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How To Use Compression In Mastering

Although audio compression is crucial in every mastering engineer’s toolkit, its application in mastering is more nuanced and intentional. After all, its true power comes from understanding why, how, and when to use it (hint: not always).

In this article, we’ll explore what compression is in the context of mastering. We’ll also go over several compression parameters and dissect how they can each affect your mastering chain in different ways. More importantly, we will go through a few A/B listening examples of these compression techniques in action. 

By the end of this article, you’ll have a more intentional approach when applying compression in your mastering chain.

What is compression in mastering?

There’s a misconception that compression makes music “louder,” hence the idea that it’s essential to every mastering session. But based on the name alone, it does quite the opposite. Compression tightens and contains the dynamic range of audio signals that go beyond a specified threshold. And in the process of compressing this dynamic range, one of the typical byproducts is restored headroom, which then allows you to bring your mix up. You’re essentially turning down your mix, so you can turn it up after the fact.

With this in mind, compression doesn’t always play a role in every mastering session, because not every song needs it. Although you can achieve loudness through compression, you do so by pulling back the transient energy that’s present in your mix. And this effect may or may not be beneficial to your mastering chain. It takes a discerning ear to determine whether it serves the music or not, so patience, critical listening and restraint are key.

Compression in mixing versus mastering

Although compression is used frequently in both mixing and mastering, its application couldn’t be more different. 

In mixing, where you deal with multiple individual tracks—each representing individual elements in a production—you’re able to isolate the effect of compression to one specific element, whether it’s the vocals, kick, guitar, etc. As a result, you can be more heavy-handed with the processing. 

In mastering, however, you’re essentially applying the compression to the entire approved stereo mix. So the impact of your processing to the overall sound is magnified. 

Like with all things mastering, subtlety with your application of compression is crucial.

Compression versus limiting

Although they both process audio dynamics using similar parameters (e.g. threshold, attack / release times, gain, etc.), compression and limiting have several key factors that set them apart from each other. The main difference is the ratio by which the dynamic range is contained (“ratio” determines the amount of gain reduction applied to a signal once it passes a set threshold). …………

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