Learn Keyboard | Tracking With Analog Effects, Part 2 Compressors

In this two-part series, we share tips for employing analog effects when you''re tracking keyboard. Part 2 looks at compressors.
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In this two-part series, we share tips for employing analog effects when you''re tracking keyboard. Part 2 looks at compressors.

Analog preamps and compressors can help you record better-sounding keyboard tracks—not only by getting your signal levels properly matched, but by adding a little of their own magic to your sound. In our second installment on analog effects, we''ll take a look at compressors. (Note: Our series is on analog effects, but don''t be afraid to try these tricks with any compressor!)

For some tracks—notably, vocals—the less you can hear a compressor working, the better. Accordingly, many engineers judge compressors on their “transparency.” Compression can also be used to extreme effect—it was a major factor in John Bonham''s famously huge drum sound from Led Zeppelin, for example—or subtly, or anywhere in between. Using compressors on keyboards is a fun thing to experiment with, but to get you started, here are some jumping-off points:

  • Use the attack setting to control the initial strike of a percussive sound such as drums, synth comps, or even piano. A slower setting will leave the sound more intact, while a faster setting will tame it down to the level of the rest of the note more quickly.
  • A slow release setting will sound more natural, while a fast release time will give more pumping and breathing. This can yield a more lively sound for bass, kick drum, and especially Clavinet, but it''s undesirable on vocals.
  • Lower compression ratios (1:1–3:1) give more of the “sound of the circuitry” without squeezing the dynamics out of a track, while higher settings (5:1–20:1) can be helpful for tracks that have a huge contrast between peaks and soft passages.
  • Once you find pleasing settings, experiment with the threshold and make-up gain controls to find that point where the track really sits right. Use your Bypass switch to compare your sound with and without compression to help dial in perfection.
  • Always use your ears: Meters are useful, but they should answer to your ears, not the other way around.

Should you run through a compressor while recording, or wait until you''re mixing to patch one in? The cautious approach is to compress on input only for serious signal management, such as when peaks are overloading your recorder''s inputs and you don''t want to reduce their gain any more. Patch in a compressor during the mixing stage for intentional coloration. Like all rules, though, don''t be afraid to break this one. Some engineers run sounds through compressors at a 1:1 ratio, which means there''s no real compression going on, but there''s just something about the way the circuits process the sound that can''t be obtained any other way. Bottom line: Experiment and enjoy!