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The advantage of tracking with the 'c' word?

First off, sorry to add yet another compression post. I know it gets old reading “what are the best settings for my compressor” over and over again. But using the search function, I found similar topics, but not the answer to this particular question. Not that I read every topic that came up – so if I missed it, I apologize.

My question is about inbound compression or tracking with compression. I’ve noticed a general consensus that for certain genres of music, tracking things like vocals and bass with compression on the way in can be beneficial. Now this makes perfect sense to me when recording to tape, but it’s not as clear to me why it’s beneficial when recording to 1’s and 0’s (digital). What I’m wondering is, if you a took an outboard compressor and a plugin compressor that were virtually identical in sound – how would it be different to add outboard 3:1 compression to a vocal on the way in (before AD conversion), vs. applying that same 3:1 compression using the plugin , once the unprocessed vocal is already recorded?

I understand that there is difference, besides conserving DSP power, and if someone could explain to me what that difference is I would appreciate it. It seems to me that one is permanent, and the other is reversible – so I must be missing something here.



dementedchord Wed, 10/18/2006 - 18:54

glad to see this isnt a rude comment on women ast's remy might have taken you to task... and she may still but thats another story... the basic problem with tracking with ANY effects whether comps/eq/rev/del is if you change your mind your screwed... there's no going back... and i think you'll find that to be the general concensus... that being said... if ya only got one good one and your sure that's what ya want... or if ya wanna set it up as a limiter to ward off overs... hey no ones gonna spank ya...

anonymous Wed, 10/18/2006 - 20:57

Recording with a GOOD outboard compressor PROPERLY applied is regularly done for certain genres of music and tracking situations.

You will NOT hear a poperly set compressor on a pop/rock vocal track but, you would hear the difference if the unit were switched OFF. That's a good engineer at work.

Percussion/Drums & bass (for example) are other situations where compression is regularly used during tracking. Again, PROPERLY applied.

There are many situations in which compression is used during tracking.

anonymous Wed, 10/18/2006 - 21:59

So, I understand that there are many situations in which compression is used during tracking. My question is, why is it favorable to compress on the way in to digital, as opposed to after the fact using a plug-in. If say you have the outboard equivalent to a Waves C1 (I'm not sure what that is...), what is the advantage to using it inbound, over the C1 plugin after the fact? (Obviously plug-ins can't mimic high end outboard analog gear, and I understand that using an Avalon or Great River on the way in is a different story).

Robak Thu, 10/19/2006 - 05:00

There are two situations in which it's better to use compressor during tracking:
1. Recording vocals.
Vocals are usualy very dynamic, singers can instantly go from piano to forte so it's important to protect A/D converters. When you have a good sounding tube preamp and you want to color your sound with it than your signals will have to be hot. In that case without (good) compressor in the chain your fader will have to be down all the time (especially when you don't know the singer or the song well). Of course there are tricks to do it well without compression.
2. Recording rock music.
Sound of compression is a very important part of the rock sound so when you are a pro you want to hear the right sound already. Then you can control the recording process from the source and react to any problems that may occur. With compression already applied you can hear better that for example there's too much bleed from hat on top snare mic or the snare's sustain is not what you want. Of course you have to have quite a lot of experience to work this way but it speeds the recording process and musicans react to that sound and give better performances.

That are the examples when I sometimes use compressor during tracking to digital medium. Recording to tape is a totally different situation.
One more thing: Imagine having 48 tracks of a song just recorded on your DAW that need only some reverb, pan and level control. After 1 hour of mixing you have a sound you want and your ears are still fresh. That only happens when you track with dynamic processing.
I hope this aswers your question.

pr0gr4m Thu, 10/19/2006 - 08:47

I think I understand the question and I don't think that anyones hit on an answer yet. I too am curious. Perhaps a restatement of the question is in order...

Let's assume that we are recording a vocal into our DAW and the vocals are not dynamic to the point where they could cause distortion anywhere in our signal chain into the DAW. Also assume that if I were to compress the vocals, I would be using a plug-in.

With that taken into consideration, when recording digitally, is there an difference between recording the vocal with compression and adding the compression after it's recorded.

Robak Thu, 10/19/2006 - 10:38

I see my answer is not good enough for you, so I'll add that for me there's no significant difference in sound itself. Musicans response makes that difference. You can of course plug a compressor only in his/her monitor path and record dry. Sometimes it's better to give vocalist dry signal so he/she controls dynamics naturally. But many times it's better they hear compressed sound. As I said in my post it's sometimes more practical to record with dynamic processing applied. And I like to record that way because it saves a lot of time. I usualy know what kind of sound I want so I'm not affraid to do it this way.

