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Dave Rat Transmission: Dynamic Versus Compressed
Is there something more legitimate than personal preference that would add credibility to using compression?
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A while back I was pondering mixing live shows, as I strangely so often find myself doing, and I began to analyze the varying aspects of dynamics in live reverberant fields.

Is there something more legitimate than personal preference that would add credibility to using compression?

The studio humans and mastering labs use a ton of it, but comparatively, we live engineers use fairly little. I know it works well to control the variations in a band’s playing, and also helps with smoothing the sound, but is there yet another advantage of compression that is not so readily apparent?

On the surface it’s quite obvious that compression can be used on bass to reduce the differential between the louder and softer notes resulting in a more consistent sound. Same with vocals, and I put compressors on guitars as well.

I even take it further and run kick and snare into a subgroup that has a bit of compression on it to keep the two a bit more locked-in, volume-wise, to each other.

So what got me started (again) on this train of thought?

Not long ago I was listening to a super punchy horn-loaded sound system. Boom, crack, boom, crack, as the drums jump out at me - and they do sound cool.

But I also know from experience that the reverb decay time from the loud “on to” super punchy sounds blurs the intelligibility of everything else that immediately follows.

So if an uncompressed snare is 10 dB “on-top” of the mix, then the correspondingly loud roar of the room-reverb-decay-level from that snare will hurt overall intelligibility long after the original snare hit has been heard and ended.

Conversely, that means that if the instruments are all compressed to a fairly narrow volume range, they then would stay at an even level consistently above the room reverberation rather than the loud sounds setting off room reverberations louder than the following softer sounds.

What I’m getting at is that controlling the differential between the loudest and softest sounds not only improves intelligibility by reducing volume inconsistencies, it’s also helpful in dealing with reverberant room acoustics.

The sacrifice? The loss of some of that “slam-hit eye-blinking” impact.

But hey, the upside is your mix will sound a bit more like an album, the audience will be able to hear the various instruments and vocals, especially in reverberant rooms, and you’ll be able to get more overall volume from the PA with less clip lights flashing.

Just a thought…

Comments (30) Most recent displayed first | All comments in chronological order
Posted by Sansei  on  10/17/11  at  06:52 AM
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Posted by Terry Nelson  on  11/16/10  at  10:17 AM
As usual, Dave gives some interesting points to ponder (he also gave a very entertaining Keynote speech at the AES in SF the other week).

I still maintain that dynamics (compressors, limiters, etc.) are still the most misunderstood pieces of equipment in the audio arsenal. Used well, they can add a lot, used poorly, well... A bit of judicious levelling can raise the overall headroom quite significantly without any compromise to the 'air' of the sound and when you want some serious FX, it's as you wish.

There have been some interesting posts/comments and it is good to see that people are taking into the account the talent - or lack - of the musicians. I find that today, many have no idea of creating their own sound, let alone a 'band sound', and some education can go a long way.

I recently did a festival with a prog/metal band that I work with and just went for the mix - no dynamics and minimal EQ. Sounded great but then the band sounded great on stage as we had worked on their ensemble sound. Also, why waste time when it is limited (no pun intended!) on tweaking when the mix is the important thing.

This said, even though a rarely compress the overall mix, some levelling on the main vocal (generally a Summit) and compressors on bass drum and bass guitar DI are my usual menu. A limiter on a keyboard mix can also do wonders in taming rogue peaks. At the end of the day, hearing the mix in your head and then translating it to the sound system will certainly get those little hairs standing up on edge! :-)

Posted by bobbysdad  on  11/11/10  at  08:12 PM
But that's the beauty of it Graham. Live mixes are so much more exciting if they are kept 'live', warts and all.

Once you've heard a good live mix without all the compression, but with lots of dynamics and even horns with their peakiness, then it's awfully hard to find that same exciting sound on a CD.

As for your 'Bar Soundguy' friend, I really think he's on the right track. Good on him.

If people want to hear a CD, then stay at home and play one through the stereo.

If people want to be entertained and excited, then go and see/hear a 'live' act using a megga PA, balls to the wall.

Almost anyone can do a good mix given enough limiters and the like, but there's only a very few that can pull it off without.

Cheers all.

Posted by Graham Pearson  on  11/11/10  at  07:32 PM
I agree with the above.Why should I sound like the album when so many are horribly over compressed to the point of distortion.But coming back down to earth.I work with a bar soundman from time to time on hard rock shows and he is always complaining that my PA's are tuned too much like a CD!?He prefers to use my horn loaded PA as it sounds(lot's of 2.5Khz) more like his bar.As he forgets that most people listen to CD's at home,or more accurately (depending on budget)they are not using horn loaded PA's to listen through at home or in the car.
Posted by bobbysdad  on  11/08/10  at  08:50 PM
.... I forgot to add, and always use headphones.

Sealed back units are the go, so you can completely isolate yourself from what's going on and just privately listen to the mix from time to time as well as monitor independent channels (pfl - solo) and aux sends to your FX. They are absolutely essential in getting your gain structures right.

And always do a desk tape if you can. (desk = soundboard).

You can play it back over and over at home to study what went wrong.

When you play the recording back, you'll know what I mean.

It can show up the bands faults, as well as your own. Especially with how limiters, FX, and other outboard gear is responding to your calls.


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