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What the heck is a compressor?

compression-iconNo, I didn’t hear this question. I actually asked it a year ago. And one of the middle words was slightly different. Then I did what every self-respecting person with a hunger for knowledge does: I googled it. I saw a plethora of different forums with many answers as to what a compressor does. A lot of them are very illuminating and can explain exactly what a compressor does. This article, however, is only marginally about what a compressor is, despite the misleading title. I think what most musicians want to know is whether they need a compressor or not and this is my attempt to answer that. I am a guitarist, so I will talk about compression for guitarists and bassists, but at the same time I will also explore the need of compression for vocalists and on music production for drums.

So now for a quick look at what a compressor really is. Very very simply put: a compressor increases the volume of soft sounds and lowers the volume of loud sounds.  Technically put: it lowers or “compresses” a sound’s dynamic range. How this translates into English is: the more subtle aspects of a sound or chord you play come in to the lime light. While playing guitar, the softer pick scrapes and strums can be highlighted. How hard you play the guitar starts mattering less and less. In a similar fashion, for vocalists, a compressor could bring about a clarity and sibilance to voice by highlighting the softer ‘ssss’ sounds and lowering the loudness. It makes your sound more controlled and within a controlled range; it can be set to emphasize certain parts of a sound. End of lesson.

Okay so now lets look at compression on music production for drums. Drums are one of the most dynamic instruments. They can be real loud and real soft depending on usage.  Even within a  drum set, each item has different loudness levels. Usually the snare seems louder than the kick but this also depends upon how the drummer plays it. Putting a compressor on drums really makes the sound of drums huge. The bass of the kick and the ring of the snare get pushed to the forefront and make the entire set sound bigger and more powerful. So if you want to go for a gigantic drum sound (probably something akin to the start of Smells Like Teen Spirit) then push up the compressor and enjoy.

For guitarists it is more of an effect to use when needed. Typically, funky stuff on the guitar could do with compression to bring out the rakes and scrapes. But other than that compression could be used to great effect to fit in your guitar sounds in the full band scenario. In essence one mustn’t drown the vocalists in a wave of distortion and generally be a douche on stage. At the same time all the little harmonics and subtle nuances get to shine. Now on this matter, solid experimentation is required. If you like heavier genres of music with lots of gain, harmonics and loudness then a compressor could be really useful. Even with certain aspects of country, blues and funk a compressor takes your tone up a notch. Be sure to ensure you enjoy the sound of a compressor though. For bass guitar a compressor is more of a tonal option. Some bass sounds are great without compression, but a compressor may reduce the boominess and add a little punch to your slaps. Most bass amps come with a limiter option which works like a compressor in limiting your loudest sounds. It is advisable to have a compressor handy for unknown stage situations.

Finally, lets look at compression for vocalists. The need for vocal compression depends solely on the style of the vocalist. Compression on vocals is likely to distort vocals if applied to a large extent. Like every effect on vocals, compression needs to be subtle and just applied to make the vocals darker or brighter based on they type of compression. It can vary from song to song and is best to let an engineer handle this.

Well, I certainly hope things are clearer; the loud is softer and the soft is louder etc. Go try a compressor out and you may be surprised. It may be a bit subtle to grasp but small things make big differences, especially when the soft is louder…

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