It’s Day #1 of your recording. Actually, it’s kind of nice looking back to my Day #1. It kind of reminds me of when I was nervous around chicks when I was in junior high school. Now I’m older and my more of a cynic. Oh well.
Anyway, it’s day #1 and you are pulling all of the gear out of the box. You don’t know what half of it is and you aren’t really for sure if you bought the right gear. You spend all day tearing your hair out because this whole recording thing is a little more complex than you had originally bargained for. (Don’t worry, we are here to help. Post on the recording forum http://forum.recordingreview.com if you are having trouble. )
After you go through the depths of hell, you finally get everything working. Then you start trying to figure out how to use the recording software and actually get something that sounds good. You were told by some idiot that you MUST have a hardware compressor, so you purchased a cheap one. (Relatively cheap, that is).
You may be asking “How in the HELL do I work this thing?”.
Unfortunately, using a compressor is a lot like riding a bike or maybe a better analogy is the first flight of a baby bird. The only way to learn how to use a compressor is to crash and burn repeated times. In fact, this is how you set a compressor EVERY time. Let me explain.
The whole idea behind a compressor is limit the dynamic range. In English, this means we want to knock the peaks of the loud stuff down. Of course, this is tremendously oversimplified, but it’s the general concept. No one can tell exactly what settings on a compressor are going to work because it’s highly dependent on a million factors. You have to sit there and tweak the compressor to get it right. So what’s the big deal?
The Problem With Hardware Compressors In The Digital Age
#1 Can You Even Use A Hardware Compressor With Your Audio Interface?
In a typical home recording setup, you will run a budget microphone to an audio interface which will have a preamp. From there the signal is wired directly into the computer So, there is no way to get to the signal directly after the preamp (gain knob thingy). Your options? If you audio interface doesn’t have some sort of “insert” on it (most do not) you’ll have to buy an external preamp to even use your compressor. This preamp probably will be of similar quality to the preamp in your audio interface unless you spend some big bucks, but if you are beginner you won’t even hear a difference with the big bucks preamps either.
#2 How Can You Actually Hear The Compressor?
We’ll assume that you have an external preamp or your audio interface has inserts so that you can actually use the compressor. How will you hear it? In other words how are you going to listen to make the changes to the settings on the compressor (especially if you are brand new to recording and do not know what to listen for)? The singer must continue to sing while you play with the compressor (if you are recording vocals). If they are in the same room as you are, you may have trouble using your studio monitors for this. You may also be effecting their vocal performance, so while you take the time to figure out what a compressor actually does, you are going to be screwing with the singers mix and they will have problems and maybe even stop because they can’t hear themselves.
While an experienced recording engineer could probably set this up without too much trouble, this is NOT the place to learn what a compressor actually does.
#3 What Will You Do When You Overcompress A Good Take?
So your rig is hooked up to properly use a compressor and you’ve figured out a way to hear what is going on. You are still learning how to use the thing. What will you do when you overcompress the signal on a good take? Once again, do you really think it’s a good idea to practice while tracking? I don’t.
#4 What If Your Singer Needs Aggressive Compression Only In The Headphones?
What if your singer is VERY dynamic and needs to be crushed pretty hard in the headphones? This is fairly common. What if the headphone mix requires an amount of compression that you really aren’t comfortable using on the real track? If you have a mixer of some type, you can pull off, but if you require different compression in the headphones and on the recording, you will need two compressors to pull this off.
Why I Recommend Compressor Plugins For All Beginners
#1 The time to practice using compressors is 2am when no one else is around. You can REALLY experiment with a compressor during mixing. You can really learn what the attack and release times do. You can get a feel for how much gain reduction is needed.
#2 In my opinion, compressor plugins are really good! (See Compressors: Shooting Down The Anti-Plugin Mentality http://www.recordingreview.com/blog/compressors-shooting-down-the-anti-plugin-mentality/) I’ve heard many very expensive compressors. While I’ve never heard a plugin that could compete with the outstanding, bold character of a $4,000 EMI compressor at Michael Wagener’s studio, I think compressor plugins do the job fine. Until you get to a point where the biggest problem in your mixes is compression character, I wouldn’t worry about it. You’ve got a while!