By Dave Foxx
Well boys and girls, it seems that the last couple of Production 212 articles have created a bit of demand for more “nuts-and-bolts” type columns. Before I even got my copy of last month’s magazine, I had an even dozen emails asking for clarification or additional help regarding plug-ins for Pro Tools® that would facilitate making voice tracks “pop” out of the mix. One email expressed surprise that I would be willing to “share” my secrets with anybody and everybody outside my radio station. Here’s a clue: there’s nothing secret about what I do, or even how I do it. These are just things I’ve picked up over time from other people. I think I’m pretty smart, but I sincerely doubt that I could have figured out all the crap that’s rolling around my head on my own.
Keeping with the line of thought from my last two columns, I’d like to drone on about compression – again. This time, it’s overall compression on your finished production, rather than individual tracks. Up front, I hafta say that this does sound like a boring topic, but it has a real-world impact on how your work sounds on the air. Hopefully it will also answer a lot of the questions I’ve been getting from readers.
There are two schools of thought on compression: 1. Preserve the dynamic range and 2. Squash it. As is usually the case, I find myself somewhere in between the two extremes. If I’m listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet doing Skating In Central Park or Yo-yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax performing Brahms’ Concerto for Cello and Piano No. 1, I’m all about preserving the dynamic range. Compression sucks, literally and figuratively. Making the soft passages loud also makes the noise loud, but only when the music is supposed to be soft. It becomes even more noticeable when I’m listening to an older analog track like Chicago’s Colour My World. After a while, all I can hear is hiss.
But most of you aren’t playing songs that will be featured on an Angel’s Classic Hits of 2004 collection anyway, so let’s get back to the real world for a minute. Folks don’t walk around with a monster Genelec monitor system on their backs. Even the better car stereo systems don’t sound as good as your studio. Most people listen to your station on crappy little desk radios in their bedroom, office or kitchen or on their factory-installed radios in their car. Unless you’re working in an AC, Classical or Jazz format, chances are better than even that your engineer has the processing on your transmission chain cranked up a lot for this very reason.
So how does this apply to the production on your station? Good question. (You get a cookie.) Regardless of how much compression there is on your air-chain, compression can still make your production stand out. You want your production to jump out of all the other crap your station is airing. You know, all the idle DJ yammering, national commercials and those pesky songs. You want your commercial to have more impact. You REALLY want your promo to capture the listener’s attention.
THE SCIENCE: (Give me a clear idea of what compression IS, Dave.) If you import a song that has a lot of dynamic range into a session, say the Yo-yo Ma cut I spoke of before, the waveform will go from almost negligible to big spiky hits that reach 0db. If you import No Doubt’s It’s My Life into the same session, you’ll notice the gain average is much higher immediately. Even the softest passages are louder than most of the first song. Pop, rock and hip-hop producers all push their sound UP, reducing the dynamic range. That is what you’re competing with, Barney.
THE ART: (How do I know if I have enough compression, Dave?) Compression is cumulative. So all the compression you put on your voice tracks is going to be compressed again. You may actually have to go back and adjust how much you have on the VO, once you add compression to your final mix. You’ll need good ears to make this kind of fine-tuning happen. So…there’s compression on your VO, and there’s compression on your music and effects. Why add more? It helps you control the overall mix, AND it boosts the overall volume. The peaks are still maxing out at 0db, ‘cause that’s all there IS in the digital world, but when the sound that WAS at –15db plays back at –5db, there is more overall signal. It seems louder because it actually IS, even though you’re not going over 0db.
Now pop this month’s CD into your player and consult the track list for the Production 212 Audio cut. It’s the same promo twice; one without final compression and one with, in that order. The first one will sound almost like I didn’t mix it properly. The music will sound too soft and the voice too loud, where in fact, the music is set to peak at 0db and the voice at –3db, just like all the old textbooks say you’re supposed to do it.
So, why don’t I just duck the voice a little more and leave the dynamics alone? Because I wouldn’t get the additional benefit of having my piece sound loud and full when it’s used on the air.
Can you overdo compression? You betcha. I’ve heard a few pieces on previous RAP discs that were really hammered hard. That creates fatigue in the listener’s ears and sounds obviously distorted. You WANT the needles (or more likely LEDs) to bounce some, just over a smaller range. It will give your piece a full, PHAT sound that jumps out of the box, grabs the listener by the ears and shake’s him/her around. It almost forces them to listen harder for 30 seconds. If you’re working in an AC, Classical or Jazz station, you’ll want a bigger range than someone who works at a flame-thrower like Z100, but you too can benefit from some judicious use of compression.
Finally, you’ll have the added benefit of a much more together sounding mix. You’ll be a mixing genius!
Some settings you might consider: Reduce the overall mix gain by 6db and then set your input gain on the compressor to –6db. This would seem to negate the gain reduction, but in fact, it very gently controls the natural peaks, without seeming to squash everything.
The higher the ratio, the more compression you’re getting. Most compressors I’ve seen start you off at 4:1. Before you start messing with attack and release times, try adjusting the ratio first. I’ve had really good results with ratios as high as 40:1. (OK, that one was a bit extreme.)
The more compression you use, the faster the attack needs to be. This can be a really subtle change, but faster attack time makes the impacts and plosive sounds sharper.
If your production has a lot of “holes” in it, where there is no sound, i.e.; a drum track is full of holes, you will need to adjust the release time for a longer frame so it doesn’t start “sucking” the air up. Experiment a little with this and you’ll hear the difference right away. Trust me, you want the snare to have a natural sounding decay.
One last piece of advice for those who wonder which compressor to use: For MY money, the best one out there is the WAVES +L1 UltraMaximizer. It’s available for just about every system and a part of their Gold Bundle, an awesome suite of plug-ins. (www.waves.com) It ain’t cheap, but…you’re worth it, and so is your production.