Get More Out Of Your Compressor With Attack Settings

2011 Dec 16, 2011

Next to EQ, compression is pretty much your most important tool as a mixer. It allows you to control peaks, boost tracks, even out performances, and fatten up things. If you’re looking for a primer on all things compression, watch this video on compression basics real quick and then come back here. Today, however, I want to talk about a little setting that will help you get more out of your current compressor of choice.

Clamp Down On Audio Fast

Your typical DAW compressor plugin should have some kind of knob or dial that says “Attack.” If you are familiar with compression at all then you know that the attack setting is what tells the compressor how quickly to start compressing after audio crosses the compressor’s threshold. Imagine the compressor is an audio engineer riding a volume fader. A fast attack setting would mean the engineer would grab the fader and turn it down the instant he hears audio coming through. A slow attack setting would mean it he takes his sweet time before he starts turning down the fader.
That’s all well and good, but how does this affect your audio? I thought you’d never ask. If you want to create more sustain or “fatness” with a snare hit, then you want to the compressor’s attack setting to be fast. This means it will clamp down on the initial transient of the snare hit, squashing it a bit closer to the volume of the tail of the snare hit, thereby allowing you to turn up the overall gain of the now squashed snare. This gives you a snare hit that has sustain a lot closer to the volume of the initial crack, making it sound “fatter” than normal.

Let The Peaks Pass Through

If you want the opposite to happen, say you want a very percussive sounding acoustic guitar where every strum cuts through the mix. Then you can take advantage of your compressor’s attack setting and dial it back to a slower attack. This means most of the acoustic’s initial strums will pass through without any compression, but the ringing will be compressed a bit still keeping the track in check. This can give your acoustic guitar a chance to poke through the mix and sound like it has a lot of life.

Because our ears pay close attention to the initial transients (guitar strums), we perceive it as getting louder. You might remember this phenomenon from the “attack principle” video I did a while back. By letting the transients come through, we can trick the ear while still compressing the audio.

Compressing In Totally Different Ways

Here’s what I want you to do. Next time you have a mix open, grab a compressor, throw it on a piece of audio (guitar, vocal, kick drum, whatever) adjust your ratio and threshold so it’s clamping down a little bit and then start to experiment with the attack setting. What does it sound like when you turn the attack up as fast as it will go? What about with the slowest attack settings? Does one bring more life to the track? Does the other bring more fatness or sustain to the track?

It’s amazing how a compressor with the same ratio, threshold, and make up gain settings can operate totally differently depending on the attack setting. Teach your ear what the attack knob does and you’ll start to see the possibilities open wide up!

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