorsMost of us have go-to instruments and mics for specific situations, and compressors should be known, appreciated and treated like the musical instruments they are. One great way to learn about the characteristics of all well-known boxes is to explore the McDSP CompressorBank ($495; www.mcdsp.com), URS Classic Console Strip Pro ($399 native; www.ursplugins.com) or other dynamic emulations to find out why each one sounds like it does. CompressorBank's easily downloaded manual alone is invaluable and informative, with graphical representations of the threshold knee characteristics of the different classics. Who knew that an LA-2A has a tail that almost works like a second (release) knee?While you're at it, get a good working knowledge of just how fast, say, 10 ms is, and whether an attack of 1 ms will clip off the front of the loop you are working on (it probably will, but fast attacks can be very useful nevertheless). Knowing your attack and release times is like knowing EQ frequencies: essential.
  2. Compress correctly and confidently when you recordIf you maximize signal-to-noise ratios and bit-rate potentials by gently squeezing your tracks into the digital realm, you will end up with more sonic information (richer textures and wider bandwidth) to work with later when they will need less work, and you will be in the ballpark for mixing from the first time you listen back.Tracking is often the only time most of us get to use hardware compressors, when the rest of a project is done “in the box.” Take advantage of every chance you get to use compressors in the analog realm because it will always help you to use plug-ins better. And don't hesitate to take a mediocre-sounding compressor out of the signal path if you're not feelin' it.
  3. Create your own “set it and forget it” compressor presetsEspecially when recording a live multi-instrument session or a lot of sound sources at the same time, it's a great idea to be able to strap a forgiving dynamics processor over each input — with a not-too-fast attack and a medium release — preferably with a medium soft knee that will pull in some crazy transients when necessary but will remain transparent and won't squash things when you're not looking.“The LA-3As and LA-4As were a big part of the old Power Station sound,” Musso recalls. “They were great on vocals because they were transparent and invisible in terms of pumping, but they really did catch the peaks, and they color the sound in a very musical way. When the dbx 160X came along, it became one of my favorites because it also sounded great on vocals, and the ‘over-easy’ mode gradually eased the signal into compression as the input volume increased — it didn't have the ‘slammed against the wall’ effect.”McDSP emulations of “over-easy” settings are perfect for this kind of thing if you are working fast and have some possibly erratic signals coming in. If you can work fast when you need to with grace and agility, you'll capture the magic when it happens, as well as inspire confidence in the people with you.
  4. When in doubt, err on the side of slower attack timesStart with a slightly slower attack than you think you'll want so you won't find out too late that you made the kick drum go fthwitt with an overly aggressive attack time that sucked out the beater hit and took all the air out of the sound. By the same token, don't let your release times take so long to come back up to unity that you lose all the tone and body of that kick, either.
  5. Use multiband compression on key tracks and leave mastering to the mastering engineerThe easiest way to use powerful but sometimes unwieldy and intimidating multiband beasts such as the Waves C4 ($400 native; www.waves.com) or TC Electronic Master X5 ($249 for PowerCore; www.tcelectronic.com) is to get started with each band linked. That way it will act as a single wide-band compressor until you unlink the bands. Use slower attack and release times on lower frequencies (start with 15 ms) and higher ballistics on the higher frequencies.One of the biggest “secrets” of multiband dynamics is appreciating having one or two bands come through without any processing at all. Kick drums and other full-frequency range “hit” tracks can often benefit from the high-fidelity attention of a multiband compressor.“The Master X plug-in is great for pumping tracks up,” Musso adds. “Multiband compressors are phenomenal. You can compress, limit or expand each band individually — high, mid, low, left, right — and having control over just the bottom end, or to put heavy limiting on just one band, with expansion on the top, or to leave another band untouched, all the while taking advantage of the volume controls over each band, is very useful.”
  6. For placing a sound in a mix with higher frequency content, use an 1176Often cited as the best overall compressor for vocals, the original Universal Audio 1176 Limiting Amplifier and its subsequent emulations impart a kind of bite and sparkle as part of their relatively fast attack that seems to make a classic pop vocal shine and shimmer.Musso cites the Bomb Factory 1176 (freely available in RTAS format as the BF76) as a useful, accurate emulation of the presence-enhancing quality of the original, which can translate to any instrument in the top half of your mix, including guitars.“The 1176 will place the sound where it'll just sit there in a mix,” he explains. “It'll hold crucial guitar frequencies right there — anything between 2 and 7 kHz, which is great for placing guitar in a mix. And use an 1176 on the snare to keep that crack where you want it: right in your face.”
  7. To soften, smooth and mellow out, use an LA-2ABasically, you can't go wrong running something through an LA-2A Leveling Amplifier, a Teletronix original that been through several hardware and software versions. It is a mellow, sweet compressor that puts love on whatever you run through it, and the Bomb Factory emulation is a classic in its own right.The 1176 and LA-2A go together so well; the former keeps the bite, while the latter “smoothes out the upper harmonics,” according to Musso, who uses the LA-2A on Bill Laswell's fretless bass and other mellower bass tracks.
