Preserving Dynamics While Compressing Audio

Compression and dynamics are often on two very different ends of the spectrum when it comes to mixing music. On one side, you’ve got the ultimate control. Perfectly levelled peaks and smooth, even levels. On the other, you’ve got the transients capable of making every note pop. 

Engineers and mixers often walk the tightrope between the two. They try to determine what the appropriate amount of compression is to control their transients without destroying their dynamic range.

When it comes to finding a balance, what should you be doing to preserve your dynamics when compressing audio?

Choosing the Right Compressor

One of the first things you need to think about when it comes to compressing audio is which compressor is right for the job. While all compressors share a general set of controls, the devil is in the details. Some compressors do an incredible job with aggressive compression settings where the audio is limited, sometimes to the point of pumping or breathing. This approach can be great for creating a certain effect or sound, but it’s the wrong one for preserving dynamics.

The better options are the compressors that do well at lower ratios and levels. A compressor that can apply just a few dB of gain reduction to your peaks will retain more of the dynamics of your sound. You’ll be able to raise the overall level a bit when using this approach, but the dynamic range remains intact with just a bit less variance between the peaks and valleys.

Consider Your Listening Environment

The fans listening to your mixes aren’t going to have the same listening environment. In fact, some of them might not have much of an “environment” to speak of at all. These are the fans listening on their phone speakers in a loud environment or on cheaper systems that might not accurately reproduce your mix.

Even headphone listeners are going to have a different listening experience than those listening back through a car stereo system. All of this to say – you can’t account for everything, but you can at least use your listening environment to make informed decisions about the way you compress.

If you’ve got the opportunity, take advantage of using monitors and headphones as you compress and try to listen for how your compression affects the dynamics on both playback systems. Take the mix to the care and do the same.

The key here isn’t to make your dynamics sound great across the board, but rather to make sure they’re present in all situations. You’ll still want to focus on the systems that are the most popular and you should never sacrifice your hi-fi sound for a lower quality system. Your best bet is to be aware of how your mix translates and watch consumer trends to know where your music is going to get the most mileage.

Use Parallel Compression

No matter what compression settings you end up going with, mixing in compressed audio in parallel is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to preserving dynamics in a mix. If you haven’t used this technique before, it’s simple to do. Take a copy of your raw audio on a second track (or route it to an aux track), then blend the compressed and uncompressed signals together. Having the two options playing side-by-side, you’ll be able to decide how much of each one makes it through to the final mix.

Because this technique lets you decide exactly how much of each signal makes it through, many engineers and mixers use it as an opportunity to use more aggressive compression settings than they otherwise might. A heavily compressed track can be mixed in under the raw signal for a smoother sound with a higher RMS, but with all the dynamic peaks of the original.

If your compressor has a mix knob on it, your job is even easier. The mix knob enables parallel compression within the compressor plugin itself. A 0% setting is only the raw, unprocessed signal, 100% is only the compressed signal, and 50% is an even split between the two. By default, many compressors that offer this option are set to 100% in their stock settings. 

Vocal Compression Basics 

The biggest focus area for many mixers is the vocals. While over compressing a guitar or bass track might cause you to lose some of the dynamic range in your mix, they’re often not as detrimental as an over compressed vocal is to a mix. 

A well-compressed vocal requires the right tools and the right knowledge which is why we came up with the JST Vocal Mixing Bundle. Inside, we’ve included 7 incredible plugins for vocal processing, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook, and a year of VIP access with all the mix crits and resources you need to get things right!

Learn more about the bundle here.