Better Compression Using an Oscilloscope

Related: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Compression, Mixing, Side Chain Compression, House, Tutorial, Oscilloscope. In the old days, mixing engineers would study the volume meters as they danced along the console. By playing back well-mixed songs, these early pioneers learned how to read proper song dynamics. This skill is invaluable when trying to understand and utilize compression. This article discusses a modern approach to developing the same talent cultivated in the old masters: the ability to create pleasing dynamic compression. For this tutorial you will need:

  1. A VST Host (Ableton Live, Steinberg Cubase, Digidesign Protools, etc.)
  2. S(m)execope VST/AU Oscilloscope. Download S(m)execope for Windows / Mac OS X.

The Dynamics Problem

A very, very, very common production complaint is that a mix sounds too quiet. A closely related problem is that a mix sounds loud, but the kick drum is lost. More often than not, the song sounds a whole lot better when all of its dynamics (volume) processors are removed. But, you probably know that mixing and mastering engineers use compression, limiting, and expansion on virtually every mix. So, how can you use these same effects to enhance your song?

It is safe to say that all dance tracks use lots of compression. House music is especially infamous for its over-the-top compression. But, there is a fine line between tasteful and unbearable. When aspiring producers ask the professionals about what settings to use, the answer is almost always, “use your ears”. Well, this SonicTransfer tutorial will dispel the myth that golden ears are the only way to achieve proper compression. Read on to learn about a time-tested trick to master dynamics.

Before You Begin

Before you start sculpting your mix buss compression, you should find some reference material. For this tutorial, we will be using the popular house track, Music Sounds Better With You by Stardust. If you are writing another style of music, then go get a digital copy of an extremely well-mixed track in your genre.

Load up your VST Host and drag your reference song onto a new audio track. Load the S(m)exescope plugin onto this track. (If you are using Ableton Live, then click here to learn about using VST plugins with Live).

After you load the oscilloscope, start playing the reference song. Note your Time and Amp settings. Adjust the Time knob until you can clearly see the transients. Leave the Amp knob set to 1.000 unless you are doing a final master. Take a screen capture of the oscilloscope output. Or, sketch a little drawing for your own reference.

oscilloscope settings

Here is the reference image designed for this lesson:

labeled dynamic regions

Notice how the kick dominates the top 15-25% of the dynamic range? For this lesson, you will be recreating this style of mix. Read on to learn about using this reference image for better compression.

Using the Oscilloscope with a Compressor

A compressor’s only purpose is to shape the volume of incoming audio. Because of this, you can graphically see a compressor working when you place an oscilloscope after it. In other words, a compressor will adjust your audio’s dynamics and you can use an oscilloscope to see exactly what it does.

For this lesson, load up a song you’ve been working on. Preferably, pick a dance track that features a prominent kick drum. Make the following adjustments to your song:

  1. Remove all dynamics processors from the master buss. (In Ableton Live, this means removing all compressors, limiters, etc. from the Master track.)
  2. If any track’s volume meter goes above 0db, then turn all of your tracks down by 12db. This is important! You definitely don’t want any digital distortion.

On your master buss, add four plugins in the following order:

  1. Compressor – This is used to pre-compress your musical audio. Set the Ratio to around 2.0 with a moderately fast attack and a fast release. Adjust the threshold so that the peak level is about 50-75% of 0db.
  2. Side Chain Compressor/Gate – This is used to introduce your kick drum to the mix. For ease, you can add it to the master buss. However, for the most control you may want to add it to a submix instead. (Click here for a Side Chain Compression Tutorial.)
  3. Compressor – This is used to post-compress your audio. Set the Ratio to around 1.3 with a moderately fast attack and a fast release. Adjust the threshold so that the peak level is near 0db.
  4. S(m)exoscope – Use this plugin to see what each processor does to the mix.

Disable all of the compressors. Then, open up the S(m)exoscope editor and watch your current audio dynamics. Now, enable the first compressor and try to match the Music Region dynamics in your reference image. The idea is to fatten up the musical elements of the song that they fully occupy the first 50-75% of the dynamic range.

Enable the Side Chain Compressor. Slowly turn up the Kick Drum gain until it peaks at 0db. Adjust the compressor settings to fatten up the mix as needed.

Lastly, enable the final compressor. You can either use this to further gel the mix, or use it as limiter. Use the oscilloscope to match your mix to the reference image you made.

Conclusion

Mastering the art of dynamic processing takes time and skill. But, you can greatly speed up the process by learning to read the meters. As with any form of art, having plenty of references is essential for creating quality work. So, grab a track, watch the ’scope, and listen to your mixes getting better and better.

Happy Producing!

Matt Sonic