Understanding what each part of a compressor does is essential, but having a strategic approach in how to dial in those settings is the key to getting great results! If you haven’t already, check out our guide on compression basics before tackling this article. Go ahead, we’ll wait….

Now that you’re well acquainted with all the knobs on your compressor, let’s get down to business. How do you dial in this sucker? Where do you start? How do you know if you’re “doing it right”? Being able to “hear” compression is a skill that takes ages to develop, but you don’t need to wait years before you can get awesome sounds out of your compressor.

Let me introduce you to a step-by-step, systematic, and conveniently numbered method to dialing in a compressor!

1) Know Your Goal

Before even touching a compressor, you need to know what you want to achieve by using one. If you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to do, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get great results.

2) Your Starting Point

We need to start with a basic setting from which to adjust from. This “starting point” allows us to hear the compression in it’s most extreme state, so that it’s easier to hear what each control is doing to the signal.

Start by cranking your ratio as high as it can go, set your attack to the fastest setting, and your release about half way. This means that when we set our threshold, it is going to completely crush the signal, let none of the transient through (or very little), and release nicely – not too slow or too fast.

3) Smash Your Threshold


Now adjust your threshold until you hear the compression start to kick in. Because we’ve got the attack so fast, you’re probably going to want to pay attention to the release, or how the signal goes from quiet to loud again. This is not where we’re going to leave the setting, but it’s very important that you’re training your ears throughout this entire process, because your ears are the ultimate deciders of what sounds good and what doesn’t.

Once you find that point where you start to hear the compression kicking in go ahead and slam it all the way to it’s maximum setting to where you’re completely crushing the signal. There’s two reasons for this:

A. Listen to what the compression is doing to the signal. Different compressors impact the signal in various different ways, and it’s important to know what kind of character each plugin, pedal, or hardware unit is applying to your signal. Things to listen for would be if it distorts the signal a lot, and the flavour or colour of that distortion, or if it’s transparent.

(Keep in mind, the less extreme your settings, the more subtle the distortion effects will be! This setting just helps us hear these characteristics more clearly.)

B. This gives us a way to hear what our attack and release settings are doing in the most extreme, explicit way.

4) Adjust Your Attack

Now we’re going to set our attack based on how much of the initial attack of the note (also known as the transient) we want to control. This is dependent on the instrument, the genre, and even personal preference to some degree. A really fast attack will clamp down on transients quickly, while a slower attack will let more of the transient through transparently.

Before looking for your desired setting, start by slowly sweeping the attack knob throughout its entire range – from fastest to slowest – and listen carefully. This will give you a clear picture of what it is doing to your signal at varying speeds, and give you an idea of the limits of this compressor’s attack parameter.

The slower the attack time, the more your pick attack is going to be exaggerated, because it’s only compressing the signal fully after the pick attack happens. Depending on the context, it’s up to you whether you want to exaggerate pick attack with a slow attack, or smooth it out with a fast attack.

5) Match Your Release

Once your attack time is set, you need to set your release time. As you already know, your release time is related to how quickly the compression disengages. While this is also very dependent on the context, one thing you need to know is: if your release time is set too fast, you can introduce modulation distortion, so tread carefully if this is not your desired effect.

As with your attack knob, you want to listen to the entire sweep of your release, this time from slowest to fastest. It’s worth mentioning that release time can also imparts some subtle tonal changes, so watch for that as well.

At this point we take a similar approach to earlier, and decide how quickly we want the compressor to get ready for the next transient depending on the goal we want to achieve. The quicker the release, the more “movement” you’ll get, as your signal is compressed and released again, changing volume and dynamics rather quickly. A slower release will keep things nice and even.

6) Bring It Back

Now that we’ve set our attack and release where they need to be, it’s time to dial it back a few notches. Leave your attack and release where they are, but bring back your threshold and ratio controls until you’re doing no compression again.

Here we need to decide how much compression we want to apply with these settings. This requires us to go back to point number one, and remind ourselves what our goal was. If you want the compression to be more subtle, use a lower ratio. If you want something more heavy-handed, then raise the ratio. If you’re unsure, a good all-around setting is 4:1.

Now bring the threshold down until the compression starts to kick in, and stop as soon as things are sounding just the way you wanted.

7) Compare The Results

Before committing to these settings, be sure to bypass the compressor and compare it to your original signal. It’s easy to get lost in tunnel vision while you’re tweaking things on such a detailed level, but we don’t want to lose perspective and miss our goal, or worse… make it sound worse than it did before.

When you’re comparing the compressed signal to the original signal, make sure you’re setting the output volume (also known as makeup gain) of your compressor to match the volume of your uncompressed signal. This way our ears won’t be tricked into thinking one is better than the other simply based on the overall volume.


Let’s recap quickly:

1) Know your goal
2) Set attack to fastest, release halfway, and ratio to max
3) Max out your threshold
4) Adjust your attack to taste
5) Adjust your release to taste

6) Back off your ratio and threshold until your goal is achieved
7) Compare to the original signal

We want to get to a point where you can do this by ear without having to go through this process, but that takes years of practice. In the meantime, this is a fantastic way to get wonderful results when you’re just trying to get your head around compression.

We can’t make music into a formula, but we can create strategies to help us find the sound we’re chasing. Happy tone-chasing!

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This article was written by Connor Gilkinson, our editor located in Canada.

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