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I get asked a lot whether it's good practice to put a compressor across the mix prior to mastering. Often this is from dance music producers so I thought it might be nice to offer a perspective. These are just my personal views, looking at things more from the mixing engineer and artistically creative person's point of view.
Dance music in particular often benefits from the creative side of compression, creative being something purposely set up to effect the dynamics of your mix in a way you can actually hear. Whilst this type of compression can be applied in mastering, often to very nice effect I might add (that's two and a half grand of hardware compression for you) the majority of the time, a better overall result in terms of the fundamental core ideas in the track and what subsequently gets added through nothing more than simply being inspired by what you are hearing as the writer at that time, can be had by constantly adjusting the compression organically around the track whilst making it.
As far as a genre like dance music goes, creative mix compression offers two very desirable "side effects". Firstly, it can help shape the bite of the kick drum (assuming of course that it is the most prominent part of your track and usually this should be the case for a full and satisfying balance) and secondly, it can add a wonderful sense of groove to music.
The compression should generally appear reasonably invisible in context of the track, but when removed, make the track sound flat or heavy sounding and lacking groove or "vibe" for want of a better word. I find the minute you "hear" the compression working after you have set it, the compression becomes the overriding characteristic of the music, which tends to dominate the feel and generally doesn't sound too good. This is the mistake I hear most often: either no compression at all, or too much, and worse, badly set up: a fast attack leading to a "muted" kick without any bite, and too slow a release leading to a lifeless and flat sound that doesn't bounce back to create the groove. The divide between compression enhancing a track and killing it is fine, so this is why I encourage you to constantly and organically tweak the compressor around the track as you write, nudging 0.5db here, a tiny notch on the release control there, a smidge less bass here, a little more kick with a little more attack there, always analyzing the feel of everything until slowly, the groove shapes itself into something more than the sum of its parts.
Often, with the groove working and the compressor set up early on, a better overall track with better integrated and more inspired ideas is yours for the writing, purely because, as mentioned, when you are more excited by what you are hearing you tend to be more assertive about the direction of the track. Nothing feels so good as bypassing a compressor in the mix, listening for a minute, then kicking it back in, it's so exciting and really helps you feel motivated about the track. Leaving this until mastering potentially means you might bypass the true calling and potential of the ideas ready to be written within the track.
Think about when you are in a club, locked into a tune and controlled by the music, like you're really into this moment. I would bet that often compression is making this lock happen. Setting up the attack and release so that the compression returns to zero JUST as the next kick hits can be just the ticket to making an intense and memorable track. You would never be aware this was happening, but often it really is that fundamental.
When setting up compression, it can be useful to break it down into a triangular relationship:
Set up a groove that does something you like. It's fairly important at this stage the mix is at least reasonably balanced - so no ride cymbals 40db louder than everything else! Now put the compressor on so it just barely registers on the GR meters, just occasional flickering up to 1db so you know it is right on the tip of working. Do make sure it is the kick that is making the compressor lights flicker or your mix is seriously out of balance for the purposes of this article! Boring as it may sound, a standard 909 kick really is an excellent choice for this tutorial. Set the ratio to 3:1 and the attack and release somewhere in the middle for now. Now slowly start to add more volume from the kick and just listen to what happens. Does the track start to sound tighter, more exciting? Do you see the level meters responding accordingly? Is it creating rhythm where there was none before? The kick begins to smear slightly, becoming part of the groove. For now, leave the compressor on and doing something semi sensible, say 2-6db of gain reduction (it will always vary from comp to comp).
Turn the attack control as slow as it will go. Does the kick bite/click more? Does that suit the nature of the track? Adjust the attack faster until the kick settles into the mix, also bearing in mind to adjust the actual level of the kick accordingly. Where does it "feel" right? Try listening to the very tip of the kick (like the first 50ms of it) to see how the attack control affects this "bite" within the groove. Get this bit right! Therein lies one major part of creating a killer drum sound, that tiny bit of bite at the front end of a good kick - trust me on this! Do you now need to adjust the level of the kick down a touch? Is there now too much compression? Has the kick lost weight? Is it even the right kick? Could it use more decay on the sound itself?* How would this affect the compressors release characteristics? Is the kick even tuned right? The triangular relationship is not proving quite as straight forward as you might think!
Not to worry. Move to the release control: set it slow and reduce the threshold by a further couple of db's so the compressor really over works. The track sounds flat and over compressed. Now adjust the release control until you get a rhythmic pumping effect that feels in time with the track, so that the gain meter returns to somewhere near zero as the next kick hits. Now adjust the threshold back to its original position until the compressor sounds invisible again but is still working, maybe somewhere around 4db gain reduction as a rough start point when the kick hits. Now listen again intently and start to make any adjustments you feel to the triangle. Start again if need be, practice it, learn it, get the feel for the rhythmical groove that compression imparts and the way the kick controls the groove that the compressor creates. Spend a whole day on it if you need to, a week, month a year even, whatever it takes. Do this again and again and again and again (Who said mixing was easy). Keep doing this until you feel you have the best relationship and understanding of the three parts for your own particular mixing style. Although this is purely music by numbers (or even words by page!) it can often really help get things going in the right direction, and if nothing else can be a great tool for learning the fundamentals.
Some tracks will gel beautifully with a db or 2 of gain reduction off the kick, others can sound immense with 6-8 db of hard compression when the kick drops. Most of it depends on how sparse the track is, how you set everything up and perhaps most importantly what the track is trying to convey.
*If you choose a kick with a long decay, often this will trigger the compressor for a longer amount of time, so that the compressor doesn't "release" until the main body of the kick has stopped. Think about this - it's a fundamental part of the groove as it has a direct influence on how the compressor "bounces" within the track. It is also the loudest part of the groove and therefore calls the shots to tell the compressor what to do, when to do and how much to do. If the kick is too long, the compressor won't release back to create the additional rhythm. It is often worth playing around with the length of the kick to get the feel right. A short sharp kick may need a longer release time to maintain the right feel, and vice versa. The one thing you don't want is a kick that is still decaying and causing compression once the next one arrives. Cue one unhappy and unbouncey compressor and instant flatness!
The bottom line is: If you make tracks and apply compression as a last step after the track is finished, you are potentially missing out on the possibilities of making fundamentally more inspired and creative tracks. If you apply mix compression and set it badly, you are potentially delivering a dynamically flat track with all the appeal of a block of cheese.
Good luck with the experiments and as always I am happy to give advice, so don't be afraid to get in touch.