Why Fewer Knobs Are Better – Part 2
In my previous blog post, I described how using compressors with fewer knobs and dials creates as good, if not better results in far less time. Afterward, occurred to me that some people might be stuck with a compressor with a myriad of knobs and buttons. I experimented with several settings to see what I could do to simplify the process and try to create great results for any situation.
With compressors, I typically know how much gain reduction I want before I ever touch the input gain or threshold knobs. For spoken vocals or dialogue, I use a maximum of 3 dB RMS of gain reduction, and for sung vocals, I’ll average about 10 dB of gain reduction with 20 dB RMS maximum. This way, I don’t ever concern myself with guessing about where to set the threshold. I simply adjust the threshold and watch the meters hit my predetermined target numbers. For those compressors that use peak meter gain reduction instead of RMS, you’ll just have to listen for the right amount of compression.
I tried using a Waves API 2500 emulator that, despite its many knobs, is actually quite an effective tool. The main controls are with the threshold, along with the attack and release times. I began playing with slight changes in the attack and release settings at a 4:1 compression ratio to determine the differences. To make my test more valid, I tried these settings on both a vocal, a clean electric guitar and a snare drum.
What I found was that anything but the shortest release times was virtually unusable. I suppose slower release could improve results by adjusting the compressor knee, but I didn’t bother as to reduce variables and simplify the process. After all, my goal was to maximize efficiency by adjusting the fewest knobs possible while also getting great results.
Waves API 2500 compressor
Next, I experimented with changes in the attack times, which vary between .05 seconds and .30 seconds on the API 2500. I noticed that many of the “in-between” settings made such minor differences that they were virtually indistinguishable from one another. You could default to simply using the fastest or slowest attack times on this compressor and have it work in the vast majority of cases. I’ve noticed this on other plug-ins as well, such as the Digidesign Dynamics III Comp/Lim and the Digidesign BF76, and found that defaulting to either the slowest attack times and fastest attack times offers great results in most cases.
API 2500 Compressor with the attack at the fastest setting.
API 2500 Compressor with the attack at the slowest setting. Note how the threshold, ratio, and release time remains the same.
Of course, each compressor works differently, so your mileage may vary. I recommend taking five minutes to try this test on your compressor of choice and evaluate the results. The brief amount of time invested could save hours. Begin with the fastest attack setting for a short, snappy sound, or with the attack all the slow for material with slower transients. Be sure to also use the slowest release times, keeping the compressor knee at 1:1. Compare these settings to the same compressor with precise, finely-tuned settings and see if there are major differences between the two.
Just so there’s no confusion, precise adjustments are excellent for pristine, high-end recording and mixing applications. For anything where every detail is critical, by all means, fine-tune every setting until it’s perfect. For high-volume productions where time and efficiency are critical, start up your compressor with the fastest release time, and either the slowest attack or fastest. The settings in-between create barely noticeable changes in most instances. Because there are no universal standards between compressors, your mileage may vary. Still, give it a try and you might be surprised by how much time you can save.