Front End Compression
At tiny tape.

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First of all

There are many great ways to make great records and almost all of them involve compression. In this post we will be talking about recording with compression on the front end (while tracking). Remember, this article is what we have found that works for us... not the rule! I hope you give it a try, it might do well in your work flow!

Although the world of outboard gear usually sounds better, is more fun, and looks way cooler... it is very expensive. Luckily there are great plugins that reflect the characteristics of these beloved compressors and will do well for anyone with a $500 budget and not a $5,000 budget. I personally love UAD plugins because they allow you to monitor and print the effects as you are recording. This is nothing short of a miracle. So if you have an Apollo interface or a Satellite, pull up your session and follow along. If you do not have the ability to use UAD plugins, you can also apply these technics on the first pass through your mixing. Record the instrument, add your plugin, bounce the file, and bring it back into your session. Yes, it is a little more work, but it will help your overall session and CPU usage when mixing. Lastly, try these setting out with whatever analog compressor you DO have in your arsenal. Experiment! 

When to make decisions, and when to wait. 
I am a firm believer that you need to make decisions about your sound when you are tracking. However, I don't think that you need to make ALL your decisions when tracking. My main goal when using compression on the front end is to "take the edge off." I almost never slam a signal when tracking, and I most certainly do not try to achieve the final sound while recording. If you do have a piece of gear you are borrowing/renting that you know you won't have later. It's probably best to record with that effect, and if you went to far, you can always re-record the part without it. 

A great place to start...

Drums
Drums are usually the first thing I start recording final takes of, so we will start there. Since I am using the Apollo interface, I have the wonderful option of running multiple compressors on each channel in real time. I happen to own a pair of DBX 160's that are my bread and butter for kick (in) and snare (top). For the rest of the drums I mostly use the La-2a on each channel. The sweet spot for me is having each compressor average at 1-2db and peak at 3-4db of gain reduction. You might be thinking, "well thats barely anything?" and to that I shall respond, "Exactly!" When we run our compressors at this level we are focused on coloring our signal with each compressors unique character, AND evening out the channels in our session (without ruining the dynamics) so our mixing compressors will not have to work as hard. Which brings us to my studio mantra... 

The better your tracks are prepared, the easier it will be to better your mix.

I love the La-2a (analog and UAD plugin) because it is simple to set, works well with rounding out drums, and it can compress the signal without making it seem like the signal is actually compressed.

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When it comes time to mix the song and the artist and yourself agree that the drums need to be polished or hyped up, you will have some pretty clean sounding drums to polish or slam against the wall. Make sure you experiment with other compressors to figure out what works best for you. There are many great compressors for drums. I highly recommend trying as many of them as you can with these light settings. In compression mode, the La-2a has a general ratio (it does in fact fluctuate) of 3:1 with an attack time of 10ms and a release time of 60ms. So if you are looking for a good starting point with other compressors... there you go! (Notable drum compressors include; DBX160, 1176, EL8 Distressor, API 525) 

Guitars
I use a similar approach with guitars as I do with drums. The La-2a really excels at making acoustic guitars shine and will make a bright acoustic guitar more pleasant in the high end without having to use any additional EQ. For a strumming acoustic guitar, try tracking with the gain reduction peaking at 3db. Just enough to soften the larger transients. When the artist is fingerpicking I tend to back off the gain reduction and focus more on the color that the compressor is adding. Remember that the La-2a does add a pleasant amount of low end. Placing your microphones a tiny bit further from the body, towards the neck, can help shape your EQ without having to use additional EQ.

When it comes to electric guitar I am a firm believer that the 1176 is king. The 1176 has an aggressive sound that I think adds a necessary quality to the electric amp sound. An electric rhythm guitar does not naturally have large transients that need to be tamed, so my setting are a bit lighter than a lead guitar. I recommend starting at 4:1 with a quicker attack and medium release. Then, adjust your input so you are only seeing the gain reduction needle move 2-3db.

On the other hand, lead guitar can tend to be more wild (depending on the part) and may need a bit more gain reduction and further adjustment of the attack and release to hear even amounts of the guitars initial notes and the tails. Below is a picture of a preset I made for myself with an 8:1 ratio with a fast attack and fast release that I start with and adjust as needed.

