Study Hall

An Altec 1220 mixing console from way back in the day that may have included the built-in compressor. (Photo credit: Sonic Mods)

My First Compressor: Getting Acquainted With A Then-New Tool In The Mix Kit

What it was like going from no compressor to one compressor versus today’s reality wherein even some very cost-effective consoles have a compressor on every channel and every output.

Somewhere recently, and I can’t recall whether it was at a trade show, or on a gig, or on a forum, I heard someone refer to “my signal processing chain for my pastor.”

I’m sorry, your what for your what? It’s one person, talking, on one microphone. Anyway, it got me thinking about what it was like going from no compressor to one compressor versus today’s reality wherein even some very cost-effective consoles have a compressor on every channel and every output. And that’s not including all the plugins in the “EFX rack.”

Early in February 1980, I got a call to do a couple of shows with a band that was looking for a new sound person. That call (which seems like a minor miracle that I even was around to receive it… it was years before cell phones, e-mail, debit cards… the list is long), came from a guy I had met the previous summer while working with another band.

The band he was mixing/road managing was a “name” act with a few albums out and they were booked into the middle of a week-long club engagement for the band I was already working with. I suggested to our lighting person that we offer to crew for them as we had the night off anyway.

This we did, and the end result was one of the fastest load-outs they’d ever had. Because we were two young folks moving really fast? Nope, because we were listening. Like any respectable rock-bar of the day, this one was two floors below street level, so it was a “big stairs – small elevator” load out.

As each elevator load came up, the crew would discus what should be on the next one: “Fender Twin, SVT cabinet, monitor desk… etc.”. We would dash down the stairs and have those pieces lined up in front of the elevator when it came down for the next load. This was enough to earn a “Give me your phone number…” and seven months later, I got the call.

A Rocky Introduction

The “audition” was to mix the band at a high school auditorium located way out of town, and then mix them the next night at the University of Toronto. The first gig, with just me and the band, went fine.

The second night, the guy who had called me was there to check out my work, and he included a little “gringo trick” to try and trip me up. The band had a 10-channel Altec mixing console that had a built-in compressor with two settings, accessed via a rocker switch. The settings were “In” and “Out.” I hadn’t used (or even tried) the compressor the night before and proceeded to sound check with it in the “Out” position.

All went well, sound check was followed by dinner which eventually led to showtime. As soon as the band hit the downbeat, I could tell that the mix sounded different from sound check, and just plain wrong. A quick scan of the board (TEN channels!) and I saw that the compressor switch was “In.”

I quickly flicked it out and the mix reverted back to what I was expecting. (The fact that at the next gig I discovered that one of the two 18-inch subs was blown was generally attributed to my having turned the compressor switch off. However, that wasn’t on me as the switch had been engaged as a test to see if I was on the ball enough to notice it). In any case, I got the gig and ended up working with the band until the following December.

Not long after I started with the band I convinced them to upgrade the console to a Yamaha PM-700. This was my “axe” at the time as the two previous bands that I’d worked with had the same desk. It gave me 12 channels to work with, which I augmented with the six-channel Yamaha PM-180 that I already owned for a total of 18 channels.

I used the six channels of the PM-180 for the drums and brought the output of the 180 into the first channel on the PM-700, giving me all drums sub-mixed on one fader, with three band EQ. This last bit was handy because the 180 only had two-band EQ, so if I wanted to scoop out some mids on the drums, I could do it on the sub-mix.

Bass, keyboards (lots of them, it was the 80s!) and guitar were next, followed by the vocals. Now, because the PA was in mono, which was still the standard at the time, I was able to sub-mix the vocals by panning them all to the right side and then back into the left (which was also the main out) via either a sub-input or an aux input (can’t recall which exactly as I haven’t seen one of these desks in almost 40 years). That gave me all vocals on one fader (the right master) which was great for when everyone leaned in on some harmonies, for example.

Looping Back

But I felt like it needed something… something that could manage the vocal levels and variations a bit more fluidly than I could (did I mention that I was also doing lighting, and after a few months also changing guitar strings and re-tuning when one broke mid-set?). Without ever having used one (excluding the In/Out one on the Altec mixer), I’d figured out that what I most likely needed was a compressor.

Again, details are hazy as to why, but for whatever reason, it was something that I had to buy myself rather than the band buying it. That said, it was purchased through the band’s management company so I don’t actually know what store it came from, etc. “It” was an Ashly Audio SC-50, a single-channel compressor/limiter in its second generation. (Main distinguishing features: an illuminated rocker-type power switch and different knobs from the first-gen model.)

An Ashly Audio SC-50 compressor in all of its analog glory.

Because I was already sub-mixing the vocals, it was a simple patch to put the compressor in that path, a good thing because the PM-700 lacked insert points. Having done that, it pretty much worked as expected, giving me that extra bit of control on the vocals that I had been looking for. Once again, I don’t recall where I would have gotten any input or instruction on settings, but it might have been, wait for it… the manual!

And that ought to be the end of this story, except… The guy who had gotten me the gig was the senior sound person with the management company (and I the junior person, as I don’t think there were any other acts with their own production) and he also had an SC-50 in his rig that he used across the main mix. Whenever our paths crossed, he would encourage me to do the same. I was reluctant to do so because I knew that while it might have some benefits in keeping the mix under control, I would lose the extra control on the vocals. (And yes, having only one compressor meant having to think about stuff like that!)

Meanwhile, things progressed with the band. We did a showcase, got a record deal, recorded the first album, and around October, headed out on a western tour. One day, on the return leg of that tour, we found ourselves at a university in Saskatchewan to play a pub gig – but not for students. The venue had been rented by a biker organization for a party.

I guess it was this fact that got me thinking “of all the gigs, in all the world… if I’m going to try the compressor on the whole mix, this one seems like a pretty safe bet.” So I patched the compressor on the main output (leaving my vocal sub-mix in place, just minus the compressor) and proceeded to have the greatest sound check of my young life.

Mixed Results

Everything just sounded… better! The kick drum was deep and solid, the snare had a solid “crack,” the bass guitar was full and rounded, the keyboards tight and polished, and the vocals sounded fine too.

By themselves. Once the band started to play together, things weren’t sounding quite so great, but I thought I’d keep trying it (in other words, I’d talked myself into how great it was).

And then the other part of the equation is that music isn’t always everyone playing all the time. So, I’d be thinking “I’m really not sure I’m liking this” and then we would come to some part of the set like a solo piano intro or a couple of hits on the kick drum (… “cause I’m glad all over” – thump-thump – “glad all over…”) that would sound great.

However, then the whole mix would go back to something reminiscent of what I heard on the second night with the band with the Altec In/Out compressor switched in. In any case, after the first set, I decided that the SC-50 across the whole mix was not for me and switched back to my regular routing.

So, does this mean that if you have the luxury of a compressor for every channel you should use one? I would argue that the answer is “no, until you actually determine a need for it.”

In other words, first listen and second think about the process before reaching for that knob/plugin. PA systems have changed dramatically since the “stack o’ gack” that I was using at the time, and all for the better.

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