• Dynamics Processors : Compressors / limiters

    This article will go through compressor controls and how to use them for a variety of applications. NOTE : If you haven't already, do read Introduction to dynamics processors first.

    Typical reasons for compressing are:

    • Controlling the energy of a signal. The human ear detects energy changes on signals. We can express the energy of a signal mathematically as its RMS value (roughly its average value excluding the sign). The human ear is very sensitive to energy variations, so changes should always be smooth and subtle so as not to be evident to the ear. Alternatively, abrupt or excessive compression maybe used as an effect, though this is normally used for recording applications and not for live sound.

      Thus, we could keep a singer's voice under control, compensating for higher levels at the microphone due to shouting or getting too close to the mic, and therefore making the voice's levels more even.

    • Controlling the peak levels of a signal. Very often, our equipment is limited by its peak signal capacity. Amplifiers in different parts of a mixer's signal path may saturate. A power amplifier may clip. Loudspeakers maybe in danger of getting damaged by excessive excursion. In these cases, we are concerned about controlling the peak levels of signals, such that the needed processing tends to be some form of limiting rather than compression.

    • Reduce the dynamic range on a signal. The dynamic range (when expressed in decibels, as is commonly done) is the difference between the loudest and the softest signal. If we attenuate the peaks out of signal, we are reducing its dynamic range. Since many devices are peak limited (power amplifiers, recorders), this allows us to increase the RMS level of the signal.

    Other than compressing RMS or peak levels, the detection circuit itself may also be RMS or peak based. Some compressors provide the ability to select between compressing based on the detection of average (RMS, the most common option) or instantaneous (peak) levels. The way to detect RMS levels may also vary: higher quality compressors detect real RMS, while cheaper ones only approximate it.

    Which brings us to defining what a limiter is. A limiter is really just a form of compressor. We could say that compressing is smooth attenuation, whereas limiting is doing it in an abrupt manner. Often we will come across compressors that feature dedicated limiters, thus offering simultaneous compression and limiting from a single unit. Typically, the term limiter is also associated to faster times, particularly for attack, so as to avoid exceeding a specific signal maximum at all times. Standard compressors will normally have a range of ratio values that allow performing both compression and limiting, which is the reason why they tend to be referred to as compressor/limiters.

    1. Controls

    Compression is a difficult task that may require very different characteristics depending of the type of signal. Numerous controls are therefore needed.

    The most common controls provided on compressors are given below. You may not always find all of them, or you may get additional ones.

    • Threshold. When this level is exceeded, the processor starts compressing (i.e., attenuating, reducing volume). Sometimes also referred to as "rotation point".

      The illustration below shows resulting levels (in dBs) of a signal being compressed with a higher and a lower threshold level. In the first example, the third signal peak passes through unaltered.

    • Attack time. It's the time it takes for the signal to get fully compressed after exceeding the threshold level. Minimum attack times may oscillate between 50 and 500 us (microseconds) depending on the type and brand of unit, while maximum times are in the range from 20 to 100 ms (milliseconds). Sometimes these times are not available as times, but rather as slopes in dB per second. Fast times may create distortion, since they modify the waveform of low frequencies, which are slower. For instance, one cycle at 100 Hz lasts 10 ms, so that a 1 ms attack time has the time to alter the waveform, thereby generating distortion.

      Specially for mastering and FM radio broadcast applications, where low dynamics are desired, there exist multiband compressors (also known as split-band compressors) that divide the spectrum into several frequency bands which are compressed separately with different compression times (faster for high frequencies, slower for low frequencies), and summed again into a single signal. This minimizes compression induced distortion while achieving very high compression, and avoids dulling of the sound, a compression side effect that will be explained later.

      In limiter applications where we want to avoid speaker damage, the longer the attack time, the higher the risk of damaging the equipment. However, too fast an attack time will generate distortion... we start to see the difficulties of selecting the correct times.
    • Release time. It's the opposite of attack time, that is, the time it takes for the signal to go from the processed (attenuated) state back to the original signal. Release times are much longer than attack times, and range from 40-60 ms to 2-5 seconds, depending on the unit. Sometimes, these times are not available as times, bur rather as slopes in dB per second. In general, the release time has to be the shortest possible time that does not produce a "pumping" effect, caused by cyclic activation and deactivation of compression. These cycles make the dominant signal (normally the bass drum and bass guitar) also modulate the noise floor, producing a "breathing" effect.

    Although it is not commonplace on compressors (it is on gates), some models may provide a hold time control. This can be useful to avoid low frequency distortion when fast release times are needed, by setting the hold time to a time longer than a cycle of the lowest frequency. For instance, 50 ms for 20 Hz. That way the compressor waits for a cycle to be completed, thereby avoiding distortion of the shape of the waveform.

