No effect is as misunderstood as compression. Most home audio producers realize that they need to apply compression to the instruments the record, but they have no idea why, and try things at random to see what works. While experimentation is important, it’s not everything when it comes to compression.
Here are a few tips for applying compression to electric guitars in your recordings.
1. First, understand compression. Many home studios assume that compression is necessary since, well, you hear so much about compression. Compression can be very helpful when you’re mixing, but only if you understand the functions of a compressor.
A compressor stabilizes the volume of a recorded track, in this case the guitar, and that stability leads to a more natural sound when it’s applied correctly. Most compressors have a few controls: the ratio, attack, and release are the most basic. The ratio is the amount of compression applied, where 1:1 would mean that there’s no compression on the track. The attack of a compressor doesn’t give the track more “attack,” it refers to the point at which the compressor begins functioning. If you set the attack to 1ms, the compressor would affect the track every time that the levels peaked. The release is the opposite, it’s when the compressor stops compressing the guitar track. The higher the release, the longer the amount of time before the compression stops being applied to the guitar track.
2. Now, experiment. You know the basics of compression, but now it’s time to develop an ear for how different compression settings affect the guitar track. Start with the ratio–put in about a 3:1 compression and go up and down to hear how the guitar tone changes. Set the attack time at about 100ms, and go up and down, again, to get a sense of how the compression affects the track. Threshold is also important, though its effects are often more subtle than attack time and compression ratio.
3. The right settings will be different in different songs. Metal music usually benefits from a good deal of compression, though the guitarist will often have a compression pedal or setting on his amp that can make your job a bit easier. Acoustic guitars shouldn’t be compressed very heavily in most circumstances. Country music benefits from about a 3:1 compression, with a fairly low attack time, which can give the guitar a very bright tone. Apply compression before dealing with EQ, and if possible mix the drums and bass before experimenting with compression on the guitar, as this will give you a better sense of how the guitar track is going to lay with the rest of the instruments. Above all, if it sounds good, it is good–even if you break some rules, ultimately you’re trying to get a good guitar tone, so trust your ear.
Do you have any other tips for adding compression to electric guitars? Share them in our comments section below.