There are fewer tools more mysterious and complicated to an audio engineer than a compressor. A lot of inexperienced engineers can apply a compressor with the wrong settings and end up making everything sound worse. One thing is for sure, if you don’t understand how a compressor works, you can never master the use of one. Before I start I’d like to say that no two audio engineers agree 100% on the proper use of a compressor. It’s my hope that in giving you the definitions and functions of each part of the compressor, it will help you come to your own formulation of how you would like to deploy one.
Here’s Your Beginners Guide to Audio Compression
A compressor applies an automatic gain reduction to a signal, with a given ratio above a set threshold. You use a compressor to control a channel that has a high dynamic range to smooth it out. This is an essential tool when mixing vocals or even spoken word. When you get a vocalist or pastor that has a large dynamic range, you can use a compressor to help you not need to ride their fader as much as their voice changes dynamics. Compressors can also be used to smooth out instruments as well as an entire mix. The possibilities are endless on how you can use a compressor.
The threshold is the first and arguably the most important setting on a compressor. It is the spot that you set for when the compressor will kick in. Your compressor will not do anything until the signal reaches that threshold.
The Ratio is the amount that the unit will compress or reduce the signal after it passed the threshold. Ratios are measured as 2:1, 3:1, 5:1, 10:1, and anywhere in between. The 1 in the ratio is the signal that is unchanged, and the first number in front of it determines how much will be reduced. So if the ratio is 2:1, the signal will be reduced by 2, if the ratio is 5:1, the signal will be reduced by 5, and so on.
The function of the knee, is to tell the compressor how to transition from the unchanged signal to the compressed signal once it has passed the threshold. A soft knee is a smooth and gradual transition from uncompressed to compressed. A hard knee is a more noticeable switch from uncompressed to compressed. Generally speaking a softer knee would be great for spoken word or vocalists, and a hard knee is used for kick drum or bass.
The attack is a time that you set for when you want the compressor to kick in after it hits the threshold. You usually have the attack dialed back for instruments that you want to have sonic control over, but I don’t want to choke. For instance a lot of the smack of a Tom drum or kick drum are in the initial hit, so when compressing those instruments its best to push the attack back so it won’t compress the signal until after its initial crack. This way you still have control over the signal, but you haven’t totally defeated the dynamic of the instrument.
Release is the time set that you want the compressor to let go of the signal after its been compressed. The compressor will continue to hold until after the release period is over. Often you don’t want the compressor to hold onto a signal too long, especially when it comes to a vocal.
Gain is often referred to as “make up gain” because you can add to the signal after it has gone through the compressor. Once you compress a signal, it obviously will be reduced, so you use this to help gain back some of the signal that was lost. I have also used the compressor gain to get more signal out of a vintage microphone because I couldn’t get enough signal out of it.
That’s it! I know a lot of church techs that are just starting out, and they understood Threshold and Knee, but had no idea what the Release or Attack times controlled. So while I know that these were really basic “meat and potato” definitions of each function, it’s my hope that this clarified some aspects of compression and you can put it to use in your own church. Good luck!
Sharefaith is the church tech or media director’s best friend! We make updating their church website or app a breeze, have professionally designed graphics and video to save time, plus worship presentation software and Sunday school resources. Get it all for only $71/m billed annually or signup for a free trial today.