Production 212: Part 2 – Making Crispy Critters

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

Well, after the long break with Produce Dave Foxx, here is the second part of my discussion on EQ/Compression. The two really work hand-in-glove with each other because they can both really change the outcome of each other, and thus the end product. If you need a few minutes to go back and read the EQ portion, I can wait.

OK. One cannot really discuss compression without an excellent understanding of dynamic range. THIS is what you compress to make everything sound louder, more full or perhaps more even. Put simply, dynamic range is the difference between the softest and loudest passages in a given piece of audio. If you’ve ever worked with classical music, you have worked with music that certainly has the biggest dynamic range. Even if you are not overly familiar with classical music, you’d probably recognize the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is an excellent example of incredibly wide dynamic range, because as the master wrote it, it requires military cannons to fire off in counterpoint to the tiny little piccolos. (It tells the story of the French Revolution.) A good quality digital recording of this piece will probably have a dynamic range of -96db. THAT is a ton. (And a nightmare for the recording engineer! LOL)

On an excellent playback system, you would barely hear some of the passages of this work, while you would most definitely duck and cover the first time the cannons go off. IF we wanted to compress this piece, we would seek to make that number smaller. We want to make the softest passages louder, without changing the cannon fire’s levels. Clearly, for the audiophile, adding too much compression would ruin the experience. Likewise, when you compress your commercial or promo, you can most definitely hit a point of diminishing returns and can, in fact, make it completely un-listenable. As you begin to experiment with compression, keep this in mind. Just remember that louder is NOT always better.

A true compressor will actually bring the loud points DOWN as well as bringing the soft points up. This is the entire point of compression. However, in radio, we always work towards parity (for most of us that would be +/-0.0db), so we tend to set the higher gain parts to parity and simply bring up the lower gain portions. This is perfectly legitimate and can give you some excellent results. My favorite kind of compression doesn’t come from a “compressor” at all, but a brick-wall limiter. The WAVES +L1UltraMaximizer™ is, by far, my favorite plug-in and is the ONLY one I went out and purchased when I got my VO rig. (There are loads of excellent EQ plug-ins from a lot of different companies.)

The reason I like this LIMITER, is that it acts just like a compressor. The high gain parts of my work cannot go any louder than what I have the output set to. They do actually start “clipping” the signal off when it tries to go beyond parity. (If you go back and look at the waveform of my track in the Produce Dave Foxx business, you’ll notice that the tops and bottoms have been flattened out.) A certain amount of this can totally work, if you’re looking for a really gritty sound. However, if you ever do this at a classical station, start getting your resume together.

I’ve checked and can tell you that on an average VO track that I record, the dynamic range is close to -25db… a far cry from the classical music. The sound that hovers down around -17db and below is often lost, especially in the mix. By raising the threshold, all the sound that lives down around -25db starts getting louder and louder, but the stuff that’s already loud really doesn’t change much. By the time I am done, my dynamic range is considerably smaller, something in the range of -10 to -12db. I can guarantee you, this voice is now completely legible, even if the mix is too hot.

An interesting side note: MOST pop music is already compressed, some of it overly so. THIS is why you need to compress your VO separately from the music. Compression IS cumulative. If you compress and already compressed file, it will sound pretty rancid.

So, here’s the setup. Do your heavy compression on the VO. This will make it punch through, even if your mix is off a bit. DO NOT compress your music, but add a bit of very light compression to the final mix. This last step is merely there to help you maintain control, to avoid spikey peaks from popping through. Your VO should be rock steady so you don’t have to mess with it. With all of this gain control, your mix should become a piece of cake. The last bit of compression merely keeps things smooth.

My audio for the CD this month is a promo I did for a weekend in which we were introducing our new mid-day talent, Ryan Seacrest. His tracks came to me from Hollywood, really, really hot. Rather than worry about it, I merely ramped up the compression of all the other tracks and “matched” Ryan’s track compression. Now I could have tried expansion, which can undo SOME compression, but I’ve done it this way a lot and know I can pretty much count on the +L1 to deliver the sound I want. This cut plays twice, the first time WITHOUT the extra compression, and then the final mix. I’m sure you’ll let me know what you think.

So… work the EQ and compression together and you will get the smoothest, most seamless production going that will really keep you listeners listening and your GM happy. And remember that this is somewhat like playing the piano. The more you do it every day, the better you get at it. Instead of playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star for your own amusement, you’re playing in Carnegie Hall because you’ve been working out.

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