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Where should you put a compressor in your signal chain?
Learn how to apply compression when using different plugins.
Improve your understanding of signal flow!
If you’ve spent any amount of time trying to learn music production, you’ve probably heard many different ideas about where a compressor should go in your signal chain. It seems like every engineer has their own preference for where to place it!
It can be confusing for those who are learning music production to decide what approach is best for them. With so much differing information out there, I thought we should settle this question once and for all…
So, Where Should A Compressor Go In The Signal Chain?
The answer is…it can go anywhere you want it to go! Having said this, there are some good general guidelines you should keep in mind if you want the best possible results. Gaining an understanding of signal flow, however, and what each plugin in your chain does to your audio will help you develop a game plan for where to place compression. It all comes down to what you want to hear!
Compressor Placement Techniques
Let’s take a look at a few different techniques for placing a compressor in your signal chain. The order of your plugins (and consequently where compression is placed) ultimately depends on what you want to accomplish with your signal processing.
Having a game plan in mind will make it easier to decide where to place everything so you can get the sound you want out of your tracks. This skill is developed by listening critically to your audio, assessing what needs to be done to it (or what you want to do with it), and then deciding how you will treat it with compression.
The answer, again, depends on the sound you want to get out of your signal processing. There are, however, certain reasons why you will want to choose one method over the other. Once again, this depends on the needs of your audio.
Compression Before EQ
Let’s say you’re working on a mix, and you like the tone of your bass guitar, but you notice there are frequent volume spikes in the recording.
Your instinct might be to add some compression to the bass to reduce those spikes, evening out the track’s dynamic range. After doing this, however, you’ve realized the compressor has now boosted some unwanted frequency ranges.
Adding an EQ after your compressor would be a good approach for tackling this issue. If you like the way the compressor is responding to your input signal, but you want to make some slight adjustments to the tone of your audio afterward, this approach would be your best bet.
Compressors will inevitably shape the tone of your audio in some way, and this is the reason many engineers like to use specific pieces of gear for certain instruments. For example, many hardware compressors are favored for their “warm” analog sound and may be used solely for this reason, with little to no compression applied.
However, there will be times where a certain piece of gear does not give you the exact sound you want. Placing an EQ in the chain afterward can help you fine-tune the signal to get the tone you want.
But if you find yourself having to make drastic tonal adjustments to the compressed signal, this is an indication that you should try a different compressor that has a more desirable tonal character. Doing this instead can save you hours that would be spent heavily processing the signal just to get close to the tone you want.
Compression After EQ
Placing a compressor after EQ is a good approach if you want to fix tonal inconsistencies in your audio that may interact undesirably with compression.
As an example of how this can be useful, let’s say you’ve recorded an electric guitar in a live room through an amplifier. While you’re mixing, you may notice that a particular frequency causes a loud amplifier resonance, which creates occasional volume spikes in your signal.
These spikes will be much higher in level than the rest of your audio. As a result, the compressor will reduce the dynamic range of that particular note more aggressively than the rest of your signal, resulting in a very uneven dynamic range that can make a track harder to control in the mix.
In this case, placing your compression after EQ would allow you to notch out the resonance before the audio goes to the compressor. This would then cause the compressor to react less aggressively to those notes, resulting in more even dynamics for your signal, and therefore making it easier to control in the mix. If you are having a similar issue with one of your tracks in a mix, this approach would be best for you!
Of course, there is no reason that you cannot use both approaches when processing a signal! You may want to use an EQ before your compressor to take care of any tonal anomalies that mess up your compressor response, and then another one after the compressor to make some slight tonal adjustments to the compressed signal.
Again, which technique you use depends on the needs of your audio and the sound you want to get out of it through signal processing. Experiment with the order of these two plugins in your chain or using both approaches to get the sound that works for you!
This topic is discussed more in-depth in Kieran Whitehouse’s article “EQ Before or After Compression?” so be sure to check it out if you’re looking to understand it more!
Compressor Placement With Noise Gates
When working with an instrument such as drums, there are a couple of dynamic issues you may have to deal with. For example, you may need to remove unwanted bleed from other drums into the mic.
You may also need to smooth out the dynamic range of certain drum hits because they are not consistent in level, making it hard to get the right amount of punch and presence in your drums.
You probably already know what needs to be done to treat these issues. You would use a noise gate to help remove the drum bleed and a compressor to smooth out the dynamic range of the drum. However, you may have not thought about how important the order of these plugins can be in achieving good results.
