It’s Okay To Use Heavy Compression On Soft Songs
There are no rules when you’re in the recording studio. Nobody is going to crack down on your use of a particular piece of gear because it’s all part of the creative process. Think a certain guitar or amp will fit better in the mix than another? Good – use it.
But even though I think most musicians recognize that this creative flexibility is a given, I still hear tons of advice about what NOT to do in the studio (and most of it is extremely wrong). Sure, there’s some advice that will keep your equipment for blowing up and others used more as guidelines to get what your after, but especially when you’re in the box and mixing, there are very few limits to what you might be able to do with your sessions.
Let me give you a couple examples of what I know I’m not supposed to be doing in my mixes that have given me some of my best results.
DO Squash Your Dynamics
I think a lot of people tend to see dynamics as this organic thing that’s necessary to get a great sounding result, but in reality it’s just making your job as a mixer harder.
Some dynamics are good. Without them, everything would just be slammed all the time. You wouldn’t have any rises or falls in your song; it would just be an all-out fight for loudness. Keeping some dynamic elements help move your song along from a production perspective and that’s exactly what your dynamics should be – a production tool.
If the dynamism of an instrument is detracting from the balance and clarity of you mix, squash it! Use your favorite compressor or limiter to wrangle in any loud transients. Help smooth out your performance and you’ll find you’ve got an instantly more usable track when you’re working to balance your mix.
It only makes sense to keep an instrument’s dynamics on raw display if they’re adding to the impact of your song. Otherwise, you’ve got plenty of other elements to focus on for them to be getting in the way.
DO Use Compression For Color
Your compression choices don’t just have to be about dynamic control either. They can be an excellent way to add some color to just about any instrument in your song. Best of all – the harder you push them, the more they tend to saturate. This will leave you with a warmer, fuller sounding tone when done just right.
I tend to use this technique more on vocals than anywhere else in my mixes. Because of the complexity of a vocal performance, additional saturation can really fill a singer’s voice out and sweeten it in a way like nothing else can. It doesn’t need to be a loud vocal either - even simple singer-songwriter productions can use heavy compression as a way to add something harmonically to a voice.
Take this example from Spiro Dussias on a recent track he did with the band Edward & Graham using Gain Reduction 2:
Clearly he went a lot deeper with this demo than just basic compression, but it shows exactly how the right compressor can color and enhance a voice, especially with heavier compression settings.
Breaking All The Rules
As I said before, there are tons of supposed audio production rules that are made to be broken. Some of this advice can help set the groundwork for experimentation, but how do you know which advice is good and which is bad?
We’ve compiled some of the best examples of where you can start with vocal production in our eBook, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. Inside, you’ll get all kinds of vocal writing, producing & mixing tips that are used every day in hundreds of studios.
From there, it’s just applying what you’ve learned and pushing your boundaries to try new things. Vocal production doesn’t need to be complicated – you just need to know where to begin.