Production 212: Compression De-Mystified

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

For the last couple of months, we’ve been soliciting people to let us critique their work in future issues. So far, the response has been about 300 requests for private critiques and 0 for public. {sigh} I guess we should have seen that one coming. However, there is an interesting thread I’ve noticed throughout the private sessions. Just about every response I’ve made has mentioned compression. Some have been all about compression; some mentioned it in passing. It seems that most people need more. So, let’s talk a bit about what compression really is and what it really does because I’m learning that a lot of people really don’t know.

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was still doing the deejay thing, a new artist came along who did nothing but power ballads. Songs about love and love gone wrong had been around for a long time, but they almost never made the top of the charts. The top was almost always dominated by a rock anthem or party song. But this guy glided right on up to number one, just about every time he released a new single. Personally, I always felt his music was too syrupy and saccharine sweet, but the women loved this guy. And, to be honest, I actually started to appreciate the power of his music.

So, what was it that made his ballads so strong? Aside from a great melody and good counterpoint, according to him…compression. He’d started his career writing commercials for people like McDonalds and Dr. Pepper. He had noticed right away that the Ad Agency/Production House people used a lot of compression, so when he started doing the pop thing, he applied the same technique to his final mixes. His songs jumped out of the radio and Barry Manilow became a star.

So what is compression? It’s a reduction of the dynamic range. In a typical classical recording, you will find a dynamic range of something on the order of 90db. The number of decibels produced at the quietest moment in the recording (-90db) subtracted from the number of decibels at the loudest point on the recording, 0db. (Remember subtracting a negative gives you a positive.) Measuring the dynamic range on a typical rock song will yield something closer to 20db. Barry Manilow, who produced all of his own recordings, made sure his dynamic range was compressed to something even less. (Some of his work runs at 10db or less.)

There’s a great lesson to be learned here. I doubt many of you are Barry Manilow fans—most jocks weren’t, even at his peak—but he had undeniable power in every single. Hello! Isn’t that something you should have in every promo?

A good friend of mine, Jeff Berlin at Kiss108/Boston, is of the opinion that you can’t have too much compression on the voice, and I think he might just be right, within reason. Dig out that plug-in and add the compression, then back off the level. Don’t be afraid to let the voice “swim” in the mix. Your VO guy/gal will jump out of the speakers and deliver your lines with far more power, style and impact.

Oops! There’s my email with another half-dozen critiques—all private, of course. Cowards! {grin}

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