Compression is one of the most useful but commonly misused tools in mixing. A perfectly dialed-in compressor can add punch, glue, and excitement to tracks. But use it wrong, and you’ll ruin your dynamics, flatten transients, and suck the life out of your mixes.
In this post, we’ll look at 10 of the most common compression mistakes mixing engineers make, along with tips to make sure you avoid them.
Set your ego aside, and read on to give your compression skills a serious upgrade!
1. Compressing Without a Purpose
The single biggest mistake people make when learning compression is slapping a compressor on a track without having a specific purpose in mind.
You should never compress just for the sake of compressing. Instead, ask yourself:
- What do I want this compressor to achieve?
- Is the track too dynamic?
- Do I need more sustain?
- Does it need more punch?
Know your purpose first, then set your compressor accordingly.
We’ve all done it – cranked the ratio to 10:1 and watched the gain reduction meters jump around like crazy. But more compression does not always equal better compression.
It’s easy to get sucked into endlessly tweaking attack and release times and crushing your audio into oblivion. But the best compression is often subtle. Stick to lower ratios like 2:1 or 4:1 and focus on achieving transparency.
3. Neglecting Gain Staging
Proper gain staging is crucial for effective compression. Make sure you’re not slamming your compressor with a signal that’s too hot or too low.
Watch your input and output levels, and use the compressor’s gain makeup controls wisely. Trim plugin output levels if you’re slamming subsequent effects or mix busses.
4. Wrong Attack & Release Settings
Dialing in the perfect attack and release times can make or break your compression. But choose poorly and you’ll flatten transients or create nasty pumping artifacts.
Take time to experiment with attack and release on each track until you achieve your goal, whether it’s punchy drums or a glued-together bass guitar.
5. Using Static Settings
There’s no such thing as “one setting fits all” in compression. The right attack and release for a vocal won’t work on drums or guitars.
Avoid defaulting to the same compressor settings on every track. Listen and tweak thoughtfully based on the source material.
6. Destroying Dynamics
Compression naturally reduces dynamic range, but use a light touch whenever possible.
High ratios lead to flatter performances. Try lower ratios like 1.5:1 or 2:1 as your starting point, then creep up from there.
7. Ignoring Distortion
Compression boosts overall level, which can easily cause subtle distortion. Listen closely for clipping or graininess when compressing.
Use your DAW’s gain staging tools like clip gain plugins to compensate for any distortion caused by compression.
8. Compressing EQ’d Signals
EQ before compression changes how the compressor responds. For example, boosting highs sends extra high-frequency energy into the compressor, altering its behavior.
When possible, add EQ plugin after compression so you’re working with the compressor’s natural response.
9. Using Only One Compressor
Creatively combining multiple compressors can sound amazing. Try an 1176-style compressor for punch followed by an LA2A-style model for smooth leveling.
Or compress lightly on tracks and use heavy parallel compression for density. Don’t be afraid to experiment with compression chains.
10. Not Listening In Context
It’s tempting to solo compressors and get lost in analyzing their effect. But compression choices affect the entire mix.
Once you’ve dialed in settings, listen in context and make adjustments. Compression is all about how the track works in the mix.
There you have it – 10 compression mistakes that can seriously mess with your mixes, and tips to avoid them.
Here are a few quick reminders as you venture forth to better compression:
- Have a purpose when compressing
- Use subtle ratios and target minimal gain reduction
- Mind your gain staging and distortion
- Set attacks and releases to fit the material
- Avoid static “one size fits all” settings
- Be gentle – let dynamics shine through
- EQ after compression when possible
- Try creative compressor combinations
- Listen in context and tweak as needed
Learning to properly tame dynamics is a lifelong journey. But avoid these mistakes and you’ll be far ahead of the compression curve.
Now get out there and breathe some life into those tracks with smooth, transparent compression! Just take it easy on the ratio.