Moreover, if you assume that you only use digital compressor (no multiple A/D/A conversions) than there is no difference at all (only that of different performance).

anonymous Thu, 10/19/2006 - 10:44

This could take a long time to properly expand on. Basically, when we hear sounds (including music) our brain provides its own compression. Just like our eyes adapt from dark to light. When we reproduce/record music we are trying to do one of the following (or a mix of the two):

1) reproduce as purely as possible (the audiophile world)

2) produce a 'sound' that fits the project we are working on.

3) a mix of the two

If you borrow a numeric scale from MIDI (0-127) you could say that at 0 we have total silence and at 127 we have something as loud as the loudest explosion you ever heard in a THX theater. A piece that went constantly from 1-126 would force you to either lower your playback level or sit far away from the speakers (in fact, there is a theory about where to sit when listening to orchestral music for example, which should be heard at the same level in which it was performed for excellent results...and if you have 100 grand for an audiophile system...).

Audiophile recordings usually employ two microphones (very occasionally more) and NO compression. However, they go to great lenght & effort in mic placement, musician placement (when possible in jazz, world and other types of recording when such technique is possible) and the room choice. WHen recording inside a performance Hall for example, there is some natural compression that occurs which is produced by the room acoustics (freq spread and reverberation) and the mic placement (the distance and position). Even then, and even if we usea the most expensive microphones and recording chain we will only approximate what our brian hears when we are actually sittin inside a Concert Hall.

In addition, musician's interpretation of dynamics (pianissimo and fortissimos) will furhter 'compress' the performance. It's only human.

Though most Halls are well designed you still have to project your pianissimos so that everyone can hear them. Same for live actors performing a theater production. IF the part calls for a whisper that whisper will be performed DIFFERENTLY on stage (with more projection/vlumoe) than it would during a voice over in a recording studio.

In Pop music an experienced vocalist, for example, will work the microphone by moving toward or away from it. Still, a judicious amount of compression during tracking will bring the performance upfront and give it a warm, well defined sound. If properly applied, compression can actually improve a singer's performance by bringing every detail into focus without ruining the singer's dynamics and interpretaton. When overly done it will kill the dynamics the result will be a lousy, squashed sounging track.

I use compression when tracking vocals, my own acoustic or electric guitar, brass and woodwinds, percussion and drums. The proper use of compression allows the tracks to be more consistent by keeping the peaks in check and slightly rising the lowest levels as appropriate for the project. To use the 0-127 analogy, you might end up with a 10-100 range or whatever. Just to illustrate the point. This works even if the source is NOT louder than the max headroom/dyn range available. It will still even out the content. Again, properly applied.

Let's say you had an acoustic guitar part that included an arpeggiated section. A small amount of compression will even out the arpeggio, making every note well defined without ruining the performace.

Afer all tracking is done, a mixing engineer might then add further compression for mixing purposes as he/she sees fit.

Finally, another stage of compression and limiting is applied during Mastering.

pr0gr4m Thu, 10/19/2006 - 14:22

Sorry if I stole this thread...

I know how compression works, and I think I know how to use it, sometimes. :)

I think that the question was, if compression isn't required (due to dynamic content) would there be a difference in using it while recording rather than while mixing. Sure, for listening purposes, it might be needed but that can always be done in the monitoring path.
I can understand that if you are using an analog compressor, you may want to compress while recording that way you aren't going though multiple A/D/A steps.

I got the answer I was looking for.

I guess this question can apply to other things as well, not just compression. Like EQ, why EQ when recording when you can do it after it's recorded.

Actually, MIDI is 0-127...but point taken. :) Oh if it were only 0-255!

anonymous Thu, 10/19/2006 - 18:36

it's making sense...

cool -- so this is starting to make sense. The reason I asked is that the DAW that I just purchased from a friend came with a few good compressor plug-ins like the Waves C1 and RComp, and Nomad Blue Tubes. I've been thinking about buying a cheaper compressor like an FMR RNC for tracking vocals and acoustic guitar, but now that I understand that there isn't an audible difference between compressing while recording vs after recording, I think I can make due using just the plugins for a while. This will give me time to save up for a REAL analog outboard compressor that will provide some tonal warmth and character on the way in. (Not to say the FMR isn't real. I've heard good things about it). Thanks to everyone.

natural Thu, 10/19/2006 - 20:44

ok- how about this?
You are correct. If we're comparing apples to apples, there's no diff. Compress before or after, it's your choice. Enjoy.

