Adjusting Effect Levels for Mix/Bus Compression

I spent a few hours yesterday doing final bus compression for the track I’m currently working on. Approaches to and techniques for bus compression were one of the things I learnt most about during 2016, and yesterday I had a kind-of ‘lightbulb’ moment, which will hopefully lead to better results in this area going forward.

I’m a ‘reluctant participant’ in the whole competitive levels/loudness wars thing. Fundamentally I like the groove, emotion, impact, etc which a decent dynamic range can impart on a track. But at the same time I understand the need to achieve an overall loudness level that’s similar to other tracks in the same genre (especially because not doing so simply makes your music difficult for DJs to mix).

In the past, I’d always equated greater amounts of bus compression to a loss in clarity. To some extent this is true, as compression will narrow the dynamic range of the sound and hence simply reduce the ‘depth’ of volume variation available. However I’d always found that compressing the entire mix necessitated a compromise of getting closer to competitive levels while sacrificing some detail and clarity.

About halfway through last year I had a mini breakthrough of sorts, when I realised certain settings on bus compressor plugins can have a big effect on the quality of the resulting audio. Specifically I usually use Cytomic’s ‘The Glue’ as the first stage in the bus compression chain, and I found that simply setting the oversampling rate to the recommended or higher levels (4x or more when auditioning) gave far clearer audio quality than the default lower settings.

For my current track I had spent a bit longer than usual honing the reverb plugin settings, and fine tuning the reverb send levels. After this I was really happy with the result… it had a nice balance of having a good depth/space with sounding too ‘washed out’, and seemed to translate well to several different sets of speakers and headphones. But yesterday it was a bit disappointing to have some of this clarity and balance lost when I started pushing the final mix through bus compression. When I listened closely it wasn’t so much a by-product of compression, but more that the levels of the reverbs and delay effects were stronger. When I thought about it, the reasoning was obvious… I’d squashed down the top 3-6 dB of the volume range, so obviously sounds down at -15 to -20dB (like the reverb layer) had been effectively pushed up by a similar amount.

I usually do final bus compression in a separate Reaper project to the mixing, using just the final stereo mixdown as a source track (my aging PC can’t handle multiple reverb plugins and CPU hungry bus compression at the same time). So I went back to the mix project and rendered another version of the stereo mix with reverbs and main delays turned down around 1.5dB. Running this new version through the same compression chain resulted in a much clearer mix… it sounded a lot more like the former original stereo mixdown… just louder (which is exactly what I was trying to achieve).

Anyway, in hindsight I’m a bit surprised it’s taken me this long to figure out this technique (the basic point of compression after all is to reduce dynamic range), but I’m going to experiment a bit more, and hopefully end up with a lot cleaner, clearer final mix than for past tracks.

Another way to potentially prevent the issue could be to ‘mix into’ a compressor or limiter during writing/sequencing/mixing. This is a bit unorthodox technique historically, but seems to have gained popularity in the last few years (I seem to have read a lot of articles recently where people discuss working this way). The idea is to put a limiter/compressor on the master bus right from the early stages of writing (using generic/default settings close to what you’d usually use for final bus compression). This way you’re always evaluating level balance with compression already ‘baked in’. I don’t usually use this technique because for some reason I like to keep a clear separation between the mixing and final ‘mastering’ stages… but based on yesterday’s experience I can definitely see the merits, so may try it in a future track.

Bus Compression 2

my experience in this process was one which helped me discover, and then cement the approach of progressive compression

This is my second instalment on bus compression, and the story of how I discovered what has since become my default effects chain for master bus compression.

I discussed in my last post on this topic the importance of applying compression in a staged and progressive manner through the entire sequencing and mixing process, rather than leaving all the work to a couple of plugins at the point of final ‘mastering’.  My experience in this process was one which helped me discover, and then cement this approach of progressive compression.

It centered around my track ‘Push On‘… when I’d completed mixing of this track, I was really happy with the sound… the bass line was strong and solid, and the snare and synth ‘stab’ sounds both had a nice punchy and aggressive dynamic.  What I basically wanted to achieve with bus compression was to maintain the general sound and dynamic as much as possible, while making the overall level more ‘competitive’.

My ‘goto’ compressor for bus compression is Cytomic’s ‘The Glue’, so first step was to insert an instance of this over the master mix.  Initially I used a slowish attack setting of 0.3ms, but I was finding a lot of transients were slipping through and causing digital clipping when the level was raised.  If I moved the attack back to 0.01ms, it caught all the transients, but also resulted in a fairly un-musical pumping effect.  The clips below contain 1. the track directly after mixing, and 2. the same track plus ‘The Glue’ with similar fast attack settings to what I used originally used…

Original track:

The Glue with fast attack:

The pumping of the compressor is evident from the uneven level of the offbeat open hi-hats.  While originally working on this I also noticed that the virtual ‘needle’ in The Glue jumped around unevenly, not moving with the rhythm of the track.  (From further experience since this,  I’ve come to learn that un-rhythmic movement of the gain reduction needle like this usually always results in uneven, pumping compression).

I bounced the uncompressed track to an audio file so I could get a look at the waveform (see below)…

bus-compression-pt-2-1

Notice the highlighted uneven peaks caused by the synth stab sounds (red) and snare hits (blue).  The synth stab used a fairly heavy chorus effect which caused the individual notes to peak at varying levels in the waveform.  My assumption was that at fast attack settings, the uneven peaks of both instruments were causing the compressor to trigger inconsistent amounts of gain reduction.  Coupled with the fact they were on syncopated beats of the bar (especially the synth stab which was on the 3rd 8th note), this was likely what was causing the un-rhythmic pumping of the compressor.

I used a combination of techniques to ultimately correct this, but the one which had the biggest impact was to put a limiter (Waves L1) in the signal chain before the compressor. This had the effect of evening out the transient peaks, and allowing the compressor to operate much more consistently, aswell as permitting the use of a slower compressor attack setting.  This resulted in a much more transparent compression.  The clip below demonstrates a recreation of the same signal chain…

…notice that the sound generally is much smoother, and the consistent levels of the hi hats in the original version have been maintained.

The end result was a considerable amount of compression was applied by The Glue, but it remained relatively transparent.  The final step was to use another instance of the L1 limiter at the end of the chain to bring the track up to competitive levels.  The final chain and settings were as follows…

bus-compression-pt-2-2

bus-compression-pt-2-3

bus-compression-pt-2-4

I mentioned that ultimately I used several techniques in addition to the above signal chain to achieve the result in the published version, and this included actually going back to the mix project, and applying more compression, and some limiting to the individual snare and synth stab tracks in that project (supporting my earlier comments about a ‘progressive approach’ to compression).  That meant that the first L1 instance in the master bus chain had even less work to do, and again produced an overall more transparent result.

The whole process was a really good learning experience, and the L1 > Glue > L1 effect chain has become my default for master bus compression.  If you struggle to get clean but loud results with your own master bus processing,  I hope sharing my experiences will be useful.