Updated: May 14
If you've ever spent ages mixing your drums or the percussive elements of your track, only to feel at the end of the day that they lack a certain 'oomph!', then this article is for you.
Parallel Compression, or New York Compression, is certainly not a new technique. Mixing engineers having been using it for decades to help lift the perceived volume of an element without stripping it totally of its dynamic range. The way it works is to leave your original audio intact (or only lightly compressed), while also mixing in a heavily compressed duplicate audio. This way you can maintain the natural peaks and transients of your original audio, while bringing up the body in the second. It's the best of both worlds!
It's a very simple mixing technique, and one that doesn't take too much fiddling around with to start hearing some powerful results. The key here (as it always is with mixing) is to experiment.
Choose your compressor
Not all compressors are created equal. While most basic compressors are designed to do the same thing (limit dynamic range), not all of them sound the same when used. Most compressors are made with the goal in mind to be as transparent as possible, so the listener can't tell that the audio is being squished. Most of the time when we reach for a compressor, this is the sort of thing we are looking for.
But not this time...
In this instance, we want to use something with a little more character. We want to colour and distort the sound, so when it's layered under our original audio it adds a bite that is almost more felt than heard. For this, we reach for VladG's Molot.
We discussed this compressor in more detail in our Top 5 Best Free Plugins We're Still Using in 2021. The simple gist of it though is this free compressor, available from Tokyo Dawn Records, can work almost as a saturator when pushed hard, in that it will add a perceivable level of that mythical 'warmth.'
Setting up your group
First, it's important to group all of your percussive tracks together in one bus. If you are working with electronic music where the kick drum is front and center, we would recommend leaving it out of the group and mixing it separately. However, with acoustic drums, it's best to have them all sent to the compressor as one.
The bus itself can already have processing on it. Almost certainly some EQ, and even possibly some VERY light compression if it's a really dynamic performance. But remember, the whole point of parallel compression is that we can preserve the transients, so if it can be avoided, try to steer away from using it here.
When it comes to reverb, it's best not to send it into the compressor, but rather have it on its own separate bus. However, we have found before that sometimes having a little bit of room reverb from just your snare and nothing else can sometimes really help it cut through the mix. But be careful, as it can be very easy to over do.
Setting the compressor
So once your drums are grouped and processed, it's time to send them to your return channel where your compressor is waiting. For simplicity, and so you won't have to go back and forth on the settings, just turn the send up to full. We will control the amount we hear later with the return channels master volume.
Here is where things get interesting and we have to change the way we normally think about compressing audio. Often, when we are compressing an element, we are trying to do it as lightly as possible, to a point where untrained ears aren't always consciously aware of it.
This time, however, we're looking to create a sound that is gritty, that is distorted, that on it's own we wouldn't really want to listen to. Because it's in this grittiness that we are going to feel that impact later on!
First, if we are using the Molot Compressor, set the filter to Off. This way the audio is getting processed the same way across the entire frequency spectrum.
Next, dial in your attack time. Obviously it goes without saying that all audio is different and there are no one-size-fits-all type settings. However, in our experience, usually somewhere around the 30/40ms mark is the sweet spot here. It's just enough that the start of the transients are getting through, but not too much to make the whole process unnecessary. You can of course also go the more traditional way, which would be to set the attack speed so fast that you aren't letting any transients through. Again, experimentation is the key.
The same goes for the release. There's no magic number that will work in every situation. What you set your release time at will depend on the tempo of the song, plus how full your drum bus is. We find though, that typically a shorter release time works better here. Play around with it until you find something that grooves with the track.
For this particular technique, the ratio is where the character is coming from. Crank it up and start to hear the effect it has. But remember, don't be afraid that its not sounding pleasant at the moment.
Bring your threshold down to taste. Usually somewhere around -5dB to -7dB of gain reduction is good for this task. Then push the makeup back up so it's around the same perceived volume as before.
Mix it back in
Now you're ready to mix it back in with your original audio. Bring the Return Track volume down to -inf while listening to the original bus, then slowly start to bring the volume back up. There should be a point where you'll start to feel your drums hitting harder and sounding fuller, but not like they just got turned up.
That's your sweet spot!
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Here is a great video from Produce Like a Pro's Youtube channel explaining the technique.