Understanding the tools of audio...
Creating a great-sounding professional recording and mix starts with an understanding of the tools of audio...
- Microphone selection and positioning
- Fader levels
That isn't a long list, but it actually does cover the most important aspects. And each topic is complex and multi-faceted. There is a lot to learn about each item, and while knowledge is great, you'll also need to develop skills, and then hone those skills with experience.
Let's take an example... Let's say that you have made a clean, clear, crisp recording of a strummed acoustic guitar. How would you improve it with compression?
What you will find with many instruments and vocals is that they have too wide a dynamic range. This means that the loud parts of the music are too loud and the quiet parts are too quiet. So your recording of guitar may be too loud in some parts of your song and too quiet in others, and this can vary on a chord-by-chord basis.
Also, the attack of a chord will be louder than the continuing sound as it decays away. Often the acoustic guitar can sound better if this difference is reduced. Compression can deal with both of these issues resulting in a stronger sound that is easier to blend into the mix.
So how does a compressor work? Well, although plug-in developers would like us to believe that their products sprinkle magic fairy dust and improve things through their magical and mysterious inner workings, the reality is that it is vitally important for you as a producer or engineer to understand and control all of the fundamental parameters of the compressor correctly.
So you will set the 'ratio' control, which governs how strong an effect the compressor will have. Then you will set the 'threshold' which sets how loud the signal has to be before the compressor kicks in. Then you will set the 'attack' so that the sound of the guitar is controlled, but the compressor doesn't take away the brightness of the start of each note or chord. Then you will set the 'release', which controls how quickly the compressor responds as playing continues.
By adjusting and re-adjusting these controls, you will find a combination of settings that will optimize the sound of the acoustic guitar, for itself as an individual instrument, and for the benefit of the song as a whole.
I'm going to make an important point here. There is no such thing as a magic compressor that will make all of your recordings sound like Grammy award winners. You need a compressor that can do the job well, and you almost certainly have one already - the one that came free with your digital audio workstation (DAW) software. But it is YOU who sets the controls, and turns a competent, clean, clear, crisp recording into something wonderful that is a joy to listen to. It's all about YOUR knowledge, YOUR skills, and YOUR experience.
I used compression as an example, and of course there is much to learn about all of the other processes of audio. The question is HOW do you learn?