The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Dynamic Processing in Music Production

Found in: Music & Technology

Today I’d like to talk about compression and dynamic processing in music production. These are common effects and tools that are used in recordings. Dynamic processing is where a recorded signal coming in will be different coming out. The level of the outgoing signal is based on the incoming signal. There are multiple types of dynamic processors.
The most common type is a compressor. Compression is used on everything from vocals to instruments. Common usage for compression ranges from making vocals dynamically even to making a kick drum punch harder. On most compressors in standard recording software, you are going to see knobs that say threshold, ratio, release, attack & gain. In compression, a target level is set (also called “threshold”) and any signal coming in that exceeds the threshold gets reduced. Ratio determines how much compression you are going to apply to a signal that goes over your threshold. The attack is how sharp the compressed sound is going to be. It determines how soon and fast you want your compression to kick in. Release is the opposite. It determines how fast you want it to cut off or much tail/sustain you want to emphasize. There isn’t a right way to compress. It’s very case-by-case. But knowing what the knobs actually do can be very useful when deciding what to compress and how to compress it.

Other standard dynamic processors are expanders, gates & limiters. An expander/gate makes quiet signals even quieter. The softer the signal is coming in, the less level it has going out. Expanders & gates have thresholds on them as well. Any sound that doesn’t exceed the set threshold is reduced. The softer the signal, the more reduction is applied. If you recorded vocals at home, and noticed there was a lot of background noise in the recording, you could add an expander/gate to cut off all of the noise that occurs in the silent parts of your track. Or let’s say you had a snare drum that was really boomy and long and you wanted to cut it off and make it shorter. Applying a gate would easily achieve this.


Lastly, there are limiters. A limiter is basically an ultra compressor with a high ratio. They are used to make it so the signal doesn’t exceed a set threshold. It “limits” how loud occasional peaks are. Limiters can be used on the track as a whole or on an individual sound. Applying too much limiting can “crunch” your track and take out the dynamics, especially in the high end. You could apply a slight limiter to the overall track to make it more even, or you could put it on a sound by itself that has too drastic a dynamic range to be fixed by a compressor.

With all of these common tools and how much you can do with them, trial and error is your friend. You are going to have to experiment and practice to develop your own sense of when to apply things to recordings. Understanding functionality is important. I remember when I got my first digital recording software. I would pull up the effects, crank the knobs & stop when I thought it sounded good. This method can work, but knowing exactly what each button and function does makes your mixing experience easier.