  8. For brutal, heavy low-end stuff, use a Fairchild-type compressorBill Laswell plays a wide spectrum of bass styles that include very heavy dub and hardcore, for which Musso employs the Bomb Factory Fairchild 660 and 670 emulations for their “ballsy, fat low end and creamy top. The Fairchilds are more monstrous and brutal sounding, and putting a 660 or 670 on a stereo bus lifts and tightens the bottom end, and it really makes a mix ‘stand up.’”Original hardware Fairchilds are huge, heavy and expensive. “Every one sounds different,” Musso says. “They have something like 20 tubes, and they'll heat a small cabin. [Laughs.] I don't think there's four working Fairchilds in the whole [New York] city!”The availability and consistency of Fairchild emulations make all the difference. The Bomb Factory Fairchild emulations in particular evoke amused praise from a man who has worked plenty with the real thing. “For heavier bass tracks I will record through a Neve 2254 or 33609 and use the more ‘manly’ sound of the Fairchild,” Musso says. [Laughs.] “Fairchilds are even sometimes great on vocals.”
  9. Compress first, then EQ“Compression first is usually the rule,” Musso states. The most important thing to remember is that the result is very different when you put EQ first.
  10. Turn your $100 large-diaphragm condenser mic into a large-diaphragm dynamicDo that by using a superfast compressor attack to get rid of the characteristic bite of a cheap condenser mic, thereby bringing up the body and resonance of a sound. By subtly damping the very top of the attack of sharper sounds, like a clean Strat or various synth or percussion sounds, your cheap-ass condenser mic can get out of its own way and sound like a nice large-diaphragm dynamic radio microphone.Congas are a great example of an instrument that can be hard to capture with a condenser until you cut off of the microphone's initial attack click. Then you have a nice warm, mellow sound that lets you hear the hands and the tone of the drum on your track instead of just the overemphasized attack of each hit.
  11. Don't be afraid to chain compressors in seriesTake advantage of this unprecedented luxury — increasingly afforded by multiprocessor CPUs — to create dream channels of compression. Musso gives one an example of compressors in series that gets the best out of each one.“I sometimes use a combination of McDSP, Fairchild and the Digidesign Slightly Rude Compressor for guitars,” he says. “The McDSP does a good emulation of the op-amp, over-easy sound of the 160X, which I will often follow with the 1176, and then I might add an LA-2A for a little more warmth if needed. The other thing that's very easy and useful with these digital emulations is that it's easy to change the order of the compressors if it's not working at first. Using the compressors in a different order sounds different — try it!”
  12. Run compressors in parallel with the original signalThe transients blend with the fattened processed signal, and this is an old trick for huge drum sounds that employs a compressed submix bus in parallel with the original tracks, as opposed to inserting the processing. The only thing to remember with parallel processing like this is that you must watch for latency delays and phase problems caused by the very slight offsets that result.
  13. Use limiters such as Waves L2 on individual tracksHopefully the “volume wars” of the past few years — in which Waves L2 limiter plug-in and multiband compressors made everyone think they were a mastering engineer — are behind us. The result of excessively compressing mixes, of course, was that things got a little brittle, lost all dynamics and generally ended up sounding crappy. But that might be just the effect you're looking for on an individual track or two within a full mix. If you have a track or sound that doesn't seem to have enough energy no matter how high you bring up the fader, the Waves processors will bring a problem track upstairs to the party with the sort of crunchy squash effect that doesn't make a severely limited track sound dull the way many brickwall-type limiters do.
  14. Ducking is fun!Use the old radio DJ trick, where the music ducks down in response to the DJ's voice and then automatically releases back up by keying a compressor on the music with the voice microphone signal. You could also key a synth pad with a bass line or guitar licks by sending the output from the instrument you want to accentuate to the key input of the instrument you want to have duck around it.
  15. Good emulations of the old boxes work well even with very subtle settingsAnother old-school trick is to simply run a sound through a compressor with 1 to 2 dB of gain reduction or even no compression at all, simply for the warmth imparted by the old electronic circuitry.“Transformer-balanced compressors give you a chunky, meaty, big bottom end and also slightly cream the top end transients to create the kind of sweet top end that comes from the mild distortion imparted by Neves,” Musso says. “Running a signal through the LA-2A, Fairchild or Pultec EQ still gives some fatness to a signal, just by passing the signal through the tube-amplifier section of the unit.”
  16. Run a mellow LA-2A in front of your reverb and delay aux sendsThat will help to avoid unwanted reverb artifacts while adding warmth to maximize the ambient effects within a mix.
  17. Try creative sidechainingKeying to a highpass filter is pretty standard for de-essing vocals, but using unorthodox EQ emphasis on the key input of a compressor can have interesting effects, such as removing a snare from a loop, or even dynamically removing most of a vocal, guitar riff, horn line, etc.To soften a track in a more extreme way, trigger the compressor with a 1 to 2 kHz EQ peak so that you take the middle out of it and leave the low end and high end of a track to keep a presence and feel.
  18. Run room mics through compression for all instrumentsAlthough it's most common to record room mics to add ambience to drums during mixdown, it's worth checking out room mics with just about anything, including vocals, guitars and any acoustic instruments.“For a big room sound, run the room mics through an 1176 with all the buttons pushed in to bring up the back end of the room.” Musso says. “SSL compressors and the old RCA compressors had an incredibly slow release time, which also brings up the back of the room.”