HOWEVER,- That would be in an apple perfect world. in reality there are lot's of unpredictable variables. (and worms)
for all the other reasons mentioned above:
- Unpredictable input level from artist
- Processor resources limited (no pun intended)
- Desire to use real tube compression instead of Software models.
- Engineer tricks to achive a certain sound.
- It's fun. (ok- not really a good reason, but there is something to be said for reaching, touching, adjusting, We're still talking about compression right?)
- Unknown where files will eventually end up. (Ex: you start the project in a pro studio, but it ends up in some other studio that has some inferior plug in, or worse, someone that doesen't know how to use it)
For these reasons it's better to process on the way in.
Geez, not everything has to have multiple options later. We can feel free to make a commitment every once in awhile.

Having said that...
If you're not a professional,and/or your working at home, and have intentions of moving the project later on to a better environment, then it's better to NOT process on the way in.
So there you have it. 'nuff said,
Now start cutting some tracks.

Goose3 Thu, 10/19/2006 - 22:07


highonthesound wrote: This will give me time to save up for a REAL analog outboard compressor that will provide some tonal warmth and character on the way in. (Not to say the FMR isn't real. I've heard good things about it). Thanks to everyone.

I have a FMR RNC, and can tell you if you want warmth definitely save your money. On second thought even if you don't want warmth save your money. IMO the FMR isn't a very good compressor. Nothing wrong with it tech whys or that it doesn't do the job of a compressor, I just don't like the way it sounds.

Each to his own

RemyRAD Fri, 10/20/2006 - 21:01

I like to record vocals with compression because it gives me a particular sound that I prefer. Recording is an unnatural act and recording a vocal is even more unnatural. Recording a natural vocal without some compression makes the vocal sound unnatural so the idea is to try and make the voice sound smooth and natural and that's why you use compression before you record. When you do it after you record, you're compromising your resolution. Greater resolution is attained when you compress before recording as it keeps the energy level more centralized.

If people were really worried about not being able to undo something, why would anybody ever get married, get in their car, purchase a house, buy equipment, push a record button? Life is made up of a series of risks and if the only risk that you are worried about is how you record something, you are in a lot of trouble. If you are really uncertain as to what to do, split the output of the microphone preamp. Unprocessed output goes to one channel of the recorder, the compressed channel ghost of the other channel of the recorder. Presto! You now have your shit and can eat it too! Delicious!

So then the question comes up of how compression will sound good with a bad compressor? Duh! Bad! If you have a crappy compressor, use it gently. If you have a good compressor, go to town. Don't forget it will enhance what doesn't sound good with your crappy microphone preamp, so use a good microphone preamp. Still sounds bad?? Change the microphone or the vocalist? Better still, try an SM58 for your vocal and it will sound marvelous after a little high pass filtering, if you compressed first.

Vocals sound best when compressed.
Ms. Remy Ann David

natural Sat, 10/21/2006 - 12:54

Remy, I agree with you, however to be fair to the original post, (At least the way I understand his question) He's wants to process post recording instead of pre. Not processing at a later date. The processing would occur at the time of recording just plugged in on playback. In this case the sound should be the same assuming that the hardware version and the software version were of the same type and quality.
I'm also assuming that he has a closed system. He's not planning to move it and not planning on bringing in any external influences. Meaning he is the studio and the enginneer. If this is the case, the only problem with this process might be latency.
But for all the reasons that I (and others) listed earlier, processing pre is more economical in the long run. Why have a a bunch of processors plugged in eating up resources for the length of the project for things that should have been cleaned up going in?
When I hire a carpenter, I want him to make his cuts and mess outside, and bring in the finished cut. i don't want him bringing in all his tools cutting and assembling piece by piece inside my house/studio, or leaving some cuts unfinished because he's waiting for a better saw. (Ok- maybe that example is a bit extreme, but I think we all get the idea)

Kev Sat, 10/21/2006 - 15:56

natural wrote: . In this case the sound should be the same assuming that the hardware version and the software version were of the same type and quality.

and that's the issue
they aren't and don't sound the same
but some are good in there own right

there have been great leaps is DSP emulators and simulators
and easy to argue to go with the plug if it is cost effective
(Plugs are more than just one unit at a time)
Plugs probably are better than many budget units but not the same as what they are trying to emulate.

jump side ways
Guitars are different and a Fender doesn't sound like a Gibson ... even pick-up position is clearly indentifiable.
There are some PLUGs that can go a long way to change this and apart from some fun and experimenting ... it's just not the same.
Guitars Amps
again the plugs are not the same as the real thing
and as good as Amp Farm and POD and Vamp are ... there are just not like the real thing with a real expert on recording.

Guitars - Mics
Amps - Mic-pres and Compressors

I track with compressors.
BUT I have a selection of good gear and some experience at dialing in the sound I want.
For those on a budget and still gathering experience ... invest in Mic's and Pres and use the Plug during post
until you really know and can buy a real compressor to suit your job