The Single Most Overused and Abused Studio Tool

Following up on my "Most Essential Studio Tool" I'd like to preach the evils of compression.

Apart from digital full scale (DFS) clipping the easiest way to mangle a recording is to rely too heavily on compressors and limiters. Over the years I've come to rely increasingly on EQ, especially high pass filtering, and, likewise, the inverse is true regarding compression: the more experience I gain the less I rely on compression -- to the point, now, where I think compressors in general just suck (pun intended).

Brick-wall limiting is important to prevent unmusical clipping but, please, try to keep it transparent and not pumping and sucking.

Of course, when it comes to bass guitar and snare, and maybe a couple of other instruments., it is cool (at times) to really squeeze an instrument, working the attack and release times to produce that classic in-tempo push-pull in the rhythm or elongating long tones but a person can easily induce 'the bends' (compression sickness) and just go crazy with too much on too many tracks.

Compression is like a great drug that seems to get better the more you use .... only, later, do you listen back with fresh ears and discover that your mix is just a garbled mess.

Next time you start a project, try using no compression at all until the final mix and try to limit yourself (pun intended) to using limiting to just the stereo buss, where you aim for transparency and maybe just a dash on the bass....i.e., force yourself to use as little as possible and on as few tracks as possible and compre this mix with your previous efforts.

Where you would normally just slap a compressor on something try reaching for the EQ first, cutting here and there, boosting only if necessary, and see if you can't fit an instrument into the mix with more musical results.

Tape emulation can also be a great alternative to just hitting tracks with compressors: the tape plugin will add a gentle amount of compression and smooth the high end while warming up the bottom. Try it on your stereo bus for sure but also on individual tracks or stems.

See also: persistent audio myths