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How to compress a snare drum that changes in level

Sometimes the snare is loud, sometimes it's not so loud. Should you use a compressor to even out the level?

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A question from a Audio Masterclass reader...

I have a track with snare recorded on it and it's sitting comfortably say around -6 dB but with stray peaks every now and again of around -2 dB. Where would be a good place to set my threshold to attempt to contain them. Starting with say a 4:1 ratio. This would be easier for me if my compressor had a gain reduction meter on it for more visual aid. I just can't seem to get this question straight in my mind.”

One of the skills of a good drummer is consistency. But you don't always get to work with a good drummer (and a good drummer is worth his or her weight in rhodium). It has been known for bands to hire drummers on the basis that they have a van! Drumming skills are sometimes secondary.

So suppose you are recording a band where the drummer isn't consistent. How can you use a compressor to even things out?

Well one answer is that you don't use a compressor!

Think about it. The problem is that the level is inconsistent. Yes, a compressor can reduce the difference between louds and quiets, but a compressor also changes the sound quality. What comes out doesn't sound exactly like what went in. And if only the loud hits are compressed, then all you have done is created another inconsistency.

No, you have to go the extra mile (1.6 kilometers) to solve this. And it shouldn't be too much trouble if you want the best mix possible.

One way to do it is to use the power and convenience of the digital audio workstation to adjust the level of every strike individually, by hand. The thought of adjusting a hundred drum hits over the course of a song might sound daunting. But I personally wouldn't hesitate if I thought the song would benefit overall. And anyway, the level of most of them might be perfectly OK.

Clearly there will still be some difference in sound quality between the hits that were originally loud and those that were originally quiet, due to the way the drum responds. But the difference will be less than if a compressor had been used.

Now let's start on the kick drum...

By David Mellor Monday February 21, 2011
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