    • Compression ratio. This parameter specifies the amount of compression (attenuation) that is applied to the signal. It normally ranges between 1:1 (which is read "one to one", and represents unity gain, i.e., no attenuation at all) and 40:1 (forty to one). The ratios are expressed in decibels, so that a ratio of, for instance, 6:1, means that a signal exceeding the threshold by 6 dB will be attenuated down to 1 dB above the threshold, while a signal exceeding the threshold by 18 dB will be attenuated down to 3 dB above it. Likewise, a 3:1 (three to one) ratio means that a signal exceeding the threshold by 3 dB will be attenuated down to 1 dB. With a 20:1 ratio and above the compressor is considered to work as a limiter, though a theoretical limiter would have a compression ratio of infinity to one (whatever the input level, it would always be attenuated down to the threshold level, so that output would never exceed the threshold once the attack time has elapsed). We could say that a ratio of around de 3:1 is moderate compression, 5:1 medium compression and 8:1 strong compression, while over 20:1 (or 10:1, depending on who you ask) would be limiting.
      The illustration below shows original and compressed signal levels for ratios ranging from moderate to maximum compression (limiting). The ratios, from left to right, are 3:1, 1.5:1 and infinity:1 (note the slight overshoot as it takes a finite attack time to clamp the signal down to the threshold level).

    In a way, compression ratio and threshold are related, since both increasing the ratio and lowering the threshold will result in more compression being applied to the signal.

    A more scientific way to show compression is through input versus output diagrams. We will find this type of graph in the user's manual of our unit. The 45 degree straight line represents the absence of dynamics processing, i.e., like a (loss less) cable. Above the threshold (which we have arbitrarily set to 0 dB), the 45 degree line deviates and forms another straight line with a slope that is lower the higher the compression ratio is. The line for the infinity:1 ratio shows a zero slope, since we are forcing the output signal to never exceed the threshold level, no matter what the input level is.

    NOTE : If you find the graphs difficult to understand, look for an input level (horizontal axis) and follow it upwards in a straight line until you meet one of the compression lines. Take that point all the way to the left in a straight line to the output levels (vertical axis) and check that the level is lower. The example dotted gray line in the graph shows how a +10 dB input level becomes +5 dB a the output for a 2:1 compression ratio.

    • Knee. On compressors that have it, it is a control that allows the selection of the transition between the processed and unprocessed states. Typically one would get an option between a "soft knee" and a "hard knee". Sometimes the control allows the selection of any intermediate position between the two types of knee . Sometimes soft knee compression is referrer to as "OverEasy" (can't start to even figure why, i do not see a connection to eggs over easy), as used by DBX branded compressors. The soft knee allows for a smoother and more gradual compression.

    • Stereo link. In general, when dynamics processors are used to process a stereo signal, we need to be able to link the processing on both channels such that it takes place on both channels at the same time. Otherwise the imaging will be confusing as it will change from the center to one of the sides or the other. Monophonic compressors often feature a link connection to be able to send a cable to another unit and synchronize the compression action.
    • Output gain. Since compression introduces attenuation, this can be compensated by raising the output volume and in fact this control is often referred to as "makeup gain", as it makes up for the compression-induced attenuation. Or, given that a compressor reduces the dynamics or a signal, we can raise the output gain to make use of all the available headroom of the equipment to which the compressor is connected, though that would also mean raising the background noise that was present in the signal. To avoid the latter, compressors are often utilized in combination with noise gates, which may also come built into the compressors themselves.
    • Automatic mode. It has become increasingly common to control some the compressor's parameters (typically attack and release times) automatically based on the signal's characteristics. This control enables that working mode. In general, automatic compression works well when one is looking for subtle compression, while the manual mode would be used for special effects.
    • Side Chain Listen. Compressors that feature a Side Chain function (explained later) often provide a switch that routes of the side chain signal to the output of the compressor, which permits listening to it, which helps troubleshooting and setting the compressor.
    • Bypass. Allows comparing compressed and uncompressed signals. Meaningful comparisons will require level matching between compressed and uncompressed signals (the output gain control can be used for this).

    2. Meters

    Typically, compressors would feature at least some form of attenuation (compression) meter, which is normally implemented as a row of LED indicators. It informs the operator of how much attenuation is being applied so that he or she can evaluate whether the signal is correctly compressed or not (it could be over compressed or under compressed). The meter should show 0 dB (i.e., no compression) at least some of the time, otherwise some of the compression is just continuous gain reduction that is best achieved with a volume control.:

    • Attenuation meter. Typically implemented as a row of LEDs, this meter tells us how much attenuation or gain is applied to the signal, so as to assess whether we are processing or not, or as overdoing it. Signal input and output meters can also be provided.

      This meter must show 0 dB at some point with signal present, otherwise, if compression is present all the time it is no different from lowering the level with a gain control.

    3. Sidechain

    Normally, the detection circuit uses a copy of the signal being compressed to check whether it exceeds the threshold level or not. However, many compressors allow using an external signal that is feed to the detector via the Side Chain (sometimes also called "key") input. That way it is the external signal that triggers the compression, though it is the main signal that gets compressed. There may be a switch that toggles the detection signal between the main and the side chain signal, or sometimes, if the side chain input uses a 1/4" connector (often wrongly referred to as jack in many non-English speaking countries!), it is the connector that enables the function when the 1/4" plug is inserted. This 1/4" connector is an insert type connector that carries both a send and a return signal, the send carrying a copy of the main signal to facilitate its connection to a processor (e.g., an equalizer) and then feeding it back to the detector through the return part of the side chain connector.

    The most common use for this is using an equalizer for the side chain, so much so that some compressors already provide EQ facilities for the detector so that an external equalizer is not needed. For instance, we could reduce the high frequencies on the signal feeding the detector to avoid cymbals triggering the compressor. Or boost the sibilance frequencies to compress them on the main signal, a process which is referred to as "de-essing".