How to Add Punch to Your Mix with Parallel Compression

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If your mixes are sounding a bit lackluster and you want to give them more power and presence, parallel compression just might be the secret sauce you’re looking for.

Parallel compression, sometimes called New York compression, is a technique where you heavily compress a copy of a track and blend it in with the original uncompressed track to add thickness and impact. It’s kind of like taking your audio signal to the gym for a good pump!

When used right, parallel compression can take your drums, guitars, vocals – pretty much anything – to the next level. 

In this post, we’ll break down exactly how parallel compression works and how to set it up to really make your mixes rock.

What Is Parallel Compression?

The concept of parallel compression is pretty simple:

  1. You take the track you want to compress. Let’s say it’s your drum bus.
  2. You send that drum bus to an auxiliary track and compress the hell out of it. I’m talking high ratios, tons of gain reduction, fast attacks, and slow releases.
  3. You blend this heavily compressed signal back in with the original drum bus at a low volume.

The uncompressed drum bus provides the punch and impact, while the smashed parallel signal adds sustain and thickness. It’s a compression…but in parallel!

A Brief History of Parallel Compression

Legend has it that parallel compression was invented back in the 1960s by blending compressed and uncompressed signals on recording consoles.

But it was the engineers at New York recording studios like the Power Station who truly pioneered parallel compression techniques in the ’70s and ’80s.

They used it to fatten up drum sounds for disco and rock records by artists like Chic, Madonna, and John Lennon. Over the years, parallel compression became a studio secret weapon.

These days, it’s a commonly used technique to add energy and excitement to mixes. The punchy drums and thick guitars on many modern rock and pop records have parallel compression to thank!

Why Use Parallel Compression?

Adding parallel compression is useful when you want to make a track more present and exciting without destroying its dynamics.

Heavy compression on the track itself can squeeze the life out of your audio. Parallel compression enhances the good stuff while preserving the transient attack of drums, the pick scrapes of guitars, and the intimacy of vocals.

Some specific benefits of parallel compression include:

  • More punch and impact – The compressed signal really brings out the low-end punch.
  • Increased sustain – Longer release times in parallel compression add sustain and density.
  • Thicker, wider sound – Parallel compression really fattens up the audio for a 3-dimensional effect.
  • Extra presence – Boosted highs and lows in the parallel signal cut through the mix.
  • Greater loudness – Done right; parallel compression can allow for louder mixes.

Let’s look at some tips for setting up parallel compression on a few common instruments.

Parallel Compression on Drums

Drums are often the first place people try parallel compression. It can make flimsy drums sound like they have the mass of Stonehenge!

Here’s how I like to approach it:

  • Send your drum bus to an aux track.
  • Add a compressor like the 1176 or SSL compressor to the aux.
  • Use a fast attack and slow release with a high ratio.
  • Set the threshold so you get tons of gain reduction – 10 dB or more.
  • Blend in the aux with the drum bus around -10 dB.
  • Add an EQ plugin after the compressor to boost 60-100 Hz and 10 kHz for extra punch and sizzle.
  • Turn up the aux send just until you hear the cymbals start to pump.

Mixing both the transients of the drums and the compressed sustain adds insane amounts of power. 

Be careful, though – crank it too much, and your drums will choke the life out of the rest of your mix!

Parallel Compression on Vocals

Vocals coated with parallel compression absolutely jump out of the speakers. They sound clear yet completely glued into the track.

Try these settings:

  • High-ratio compressor, like 8:1 or 10:1.
  • Set the threshold so that the compressed signal has about 4-8 dB less peaks than the dry vocal.
  • Use a medium attack around 25-50 ms to round off transients.
  • Release around 100 ms helps add audible sustain and thickness.
  • Add some bright EQ to the compressed signal around 4-8 kHz to increase presence and articulation.
  • Blend in the compressed vocal starting around -10 dB to taste.

Parallel Compression on Guitars

If you want country twang or rock crunch, parallel compression can infuse your guitar tracks with that extra spice.

Once again, try these settings:

  • Fast attack compressor to grab transients. Opto works well.
  • Medium to fast release around 40-150 ms. Watch for pumping!
  • Lower ratio – Try 2:1 or 4:1 first.
  • Medium to high threshold for less squashing.
  • EQ the compressed signal with a high-shelf boost around 4kHz-8kHz.
  • Blend to taste around -10 dB. Add more for rock guitar density!
  • More Tips for Parallel Compression

Here are a few more tips to take your parallel compression to the next level

Try it on more than just drums and guitars! Anything from strings and bass to keyboards and vocals can benefit from parallel compression. Get creative!

Experiment with different compressors. Each one will impart its own unique character to the parallel signal.

Use a send instead of a separate track. If you want to save CPU power, use a send on the original track routed to an aux track with the compressor.

Try distortion or saturation on the parallel track. In addition to compression, adding some extra grit through distortion or tape saturation plugins can make things even punchier!

High pass filter the compressed signal. Adding a high pass filter around 100-200 Hz on the compressed track can help avoid muddiness and keep the parallel compression transparent.

Pay attention to levels. Make sure you lower the dry track by the same amount you add the compressed signal. Watch your levels!

Don’t overdo it. It’s easy to get carried away with parallel compression. Keep it subtle enough that you just notice the added punch and sustain. If it starts to overpower the mix, dial it back.

Well, there you have it – everything you need to know to start spiking the punch in your mixes with parallel compression!

I challenge you to try it out on a few tracks in your next mix. I bet you’ll be addicted to the waves of newfound power before you know it.

Now get to work making some punchy mixes! Just be sure to take it easy on that auxiliary send.

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