Mix Bus Compression: Should I Use It?

picture of an SSL mixbus compressor
Ahh... SSL

picture of an SSL mixbus compressor

There are different schools of thought when it comes to the use of compression in a 2-track mix bus. It seems to turn into a hot debate every time I see engineers discussing stereo bus compression. Some consider it necessary in order to ‘glue the tracks together’ while others prefer to totally avoid it.  Then, there are mastering engineers who will usually advice that you leave the 2-mix bus alone so there’s room for them to do their job…

In our case here, lets say we choose to go with it. Most engineers I’ve known will usually insert the compressor right from the start of the mix or at least early enough once the basic levels, panning etc. are set. The reason why they avoid just slapping a compressor at the end of the mix is simply because it will more than likely change most of the balance they have carefully worked on as they developed the mix.

Different types of compressors can be used. A description on the different kinds of compressors especially analog types such as FET, Optical, VCA and Variable Mu, is beyond the scope of this discussion.  Many engineers mixing ‘in-the-box’ favor the use of plug-ins that emulate some of the most popular hardware units like the SSL Bus Compressor, the API 2500 or the Fairchild 670, etc.

Mix-bus compressor settings

When setting up the bus compressor, it is important to keep in mind the groove of the song and dial in attack and release settings that correspond to the overall timing of the song.  The wrong settings could cause some undesirable artifacts such as pumping and loss of important transient information resulting in a dark and lifeless sound.

A good way to set the mix-bus compressor when beginning a mix is to determine what elements are driving the groove of the song. It may be the drums or perhaps a guitar riff… Just find something that has a strong role in accentuating the main rhythmic element of the groove. With a fast attack and a high ratio, start lowering the threshold until you see some gain reduction happening. Carefully change the release time and take a look at the gain reduction meter while trying to make it bounce with the pulse of your track. Some compressors include an auto-release function, which in most cases will do the job for you! Give it a try and listen if it works… Finally adjust the attack in order to let the desired amount of initial transient information through. Using a snare drum for example, if it starts to sound kind of dark and flat, there’s a chance your attack is too fast.

Once you get some initial settings, go back and set the ratio to 1.5:1 – 2:1 and readjust the threshold accordingly. You are looking for preferably not more than 2-3 dB of gain reduction. However, your taste and the desired sound will determine how much gain reduction you need.

Final thoughts

Whether you decide to use it or not, its just a matter of your working style and needs. Personally, I feel mix-buss compression has its place and time. Overuse, just as anything else, could yield negative results.

Anyway, if you decide to use it, experiment going into the compressor from the beginning instead of inserting it after the mix is completed. Once all settings are in place, avoid changing and/or altering parameters while you mix. Use the output/gain/make-up control to compensate for the gain reduction; match the level to that of the uncompressed sound so you can accurately compare as you bypass the compressor to find out whether is helping or hurting the mix.

Last but not least, if you are planning on sending your mix to a mastering engineer, keep in mind that they do prefer a clean, uncompressed stereo mix so they can use their highly sophisticated gear and techniques to achieve a final polished sound. Too much compression in your overall mix will limit what your mastering engineer can do to help your final product.

Question: Do you use mix-bus compression at all? If you do, can you share with us how you go about it?

2 comments

  1. Kevin,

    Great stuff here! Couple of things…

    1. Is the band using studio mics on the stage or are they using just the standard SM57/58’s?
    2. Are they using a click-track in ear-monitors or are they just doing it naturale?
    3. Is overdubbing (fixing something in the studio later that you messed up in a live performance) possible with what you’re doing?

    1. Hey Kyle. Great questions.

      1. The band has a Audio Technica endorsement so, most of the mics are AT (which I love). I will show you how everything is mic’d today… including the audience.
      2. Yes, they are using a click track on most every song. I was showing the drummer how I use Ableton Live to fire clicks and loops… even production notes on the fly. So, He may be switching to that soon
      3. I will be mixing this stuff on Monday… Well, three of the songs.. for a Christmas release they are working on. So overdubs are at a minimum on those songs. But, the rest of the songs will likely have “fixes” and overdubs. One other note is that we are recording 3 nights of concerts. Some of the songs will be performed every night… so we get to choose the performance that needs the least amount of “love”. 🙂

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