I know I'm repeating myself, but easy does it... 3-4db reduction to maintain the guitars dynamics and leaving room to compress and polish later on. 

Bass
Recording bass compression on the front is something I try not to mess with too much. I leave those decisions for later as the song grows and I can have a better understanding of what role the bass guitar is going to take. I often jump between the La-2a and the DBX-160 and will leave my settings very light at 2-3db of gain reduction. 

Vocals
And here we are, vocals! Probably the most researched topic as vocals can be very tricky to get perfect in the mix. We will be talking about that in another post. For now, we will focus on compression at the front end so your track will be easier to automate and mix later. 

The first thing I try with every artist is the La-2a. It's easy, it's light, it's smooth, it brings pleasant bass to the voice and helps the high end from sounding harsh or brittle. With a softer vocal the La-2a and the 1176 AE (using the "slow" attack feature at 2:1) are going to be your best friends. I follow my own rule of 3 to 4db of gain reduction on the front end and call it a day.

When the vocalist is a bit more dynamic, usually in a pop vocal (in my experience a louder female vocal) the dynamics will leap out at times and need a bit more control. For this type of vocal I really enjoy the 1176 Rev A. Having the singer perform the loudest parts of the song and setting your compressor to only take care of the transients is going to help ease your pain later when you are mixing. I tend to focus on the peaks by having the louder vocals hit around 4db of gain reduction. When setting your attack speed, be careful not to set your attack too fast or you will begin to hear unwanted distortion. It can sound similar to a clipping noise. If you notice that the vocal peaks are being compressed and not releasing in time for the next word,  it's time to adjust the release to make the compression sound more natural.

A quicker release is going to eliminate that pumping sound. This is an area you are just going to have to use trial and error until it sounds how you want for each unique singer and vocal style. By bringing down some of the peaks we will see that the track no longer has large transients which means we can introduce a smooth compressor later in the mix. The down side to compressing is the vocals are going to loose their dynamic range, which you might want later. So use caution!!! You can't go back!!! Since vocals are usually the main focus of the song, this is one of those times that decision making is best saved for later in the mixing process. 

Side note: Do not adjust your preamp settings in the middle of the verse or chorus to adjust for one loud line. It will change the tone and most likely sound weird when mixing later. I might use different settings for the verse than I do for the chorus, but changing preamp gain staging mid section of the song is a personal no no. 

The last thing I encourage you to listen to when recoding vocals with compression is the tone of the breaths and the sibilances. If you are adding compression and the breathing sounds compressed and the "S" noises are much louder, you have gone too far! Maybe that is a personal preference, but those two noises are my biggest pet-peeve when listening to vocals on records. We are not trying to get our final vocal sound at this time, we are only setting ourselves up for success later. 

Everything else
For everything else, strings, piano, vibraphone, horns, gang vocals, etc, you guessed it... Get out the trusty La-2a or (1176) and find the sweet spot between 1db and 4 db of gain reduction at a 4:1 ratio. 

Automation

I cannot stress this enough, for myself, compression is NOT a "fix all" in place of automation. Fortunately we live in a world where we can automate each track by the millisecond and we should take advantage of that when we can. After you record a vocal with a small amount of compression for color and a little taming, go through and automate your vocals so they are as close to even as you want them. Then when we mix vocals later, the compressor is going to shine! Often times the difference between a professional vocal and a lacking vocal is automation. I know, I know, it takes forever! But I don't mind spending a little more time working for an end result I will be proud to show listeners. 

Final Thoughts

I am sure you have read this before, but whatever works for YOU is the right choice for your song. These compression techniques are a great place to start, but not a "set it and forget it" situation. Once you get comfortable with the settings, you will be able to compress further and get closer to your final settings from the start. Additionally, many other compressors offer different characteristics that might work much better with your style of music. My way is one of many. And by all means I suggest you to try them all. Happy engineering!!!

- Kyle Monroe
TTR

References:
UAD Plugins - Website
La-2a - Manual
1176 - Manual
Picture - Doctor mix