Of course, just because you don’t understand compression doesn’t mean that you’re mentally challenged. As a rule, the compressor, and how it controls a signal’s dynamics, is one of the more challenging processors to grasp. Learning how to effectively apply compression in your mix can take a significant amount of study time, patience, and good old fashioned experience.

Now, I could explain what each parameter of a compressor does and how it affects the signal. I could even give you some compression presets to get you started. But, this approach would be old hat and does nothing to help you actively hear compression and how each of its components work. You see, without the ability to hear in your mind how compression colors a signal, and to then know which parameters on a compressor to reach for in order to achieve your sound, you’re just fumbling blindly.

The skill necessary to properly operate a compressor is comparable to the ability you developed as a toddler to recognize and apply colors. You learned to visualize what color you wanted to apply to the flower in your coloring book, and you learned which color to reach for in your box of crayons to achieve your objective. The trick with compression, as with any type of processing or synthesis used in music production and sound design, is to know, instinctively, which parameters to reach for in order to create the sound you’re hearing in your head. It’s a deceptively simple process because it’s so easy to quantify, but as we all know from experience, it’s tough to put into practice.

With all this in mind, I’ve cooked up an interactive compression lesson to help you better hear compression, and learn to associate compression colors with specific compressor parameters. It’s a Reason song file full of MClass Compressors, with each Compressor adjusted slightly differently, but applied to the same snare drum signal. Each compressor’s label reflects its parameter change (such as “More Attack” or “Less Attack”), so that you can easily identify the Compressor’s parameter that you’re hearing, in relation to a base compression setting (the “Basic Compression” device). And, since a sound is rarely heard on its own, but, instead, always with accompaniment, I’ve included the rest of the drum mix as a stereo stem on Channel 12 of the mixer.

Here’s How You Work It
Press Play to start the drum pattern, then, to hear each compression setting, solo each snare drum signal on the mixer (Channels 1 to 10), one channel at a time. Leave the drum mix on Channel 12 in solo mode so that you can hear how the different compression settings make the snare “sit” in the drum mix.

Many of the changes to the snare drum’s sound are subtle and a challenge to hear, especially if you’re new to this sort of critical listening. Accurate monitors are also key in being able to hear the differences in the drum’s sound. So, if you’re not hearing the differences right out of the gate, not to worry, below is a description of what you’re listening for in each compression setting.

Channel 1: “No Compression”
This is the snare drum dry, with no compression processing.
Channel 2: “Basic Compression”
This is a decent snare drum compression setting. It is the starting point from which a single parameter is changed in the following Compressors. For example, on the “More Attack” Compressor, all the parameters are identical to the “Basic Compression” settings except the Attack parameter.
Channel 3: “Less Threshold”
Increasing the Threshold means that less of the incoming signal will be compressed. Another way of putting it is that the threshold at which the signal will begin being compressed is higher.
Channel 4: “More Threshold”
Decreasing the Threshold means that more of the incoming signal will be compressed. Another way of putting it is that the threshold at which the signal will begin being compressed is lower.
Channel 5: “Less Ratio”
There’s no easy way to explain the compression ratio. It’s math, there’s no getting around it. Ratio sets the amount of input signal necessary to cause a 1 dB increase in output signal. For example, with a ratio of 4:1, an 8 dB increase in input will produce a 2 dB increase in the output. So, less Ratio means that an increase in input signal will sound louder at the output, less compressed compared to the original “Basic Compression” setting.
Channel 6: “More Ratio”
With more compression ratio applied, more input signal will be required to produce a 1 dB increase in output signal. Consequently, the output signal will sound more compressed when compared to the original “Basic Compression” setting. At high compression ratios, limiting occurs, where, at the most extreme settings, the output level stops increasing no matter how loud the input level becomes (referred to as “brickwall” limiting). In situations where the output level is very low in volume, you can use the Compressor’s Output Gain control to turn it up.
Channel 7: “Less Attack”
The Attack parameter sets how quickly the compression will begin. So, turning the Attack up means that less of the signal’s initial transient (the very beginning of its waveform) will be compressed. This is good if you want to retain the crack and pop of the waveform’s start.
Channel 8: “More Attack”
Turning the Attack down means that more of the signal’s initial transient will be compressed. This is good if you want to diminish the crack and pop of a waveform’s start.
Channel 9: “Less Release”
The Release parameter determines how long it will take for the compression effect to fade out. So, less Release equals a shorter release time and the signal’s waveform will be compressed for a very limited duration. This is good if you want to retain the natural decay of a waveform.
Channel 10: “More Release”
Turning the Release up means that the time it takes for the compression effect to fade out will be longer. This is good if you want to compress the natural decay of a waveform, like increasing the volume as the signal fades out.

After you’ve listened carefully to each compression setting, try describing the changes in the sound that you hear. This will connect what you’re hearing to a concrete idea in your mind. And, ultimately, help you to associate a compression color with a specific compression parameter. Once you master hearing what each compression parameter can do on its own, then you will begin to hear how all of the compression settings work together to create a variety of compression effects and sonic colorations.

Here’s the Reason song file. Remember to press Play before you begin soloing each snare drum signal, and only audition one snare signal at a time.