In this situation, it is important to put the compressor after your noise gate. If you were to place your compressor before the gate, the dynamics of your input signal will be reduced. This means that not only are the loudest portions of the signal turned down in volume, but once make-up gain is applied, the quietest parts will be turned up. Therefore, the volume of the unwanted noise will be brought up by the compressor.
For a gate to be most effective on drums, the level of the unwanted noise has to be significantly quieter than the actual drum hits.
This way the noise is reduced or completely removed, but the attack and sustain of each drum hit still comes through clearly and sounds natural. By using compression before the gate and turning the noise up, it will become much harder to achieve this balance.
Once the signal has been gated, the compression will only be working with the output signal that is “leftover”, A.K.A. the actual drum hits. By doing your processing this way you are also ensuring that the background noise isn’t triggering the compressor in unexpected ways. Overall, this approach is better than placing compressors before a gate.
Compressor Placement With Delay and Reverb
With special effects processing such as delay and reverb, it’s a good idea to place your compressors before those effects. If you can get the signal’s volume to be more consistent, you will achieve a much better response from your effects.
This makes sense when you think about how plugins like delay and reverb react to sound. Let’s use reverb as an example. When you set up a reverb plugin in your DAW, it is typically through an aux send and return channel.
This allows you to control the volume of the signal being sent to the reverb. The more level you send to the input of the reverb, the more apparent the reverb effect is. The less level you send, the less apparent it is.
You can see then how a dynamically inconsistent signal could make the output of the reverb effect harder to control in a mix. A particularly loud section could make the reverb level too high and muddy up other elements of the mix. A quieter section will make the track feel too dry and therefore not as “full” sounding as other parts of the track.
So if you want to process a track with effects like reverb, but the signal is too dynamically inconsistent to create a smooth effect, placing a compressor in the chain before you send the signal to the reverb will help smooth things out more.
In most DAWs, aux sends are set up to be “post-insert”. Essentially this means that the signal being sent to the reverb would be the compressed signal and not the dry signal before compression, so you can rest assured that this technique will actually work in your mix!
Compressor Placement With Other Effects
This same idea works for other effects processing you may have in your chain. Let’s use distortion as an example.
A distortion plugin is essentially just adding more harmonic content to your signal. The more volume you send to it, the more harmonic content you get out of it. There is a point where too much distortion (or harmonic content) can make something sound harsh, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced that unpleasant feeling.
If your audio is too dynamically inconsistent, you may have moments where the distortion sounds perfect, and other times where the audio is much louder and creates an unintended harsh distortion effect.
Similar to our reverb example, smoothing out the dynamics of this track may be beneficial for creating a smoother response from your distortion plugin in a mix. This is just one example where some compression may help your special effects work better in a mix!
A Word of Warning
As you’re reading these examples, please don’t take them as me saying you have to smooth out the dynamics of every track before you add other processing to your chain. You do not have to do this every time to make those plugins work well.
While dynamic range does get reduced often in modern productions, it still feels unnatural to strip it away too much.
As listeners, we expect to hear a certain amount of change in dynamics throughout a song, and squashing the dynamics can make things sound too aggressive, which is ultimately fatiguing to our ears. So don’t feel like you have to place a compressor on every track in order to make it work well with other plugins.
These examples of compressor placement are intended to show you how they can be useful if you are dealing with a track that varies wildly in level. These are tracks that you might be constantly adjusting the fader for, automating levels, or automating effect levels to get them to sit right in the mix.
In these cases, placing compression before additional processing will help smooth the signal out before you try to improve it with other plugins. This will make it easier to adjust those other plugins and get the sound that you want out of your tracks!
Wrapping it Up
So in summary, there really is no right or wrong place for a compressor in your signal chain. However, this does not mean you can just place it wherever you like for no reason.
As you can see from these examples, placing a compressor before or after other effects can yield wildly different results, so being strategic is the key.
I’ve given you some examples of strategies that may work in your mix, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. The possibilities are truly endless. Deciding where your compressor goes all comes down to listening critically and assessing the needs of your audio, and coming up with a game plan to address those needs!
While this may sound daunting, your instincts will become better with practice, so don’t be afraid to get out there and experiment with different techniques. Eventually, you’ll find a signal chain that works best for you, and using compression will be like a reflex. Happy producing!