The five worst compression mistakes you can ever make

Compression is a pretty powerful tool. Used well, it can transparently keep your track’s dynamics under control, or creatively manipulate a sound to give it more vibe or punch. Used incorrectly, however, and it can mash up your sound and leave you scratching your head. Most compressors have at least four or five controls (some have many more!), meaning you can easily get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing.
So, what are some of the worst mistakes you can make?
5. Your release time is too slow
If your compressor doesn’t get a chance to bounce back to unity gain before the next hit/note/word/sound, then your release time is too slow. You’ll recognise you’re making this mistake when you want ‘more compression’, but lowering the threshold or increasing the ratio doesn’t give you the sound you crave. In fact, a fast release can help you to create a very heavy and noticeable compression effect even with relatively little gain reduction.
Remember – The compression effect we hear is how much and how quickly the gain reduction meter moves, not how deeply.
4. You confuse ratio with threshold
Both ratio and threshold allow you to adjust how much the compressor is working, but they do so in different ways. You know you’re making this mistake when you adjust the threshold when you should be adjusting the ratio (or vice versa). Simply, the threshold controls how much (the portion) of the signal should be compressed, whereas the ratio controls how much (the degree) the signal should be compressed. It’s not enough to aim for ‘more compression’ – you need to know whether you want to compress more of the signal (a greater portion – adjust the threshold) or whether you want to apply more compression to the portion of the signal that is already being compressed. It’s the same for if you want less compression. Do you want less of the signal (a smaller portion) to be compressed? Or do you want a lesser degree of compression for the portion that is compressed?
Remember – How much of the signal you compress is different to how much you compress it.
3. Your attack time is too long when using deep gain reduction
This one’s a doozy. Every now and then you’ll see advice that a slower attack time will let more of the transient through, and thus result in a punchier sound. Be careful though – a slow attack time coupled with deep gain reduction can give your track ridiculously exaggerated transients that suck headroom and prevent you from making your track sound LOUD. It also sounds silly.
Remember – If you want a thick fat sound, you need to reduce the crest factor of your track. This means using a faster attack, not a slower one.
2. You use compression on everything by default
Listen first. Yes, you want everything to be thick and punchy and fat and super. But listen first. Some tracks don’t benefit from compression. These are the tracks that are pretty much the same level all the time. Think of synth patches that don’t use envelopes or LFOs. Think of heavy distorted guitars. Think of drones and ambience. For these kinds of cases, compression will be ineffectual. You’ll be wasting your time.
Remember – Listen before you compress. You’ll get the results you want much more quickly and easily.
1. You avoid compression because you’re scared
Compression’s hard. It can be confusing. But don’t shy away from it. If you’re going to make great recordings, you need to know how to use it. Study the theory, try it out. Get some practice. Get it wrong. Learn from your mistakes. If you’re embarrassed, you don’t have to play your terrible mixes to anyone. You can keep them for yourself, listen back, reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, and move on. Or you can play your terrible mixes to people whose opinions you trust, and get some outside advice. But either way – have a go. Try it out. See what happens. Don’t be timid.
Remember – You’ll only improve if you jump in and have a go. Don’t be scared.