The Top 5 Master Bus Compression Mistakes
Compression on the master channel is an aspect of music production that many producers don’t fully understand. And while master bus compression can make a BIG difference how your overall mix sounds, it takes a very different approach from compressing one individual sound. In the context of master bus compression, a specialized approach and a good dose of subtlety is essential to achieve the best result and to obtain a loud yet dynamic master.
To make matters more confusing, most of the compressors designed to be used on the master channel (also referred to as the “mix bus”) have intimidating and complicated user interfaces. We hear this complaint from our students all the time, and in our Cosmic Academy Bootcamp we have a class dedicated to demystifying compression and all the features that come along with many of the analog-modeled compression tools on the market.
Why use a compressor on the master bus? At this stage of your production process, we are looking to bring all of your sounds closer together, shape the punch of the mix, and essentially bring a sense of cohesion across the entire song. This effect is often referred to as “gluing” the mix together. This process can can add more excitement and consistency to your track as it controls the dynamics of the overall mix.
Remember, this stage is not a time to "fix" a problematic sound. We are aiming here for very subtle settings, because here's more than one sound being run through this channel and compressor! When compressing a group of sounds, you're affecting ALL the signals that run through the compressor and shaping them as "one." A problematic sound hitting the compressor will affect how the compressor reacts and shapes the rest of the master signal.
But let’s get specific here! Today, we want to help clear up the biggest specific MISTAKES we see producers and the students in our bootcamp make when it comes to mastering compression.
MISTAKE #1 - Ratio Too High
The first mistake we see often is having the ratio cranked way too high. At the master compression stage, we don’t want to aggressively compress. When the ratio is too high, the compressor will react too heavily and squash the dynamics.
Instead, we want to just gently keep the dynamics in check with low ratios like 2:1.
MISTAKE #2 - Too Much Gain Reduction
The second mistake we see is hitting the compressor too hard! Assuming your ratio is low, this has to do with where the threshold is dialed in.
Again, we are aiming here to subtly “glue” the sounds together, so the goal here is about 1-2 dB of gain reduction.
MISTAKE #3 - Attack Too Fast
This one is important! If your attack is set too fast, your track will lose its punch because the compressor will react too quickly and clamp down on all the transients and peaks in your track.
Now is not the time to “fix” those occasional problematic transients, instead, fix those within your mix!
We suggest medium to slow attack times to let your transients have a chance to come through.
MISTAKE #4 - Release Too Fast
On the release side of the compressor, it’s possible to set a release time that’s too fast. When the release is set too fast in a mastering compression scenario, the mix can suffer from a pumping sound that you might not want.
How fast the compressor releases after biting down has a huge effect on the vibe and feel of the groove of the track!
Keep in mind, the fast release time CAN sound great, depending on the type of music you're making. With dance music specifically, that extra "pump" that comes from a fast release can sometimes add to the overall drive of the track, but in some cases it may sound “overhyped.” Always experiment with your release times and hear the difference between fast - medium, etc. Find the sweet spot!
MISTAKE #5 - Release Too Slow
The opposite problem we see in our students’ projects is that the release is set too slow. If the compressor doesn’t have a chance to bounce back close to a neutral state, then the compressor is essentially in a constant stage of gain reduction and simply turning the track down, rather than actually reacting to the dynamic peaks of the track.
Be careful to set the balance of your release time accordingly. We want the compressor to naturally react to the groove and beat of the track, and then release enough to let through the quieter moments of audio.
One of the best ways to dial in settings that work for your song is to exaggerate the ratio and the gain reduction so that you can more clearly hear how the attack and release times you set react to the track.
For example, set your ratio to 10:1 and crank the threshold down until you’re getting 10+ dB of gain reduction. Now listen to the changes as you dial in attack and release times—you should be able to hear the differences much more clearly. Once you’ve dialed in settings that react well to the rhythm of your song, ease back on the threshold and set the ratio back down.
So with all of that said, don't be shy...give master bus compression a try! Just be aware and avoid these 5 mistakes to get the most out your mix!