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Drum Compression – How To & Tips

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Drum Compression

Drums are the driving elements of your song. If there were no drums, the impact that any song makes wouldn’t have been present in it.

Drum Compression is essential part of mixing. Compressing single drum sounds or the whole drum track that depends on upon the requirement of your music. The general way of working is to compress the individual drum sounds first and then compressing the whole drum track to hold everything together. But its not a rule though!

You can either make your drums softer or make them more punchy with compression. The compressor also affects the musicality of the elements which makes drum compression an important skill to get the hang of.

In this article, we’ll cover following topics important for drum compression –

  1. How to hear compression?
  2. Know the essence of the music.
  3. Attack, Release and the groove.
  4. Other important settings – threshold, ratio and knee.
  5. Individual or group compression?
  6. Parallel compression of the drums.

These are the important points to consider while working on your drums. Let’s see each on in detail..


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1. How to hear compression

Besides all the compression process that you might wanna do on your drums or whatever, how well can you hear the effect of compression?

To hear the compression, you need to exaggerate the settings first and then listen and memorize the results. Now you need to back off a little and train your ears gradually to get more and more sensitive when the settings are applied in lesser and lesser amounts.

It’s very important because through compression various characteristics can be achieved in the mix.

Compression can make the sounds more punchy or more sustained or have both in a balance as per your need.

It can also be used to create depth in the mix between instruments.

You can send your instruments far or closer even with compression. A more punchy and strong sound will be perceived to be closer.

A more subtle and soft sound will be perceived to be far, if you listen it in context of the whole mix.

Compression also colors the sound. It can make it more aggressive and bright with stronger settings and vice versa.

Learning to hear the compression or the effects of it will train your mind to take decisions about what you want to do with the sound in question.

This will make you to mix your music more purposefully and in a decided direction than just mixing it for the sake of mixing!

It will be then more artful than being simply mechanical.

2. Know the essence of the music

Your song has a core feeling or emotion. It’s the essence of your song. Your song is serving a purpose. It’s meant to do something.

It may be generating energy, happiness, sadness, nostalgia etc..

Your job as a mix engineer or even if you are mixing your own music, is to internalize the essence of this song first.

This will open possibilities for you to make moves to serve the essence of the song. The priority of mixing and compression in particular is to bring out the purpose of the song.

If the song is an EDM, you obviously want the drums to be punchy and aggressive. They should pound in the chest of the listener.

If the song is sad, surely it will have an opposite characteristic. Softer drums will serve the sadness that the other parts are creating.

Since all the essential characteristics are achieved through compression, it totally makes sense that you study the essence of the song first then compress the drums and every other instrument so that it enhances the essence.


3. Attack, release and the groove

Almost all the compressors will have the attack and release settings. These settings allow you to control certain behaviors of the compressor.

There are a few that don’t have these settings though. Release being the most common to be absent on purpose from a few compressors.

You may find an auto release setting instead of a user controlled release setting.

So what are the Attack and Release of the compressor?

The compressor is triggered by the sound’s initial transient. This is called the attack of the sound.

After getting triggered, the compressor reduces the volume of the sound. The beginning of the reduction of sound by the compressor is called the compressor’s attack.

You can control the timing of how fast or how slow the compressor begins to reduce the sound from the time it has been triggered. This is dialed by the setting called attack in the compressor. It’s value is in milliseconds.

This setting hence allows the sound’s initial attack to get reduced or left alone. This enhances or reduces the punch of the sound.

Attack gives attitude to the sound.

The release on the other hand controls the amount of time upto which the compressor carries on affecting the sound.

The release is very crucial for managing the groove of the drums. It can make the drums more flat or can make them sound pumping.

Increasing the release time, which is also in milliseconds, makes the drum more even and also quieter. Although you can use makeup gain to increase the gain.

Faster release sounds aggressive, while slower release sounds smooth. You can apply this and hear the results yourself.

When you apply faster release on your drums, you may hear distortion.

Gain reduction on drums is usually between 3 to 6 dB.

VCA and FET type compressors are mostly used on drums for their fast attack and release.

4. Other Important Settings – Threshold, Ratio & Knee

Compressor Threshold

The compressor affects the sound based on the inputs you give it.

The first input that any compressor needs is called the compressor threshold.

Compressor threshold is the user defined level which if crossed by the level of the signal, it will get compressed.

It works by comparing the incoming signal’s level to the threshold of the compressor and if the level of the signal crosses the threshold, it gets reduced depending on the ratio.

Compressor Ratio

I mentioned a termed gain reduction in the previous topic. It is the reduction in the gain of a sound that occurs when a compressor is applied on it.

This gain reduction is not a random amount but it is controlled by another setting called the Ratio.

Ratio controls the amount of gain reduction that will be applied on the sound. A 3:1 ratio means that a 3 dB gain will be reduced to 1 dB after compression.

Compressor Knee

Knee controls, should the gain reduction be applied in an abrupt or a gradual manner. There is a time window of gain reduction from the attack till the release of the compressor. A hard knee will abruptly employ full gain reduction from the start of this window while soft knee will make it gradual throughout it.

This results in a more apparent or transparent effect of the compression on the drums or any sound.

The hard knee being more apparent and the soft is transparent and smooth.

Hard knee sounds aggressive so on drums it’s good to have hard knee. It has an edgy and sharp sound.

5. Individual or group compression?

A lot of the times this question also arises that should you be doing individual drum compression or compress the whole drum group or the drum bus?

Individual drum compression would be to compress individual drum samples like the kick, the snare, the hats etc.

The drum group compression on the other hand means to compress all the drums together.

As far as mixing is concerned there are no rules except the one that it should sound good at the end of the day.

Compressing the individual drum samples will be required if the sample needs to be shaped a little. If it needs punch or the body it should be compressed accordingly.

This will make the sample cut through the mix or make it fit better in the mix depending on what has been done with it.

The drum bus or group needs compression when all the drums need a little glue.

Compressing the whole drum group gels all the drums together and make them form a more cohesive blend. This is the main purpose of the drum group compression.

It thickens the whole drum track.

6. Parallel compression of the drums

Another way to compress the drums is to use parallel compression.

Also known as New York Compression, this method of compression involves blending back the compressed signal to the dry signal.

The compression of the drum signal is done via a return track.

A compressor is placed on the return track and the dry signal is fed into it. This compressed signal is then fed back into the dry signal and hence a more thick drum sound is achieved along with the characteristics of the dry signal.

Either you can compress it into a more flat sound or into a more punchy one.

Of course the level to be blend can be controlled by you.

Again this can work for the whole drum track and also the individual drums.


So in this article, I have provided a few important tips to compress your drums for your mix.

Also another important tip to consider is to have a good balance while compressing the drums.

The drums need to be punchy and also have a prominent body or sustain.

Always aim to achieve the balance between the two.

As always, experiment more with your mixing. Try to discover new ways of working the same thing to achieve efficiency.

This will force you fiddle with the tools and gain more experience.


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