What is Audio Compression? A Comprehensive Guide

Everything you need to know about audio compression. What it is, how it works, and how it's used in music production.

What is Audio Compression? A Comprehensive Guide

Audio compression is a fundamental tool in the world of music production. It allows us to control the dynamic range of a signal, making it more balanced and polished. However, compression can often be a daunting aspect of mixing for many musicians and producers. In this guide, we will explore the concept of audio compression its various parameters and techniques.

Understanding Audio Compression

At its core, audio compression is a process that reduces the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a signal, known as the dynamic range. By applying compression, we can control the level of a signal when it exceeds a specified threshold. Contrary to popular belief, compression is not about making things louder, but rather about making them quieter.

Compression involves manipulating several parameters to achieve the desired effect. These parameters include the threshold, ratio, attack, release, knee, and makeup gain. Understanding the function and interaction of these parameters is crucial for effectively using compression in your mixes.

Compression Parameters Explained

Let's delve into each of the compression parameters and explore their role in shaping the sound.


The threshold sets the level at which the compressor starts to attenuate the signal. Any audio above the threshold triggers the compression, while audio below it remains unaffected. Adjusting the threshold allows you to control which parts of the signal are compressed.


The ratio determines the extent of gain reduction applied to the signal once it exceeds the threshold. It represents the relationship between the input level above the threshold and the output level.


The attack parameter determines how quickly the compressor responds to a signal that exceeds the threshold. A shorter attack time allows the compression to kick in more quickly, while a longer attack time lets the initial transients pass through uncompressed. The appropriate attack time depends on the nature of the signal and the desired effect.


The release parameter controls how quickly the compressor stops attenuating the signal once it falls below the threshold. A shorter release time results in a faster recovery, while a longer release time allows the compression to linger. Like the attack parameter, the ideal release time varies depending on the musical context.


The knee parameter influences how the compressor responds to signals as they approach the threshold. A hard knee setting means that the compressor starts to compress abruptly as the signal exceeds the threshold. On the other hand, a soft knee setting gradually applies compression as the signal approaches the threshold, resulting in a smoother transition. The choice between a hard knee and a soft knee depends on the desired sound and the compressor being used.

🟡Makeup Gain

As compression reduces the overall level of the signal, makeup gain compensates for this reduction by increasing the output level. It is crucial to set the makeup gain correctly to ensure that the compressed signal matches the level of the uncompressed signal, allowing for accurate comparison and assessment.

Common Uses of Compression

Now that we understand the compression parameters, let's explore some common applications of audio compression in music production.

1. Dynamic Smoothing

One of the primary uses of compression is to level out the dynamic range of a performance. By reducing the peaks and bringing up the quieter parts, compression helps the performance sit better in the mix. For this application, gentle and transparent compression with around 3-6 dB of gain reduction is typically effective.

To achieve dynamic smoothing, start with a medium attack time, a medium to slow release time, a medium ratio, and set the threshold to compress only the desired dynamic range. Adjust the parameters based on the specific characteristics of the performance.

2. Transient Shaping (Adding Punch)

Compression can also be used to shape the transients of percussive elements like kick drums and snares. By applying a slow attack time and a high ratio, you can emphasize the attack of the sound and add punch to the mix. This technique is particularly effective for genres that require a strong and pronounced rhythmic impact.

Begin by setting a slow attack time, a medium release time, a high ratio, and a low threshold. Fine-tune the attack time to allow the desired amount of transient to pass through uncompressed. Experiment with these settings to achieve the desired level of punch and impact.

3. Crushing Room Mics

For a more creative approach, compression can be used to heavily process room microphones. Over-compressing room mics removes transient information, extends sustain, and can add a touch of distortion, resulting in a larger and more exciting drum sound. This technique is commonly used in rock music but can be applied to any genre if it suits the artistic vision.

To crush room mics, set a very fast attack time, a medium release time, a high ratio, and a very low threshold. These settings suppress transients, lengthen sustain, and introduce a touch of distortion. Experiment with different combinations to achieve the desired effect.

4. Sidechain Compression

Sidechain compression is a technique that involves using a separate signal to trigger the compression on a target signal. It creates a rhythmic pumping effect and is commonly used in EDM to create a sense of groove and movement.

To apply sidechain compression, route the kick drum or any other desired signal to the sidechain input of a compressor. The sidechain input will trigger the compression on the main signal, creating a rhythmic pumping effect. Experiment with different attack, release, ratio, and threshold settings to achieve the desired pumping effect.

Remember that compression is a subjective tool, and there are no hard and fast rules. The key is to experiment, trust your ears, and develop your own unique approach to using compression in your mixes.

With the knowledge gained from this guide, you are now equipped to confidently incorporate compression into your mixes. Embrace the art of compression and unlock a new world of sonic possibilities in your music production journey.

Happy mixing!

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