There are many different types of compression, each with its own color or flavor that you should be using to control your mix. The best compressors are able to help you navigate the waters between those sounds. While some are one-trick ponies that sound good on everything, they can get stale when you hear them too much (why do you think there are so many different microphones on the market?).
So when it comes to an instrument as dynamic in not only frequency range but also tonal characteristics, you need to be ready for anything. Getting prepared to battle a guitar into your mix means having options and flexibility.
Here are the 3 most useful types of compression every mixer should have available for their guitars:
A Taming Compressor
You need a compressor that’s ready to tame whatever guitars you throw at it. Something that can act fast on the attack and wrangles in the peaks to level out a performance. You want something that’s going to give you control over the situation.
A compressor that can tame your guitars doesn’t necessarily need to have tons of gain reduction on your peaks – after all, we’re not talking anything like what limiters do to your sound.
Instead, a good taming compressor will catch your peak notes or chords and bring them down to a volume that smooths out the loudest parts of your guitar track.
A taming compressor shines its brightest when used on rhythm parts, where chunky power chords and palm mutes need to be evened out in some of the best performances.
The “clamp” is the next level up from the taming compressor. Instead of just bringing down your peaks, it tightens up the whole performance.
A lot of engineers tend to think of the clamp when they think of a traditional compressor: it reduces the peaks and raises the softer parts for a balanced, consistent sound.
The clamp acts a bit more aggressively on your guitars, which is why it finds its home on most picked guitar parts and solos. The subtleties of a great solo can be hard to hear in a dense mix, especially as techniques change. Even the best guitarists struggle to maintain consistency between tremolo picking, sweeps & even just fast parts that move around the fretboard.
Take the strain off of the player with a good compressor, and let them feel the emotion of the song. I’ll take an amazing performance that I can balance out with a compressor over an overly consistent (oddly robotic) solo with no soul. Let your guitarist enjoy the song and the results will be worth it.
If your guitar needs an extra push into the stratosphere – the “hulk” needs to step in and smash it.
A hulk compressor is one that borders on limiting by treating your signal more aggressively than most other compressors would. These are the compressors with a fast attack, bouncy release, hard knee & a high ratio. They’re capable of “nuking” your sound and give you crazy, crushed tone.
This is the kind of compressor that you find yourself using on your busses in parallel to avoid too much compression becoming apparent, but just what you need to electrify your guitars.
Notice I said “busses”. Too often, engineers treat a single instrument when they could be treating an entire group of them. We’re not just talking left channel & right channel rhythm guitars – try treating every guitar in a mix with this approach.
Your rhythms will get a bit more controlled bite. Your leads will lock in with the rhythm tracks backing them. The entire guitar mix sounds like a well-oiled machine coming out of your listener’s speakers, and it’s amazing.
The Bottom Line
Guitar compressors are built around two things: controlling your guitars and making them sound good while doing it.
Compression has the power to tame, clamp & crush, but it’s all about making those capabilities work with the other parts of your mix. Finding the right compressor for your workflow makes all the difference.
What Are You Compressing With?
Have you found a compressor to cover the basic of compression? If not (or you’ve only got a compressor that’s good for one style), you might want to check out the flexibility BG-Guitars can add to your workflow.
Once you’ve had a chance to drill down on your approach to guitar compression, come share your experiences with us in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. There, you’ll find thousands of other engineers & producers working to perfect their craft too.
See you there!