Mastering is a very mysterious process. Even more mysterious could be the instruments used for the purpose.
One of which is compression.
And here is the question that possibly takes away the mental peace of most new producers..
Should You Compress Your Master?
Ideally you should not! Not every song needs compression on the master. You would want to use a compressor on your master mostly in these situations:
- You want your track to sound a little thicker.
- You want to create a little more space within your instruments.
- You want a little more clarity in your instruments.
- You want to get a little more punch.
- You want to get a little more sustain.
- You want to color it a little.
If you want to have compression work effectively in your mix, you need to consider the above situations. Unnecessary compression just for the sake of compression is a detrimental practice. So let’s know about compression in these situations in detail..
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Besides, a fader is the best instrument for gain control if you want that. Only if the song needs compression then of course you can use one but with caution. The only goal should be to glue the track and not to make it drastically different.
Just do everything in moderation. Also a subtle coloring is fine. While compressing your master you should consider to be very very gentle, with the ratio upto 1.5 max.
Good mixing is the foundation to a great master.
There is no other way around.
Your mix engineer (or perhaps you) must have prepared the track with the necessary compression so that everything sounds neat and upfront and as transparent as it can be.
He must have taken care of the peaks and the sustain and the overall relationship of different sounds of the track. Technically, whatever compression is required, mixing stage is for that.
There should not be any need for compression during mastering.
The fader should be your go to thing during mastering if you want to crank up a little gain.
Why? Fader is the most clean medium of gain control at this stage.
A fader will not result in any type of artifact. There will be no color of it on the track whatsoever.
Also read- Why Is Mastering So Expensive
Furthermore, if at all you choose to use compression on the master, you just need to be kissing the master with it.
A master is already sort of a fully baked product and if you try to go hard, for example on the verse of the song, chances are that it will not work on the chorus section.
So you need to keep that in mind while compressing.
With all those things said above, still there are situations when you do need compression.
Read – Drum Compression
Well if you manage to get a perfect mix in the first place, it becomes just a matter of taste.
You may want to have more punch in the kick or you just like that snare to poke through a little more or may be less.
You may want to give your melodic instruments a bit more intimacy, smoothness and roundness.
You may even want to add a bit of color. Whatever suits the track.
You may even use it if you want to reconcile different sections of a song.
Compressing the Master to Make it Thicker
If you layer multiple sounds, it will result in a wall of sound. Surely, this will lead into a less clear sound for individual instrument if the layers are doing the same thing, but will have more weight and body to it.
There are places where it is much needed.
This could be a genre like rock (but its not a rule) where a little thickness is required for the distorted guitars. Compressor will bring those guitars closer to each other.
A compressor if applied on the master will bring down the peaks and so the sustain will come up with makeup gain.
This reduction in the dynamics results in a more flat and crowded sound.
This gives the whole track a little thickness. Again, when using on the master, subtlety is the key.
Compressing the Master to Create Space Within Instruments
If you think your mix is a little crowded and the individual instruments are a little shy, or if you want that the instruments should cut through a little more, compressing the master can be a good choice.
You can make the instruments more prominent if you sharpen their peaks a little.
If everything sounds flat, making the instruments to poke will save them from drowning in the mix.
Compressors do take down the level of the sound. But with a longer attack setting and a shorter release, the compressor lets the attack of the sound pass through and lowers the sustain.
Thus the dynamics are enhanced.
When there is dynamics, you hear more separation in the instruments because now it is not crowded with the sustained sounds.
So with this trick you can create separation within the instruments of the track by enhancing the dynamic range so that all the instruments can breathe a little more.
A flat track is a dead one but the one which has dynamics is alive.
Compressing the Master for Clarity
When you add compression to your master, you want to pay attention to the clarity of the individual instruments. The basic quality of a compressor is that it reduces the clarity of the instruments in the mix.
Clarity is how identifiable the sounds are, and its achieved through the difference in the dynamics of the sounds.
Any two sounds with different envelopes can easily be differentiated when they play at the same time.
When the two sounds have similar envelop, both the sounds will take similar space in the mix and will cover each other when they play together.
You get the point?
When you use compression on the master and try to enhance the dynamics within the mix, the peaks get more poky and the sustain gets lowered.
This creates separation.
When you apply compression with a short attack and short release on the master, the space between instruments gets lesser as the mix gets thicker.
This is because the dynamic range reduces and all the sounds come at same level getting crushed.
The sustained sounds get overpowered hiding the peaks.
This effect may be useful in some cases creating a wall of sound and leaving the instruments crowded with no individual identity.
Everything gets close to everything else.
But the opposite also applies.
If you want to create space between sounds, you may want to compress with a longer attack so that the peaks show up a little more.
And thus the sustained sounds are not flattened or crushed to the same level.
This leaves a natural space between them which could have been intended during mixing.
Compressing the Master for Punch
A compressor is an instrument that compresses the dynamic range of the sound which is why the name compressor.
It takes down the peaks and bring up the sustain with the makeup gain.
A setting like attack and release are what control its dynamic range manipulation.
A longer attack time will let the peaks or the attack of the sound pass through at the original level, while the shorter will tame it.
While mastering, you want to be very subtle with max ratio upto 1.5. A maximum 1db to 2db of gain reduction is ok.
You should only feel the compression and not hear it.
To bring more punch, you would want a longer attack and a shorter release but there is a fine balance to be maintained between punch and the overall level.
More punch may reduce clarity and the overall level.
Hence if you find you are losing volume for punch you should stop there. This should be your boundary.
Compressing the Master for Sustain
Lifting the sustain of the sound is to minimize the dynamic range of that sound.
For this, you would reduce the peaks in the mix and then with the makeup gain, the sustain will increase.
For example if you want your kick to have more body, you would want to tame its transient first then lift the overall level of the kick.
This principle will apply to everything. When the compressor setting is kept to fast attack and fast release, the compressor will tame only the peaks.
It will leave the rest of the envelop untouched.
With this only the transients get controlled and you can raise the overall level with the makeup gain.
But as you have known till now, this will result in a more thicker and crowded sound reducing the space between the instruments.
Hence you should use it in moderation.
Compressing the Master for Color
You may not want to manipulate the dynamics of your master but may be interested in giving it a bit of color, or may be you want both.
For this you need to have a specific compressor or specific settings applied to your master compressor.
If you want your master to have a bright sound, a compressor like FET can be a good choice.
They are fast and are good for rock and EDM. FET emulate a tube/valve sound and use transistor circuitry.
If you want to have a more warmer and rounder sound, you will need a compressor like waves CLA 2A compressor.
Knee of the Compressor
You can also make use of the knee setting of the compressor.
A softer knee has a smooth sound while the hard knee has an edgy and sharper tone. Used for energy.
Genres like rock and EDM need to have a hard knee setting so that their energy stays intact.
Songs where more intimacy and warmth is needed, you should use a softer knee.
As you know now, ideally there should be no role for compression in the mastering stage.
Mastering should require the least processing. All the compression required is a mixing stage business.
With that said, if you want to have it, be very subtle.
All you want to go for is a 1 or 2 dB of gain reduction with a maximum ratio of 1.5.
If you find yourself manipulating the dynamics of your song drastically, you should better return to mixing.