Compression – Part 5 – Getting Personal.

Mix engineer favourite compressors for different tasks.

Dom Morley
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28th April 2020

To finish off the series on compression I’m going to get personal – I’m going to talk about my favourite compressors for different tasks. These are the compressors that I’ll reach for first, although ultimately they might not end up working for the sound I’m aiming for in a mix, they do work often enough that they are the first in line.

Remember that the choices below are restricted by compressors that I own or have used. There may be better ones out there that I haven’t come across yet, so this is an entirely personal journey.

Drums

I’ll start with the drums, as that’s how I normally start a mix anyway. My favourite for kick drums has always been a dbx compressor. The first studio I worked at had a dbx 160x, and I remember the first time I really noticed what compression was doing and how it was improving the sound was with that strapped across a kick drum. I’ve also loved the old VU dbx160 for the same job, and I now own a dbx165 which generally goes on the kick for a mix.

For snare I normally swap between a dbx and an 1176. It sort of depends on how aggressive I want to be as I find it easier to dial aggression in with an 1176. In the past I’ve also really enjoyed the Allison Research Gain Brain (which later evolved into the Valley People Dyna-mite), which I find even more aggressive than the 1176.

Across a drum bus there are quite a few that I’ve liked over the years. Currently I love my Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph, which makes everything sound better in every way!

I’ve just bought a vintage dbx 162 though (basically a stereo pair of dbx 160VU’s), so that may well end up on the drum bus for some mixes. A lot of people are fans of the Neve 33609 on drums and although I’ve tried it a few times it’s never excited me. I have used an SSL stereo compressor quite a few times though for extra punch, or an 1178 (stereo 1176) if I really want to hit it hard.

Bass

For basses it tends to be a dbx again for me – I love how it reacts to bottom end. I am quite fond of my Summit TLA-100A though (a kind of LA-2A style compressor) so that sometimes does the job too. If I’m producing a track I will often record a bass through one of them and then mix it through the other. Best of both worlds!

Guitars & Pianos

For electric guitars an 1176-style compressor with a fast attack and release is my current favourite, and again, I’ve used the Gain Brain or Dyanmite for this job from time to time as well. For acoustics I really like the API 525 or a nice valve thing like the Summit DCL-200 if I’m being more gentle.

For piano I’ll most likely use the stereo Summit, or my Overstayer VCA if I want something a bit tougher or with more fine-tunable control (the wet/dry and behavior knobs open up a lot of new possibilities). The Neve 33609 is another favourite for pianos.

Lead Vocals

Lead vocals normally get a double treatment, with one side of my Inward Connections Vac-Rac TSL-3 giving a valve-style presence and hold, and then an 1176 or the SSL channel compressor to finish off. I’ll use the 1176 if I really want to grab the vocal, and the SSL (Superanalogue X-rack) to go fatter and wider.

Mix Bus

Across the mix bus I’m big fan of the SSL bus compressor. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s so familiar to me having used it for so many years, but it really applies the glue that I want. Either the 10ms or 30ms attack time with a ratio of 4:1 and a fast release is my starting point with this one. Sometimes I might follow that up with a Fairchild 670 just to hold the bottom-end together in that way that it does so well, but that depends on the track. The SSL always finds it’s way on there though!