Advanced Compression – The Attack Control (Part 3)

In the final part of this series on ‘Advanced Compression – The Attack Control’ we’re going to take a quick look at a few real-world applications of fast attack settings.

In Part One, we looked at using the attack control settings on a compressor to ‘soften’ a sound and make it more (or less) present.

In Part Two we unpacked Bruce Swedien’s statement, ‘The groove is in the transient’ as a way to understand that not all transients are created equal.

With this in mind the question that remains is, in what scenarios can fast attack settings be appropriate?

1.  Multi-Mic’d Instruments

A fast attack setting can be really useful when processing multi-mic’d instruments. A common example is the room mic of a well-recorded drum kit.  When processing a room mic it is often desirable to use faster attack settings to ‘soften’ the transients of the sound, making it less present and appear further back in the mix.

This has the net effect of allowing the close mics to really shine by presenting the transient information and groove, while leaving the room mic to add depth and body to the overall drum sound.

2.  Parallel Processing

Parallel processing is also another time you may want to experiment with faster attack settings, for the same reasons and benefits derived from using faster attack settings on drum room mics.  You’d be surprised at how creating a parallel track and applying faster attack settings on the parallel track creates body, space and dimension to a part.  All of this is achieved while still allowing the transient information to cut through the mix courtesy of the source track (which would have slower attack settings or no compression at all).

This approach can work great on parallel vocals, bass, guitars, as well as drums.

3.  Front-to-Back Transient Panning

Left to Right panning is something that is relatively easy to grasp and implement in a mix.  However it can also be helpful to think about panning transients.  What!?  Yeap…panning transients!

Have you ever been in a group photo in which everyone (in hope of their 15 minutes of fame!) rushes towards the front of the picture filling the camera lens with copious amounts of ‘them self’!?   Well in today’s digital recording world transients often act in the same way (more on that in the next point).

When all the audio in a mix has been recorded in such a way that the transients are crisp and well defined, it is the sonic equivalent of a group of people rushing towards the camera lens.   In such an instance a little ‘crowd control’ is in order!  This is where the whole idea of panning transients from front-to-back comes into play.

In the same way a pan knob can send a signal either left or right in the stereo field, fast attack settings are a useful tool to pan a sound front-to-back – sinking a sound further back into a mix. There are of course many ways to achieve this ‘sinking back’ effect each with their own pros and cons, and faster attack settings are just as valid as any other approached when used judiciously.

The questions to ask when considering front-to-back transient panning are:  What needs to be present at the front of the mix?  What could afford to be sunk further back?

4.  High Definition Sound

Whilst a topic worthy of a whole series of articles in it’s own right the whole analog vs digital debate is worth mentioning here.

When music is recorded digitally into a DAW through converters (i.e. no analog consoles, compressors, or tape machines in sight!) the problem isn’t making things sound present.  It’s the exact opposite!  This is because modern digital recording equipment is great at capturing the transient information of an instrument – detail a console or tape machine would have ‘rounded off’ or ‘softened’.  As a result you end up with a recording that has pristine and well-preserved (some might say ‘cold’ and ‘hyped’) transients.  Come mix time the handling of these transients will now need careful attention if a warm and 3D mix is the desired outcome.

Once again the appropriate use of fast attack settings could be just what the doctor ordered to cure the chilling effects of digititus.

Conclusion

So there you have it.  Whilst not appropriate for every situation fast attack settings can be used in unconventional ways to do anything from softening transients that are hyper real to adding dimension to a mix.  As with all things the trick is knowing when to use fast attack settings, which is something that comes with trial and error.

When do you use fast attack settings in a mix?

The Attack Control,Part,Attack


If you missed the last two parts of this series be sure to check out Part One and Part Two here. 

If you have any questions or topics that you would like to learn more about or see more of on MixCoach, be sure to comment below or write us at support@mixcoach.com

3 Comments

  • Doug Williams

    Reply Reply July 9, 2013

    Hi Stone Great concept about ‘panning transients’. This
    will be tested by me in the next few mixes I work on! Thanks again
    Doug

  • Bill McDonald

    Reply Reply July 12, 2013

    Thanks so Much Stone, I was Looking forward to part 3, but Left me alittle confused.reguarding Fast attack on room Mic,s I also was reading someware besides the dual Mic tracks ( Room Mic,s ) I was also reading that Overhead tracks would benifit also. to sofen the transients on the snare, symbles and high hits. giving way for the main track to shine through.What did confuse me was the Copious affect, I don’t think I really understood it and how to pan a transient . I would also Like to know more about parallel Vocals. I’ve never done that and I’d like to know more .

    thanks again Bill McDonald

  • Stone Walters

    Reply Reply July 14, 2013

    Hey Bill. Thanks for the comment!

    The concept of ‘panning transients’ is just a fancy way to say that when you use a faster attack setting on a compressor, it has the effect of ‘softening’ the sound. The ‘softened’ sound sounds less ‘present’ and as a result, sits further back in a mix. This is all that is meant by the phrase ‘panning transients’. The thing to remember with this is that you are not panning the transient from ‘left to right’ as you would ordinarily do when panning a sound, you are in fact ‘panning’ (or moving) it from ‘front to back’.

    It’s also worth pointing out that this effect can be very subtle, and nowhere near as obvious as panning a sound left to right can be. However it can be incredibly useful at times.

    Take the example you mentioned – ‘Parallel Vocals’. Say you have a ‘thin’ sounding vocal that is cutting through the mix beautifully, but needs a little bit of body. In your mind you opt to beef up the vocal by creating a parallel vocal track. In this situation you might apply normal compression to the main vocal track, but might use a fast attack setting on the parallel vocal. Why might this be worth a try? Because by doing this you could use the parallel vocal to give the main vocal more depth and body, (as the faster attack setting would in effect push it further back into the mix), leaving the lead vocal to be more forward.

    When you combine the two you would end up with a vocal that sounds ‘present’ but also ‘fuller’ with more ‘body’.

    The whole effect of using faster attack settings on an instrument or vocal is very subtle and not always appropriate but it is definitely one of those ‘secret’ techniques many engineers reach for when the situation arises.

    The key to understanding the usefulness of faster attack settings is to experiment. So the next time you parallel process a track, try experimenting with the compressor’s attack on the parallel track and note what you hear. Do you like it? Yes? Then keep it! No? Then try a different setting.
    Eventually you’ll know the best situations to use faster attack settings.

    Hope this helps!

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