Compression Lesson (Reason 3 Song File)

    Hi Erik, thanks for a great how-to on compression – this is a great guide for applying compression in a logical way. Thanks!

    hey Erik,

    thanks for taking the time to write these blogs, they are very helpful to me. I am having trouble opening this link for the Reason compression file, I’m just getting a page with some code written on it. Please advise, and thanks again
    -stephen

    Stephen,

    You need to either Right-Click (PC) or Control-Click (Mac) and from the pop-up menu download the file to your hard drive.

    Thanks Erik. Pl. write more as much as you can, your posts are very informative.

    Hey Erik,

    Thanks so much. . I’ve been looking for examples of compression to listen to. This is perfect. When I control-click on my Mac, the file comes up as compression-lesson.rps .txt document instead of Reason File. Is there something I’m missing? Thanks Diane

    Diane,

    When you get a download like this and you know what the file type should be, simply rename the file. In this case, just remove the .txt, so the name reads, compression_lesson.rps That should fix it.

    Wow. You’re really thorough in your explanation of compression! This blog alone will help out so many people. I’ll download the file tomorrow and check it out. I have Reason 4 so I hope it will be compatible.

    Thanx again for these blogs… really REALLY informative!

    thanks Erik,

    very helpful. I appreciate it!

    thanks for the info. maybe you could help me out. I have recently been looking to purchase a software compressor but am overwelmed by the hundreds on the market. Could you recomend one. Thank you for your time

    CM Man,

    Yes, there’s a lot to choose from out there. If you’re looking for something beyond what comes with your DAW, I love the compressors and EQ made by McDSP (http://www.mcdsp.com/). Their Neve emulations in the CompressorBank are tasty. I’m sure readers will have some other great suggestions too.

    it is a problem to download a file now. any idea what is happening?

    hello! when i open the file, it sais: “the file has bad format”. is this a problem with downloading a file or i nead a reason 4?

    Eric, I still cannot download the file even if Iuse the right click. I get an error message. Please help. Thanks

    The file should be fixed. It appeared to have been damaged, so I uploaded it again. Seems to be working fine now.

    thanks Eric, all works good now

    Hi-

    Thanks for the post!
    I’m trying this with reason, but all I’m getting is a high hat and kick. No snare? Any ideas?

    Thanks!

    Nick,

    That’s pretty much all you should be hearing. It’s just a drum kit groove, and you make adjustments to the snare to hear the compression.

    -Hawk

    Hi Erik,

    I was working with reason 3.0.4 and my pc crashed. Since then I bought a new pc and brought my harddrive to someone to recover a few tracks i was working on. I have the .rns files but only 2 of 12 are working. When I try to open the others a get two messages: ‘bad format’ or ‘media related problem’.

    Can you help?

    Thx in advance.
    Greetz,
    Sam

    Ow I forgot something.

    I’ve installed Reason 4.0 on my new PC. I desinstalled it and tried to open de files with the 3.0.4 version. Didn’t work too.

    Should I send you one of the files?

    Sam

    hi erik any chance of doing a cubase file of this

    Nick,

    Maybe at some point, but I don’t work in Cubase too often. But, here’s the thing, most of the parameters for compression are universal. So, what applies in Reason will also apply in any other program or hardware compressor.

    EH

    Sam,

    This is a Reason 4 song file, it will not open in Reason 3. You must have Reason 4 installed on your computer. Make sure that you don’t have any other versions of Reason installed on your computer (such as Reason 3 or Reason Adapted).

    EH

    Hi Erik,

    I am currently working with reason 4.0 and every now and again I get an error saying bad format’ or ‘media related problem…..is there anyway to fix these errors so i can open these sessions…. if so any tips would be deeply appreciate

    Thanks in Advance
    Keon

    Can you get broadcast quality with Garageband

    Hi Erik,

    Finally a proper understandable explanation of compression.
    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

    Andy.

    Hi Hawk1
    This is great food for the music producer, and you are really dishing it out well. Thanx a lot. I think that a lot is too small, Thanx an acre.

    Tom – What is your favorite dish ?
    Tony- SATELLITE, of course.
    (Just a wise crack)

    Hey Erik,

    Thank you so much for this, but I cannot download the file because I am redirected to a 404 page. I’ve tried right clicking but I can only save it as an html file.

    Hi Erik,

    I’m getting the same error as Keon on this file and on your Reason Song Template. Please let me know if there is something I am doing wrong. I am using Reason 4.01. The message is that the file has a bad format and cannot be opened.

    I checked the file and it’s fine. Here’s how you do the download:

    Right-click PC and from the pop-up menu choose, “Save Link as…”
    Control-click Mac and from the pop-up menu choose, “Save Link as…”

    You should participate in a contest for the most effective blogs on the web. I will advocate this web site!

    Thanks David!

    Hey, indeed a very nice article but Houston, I`ve got a problem – No Reason – anyway to get this files as .wav ???

    Then I could load them to any DAW and everybody is Glucklich!

    Great idea! When I have time I’ll cook up an audio version of this exercise. Thanks for the suggestion!

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