Dynamics processing is one of the most important techniques in the audio engineer’s bag of tricks. Compressors, limiters, expanders and gates are examples of these tools and they come in a wide variety of types and functions both as hardware and plugins. Let’s take a look at how these techniques can be useful to your music-making, whether you are a player or a producer.
The use of dynamic processing started in the early days of radio broadcasting. Engineers sought a way to include both softer sounds of actors whispering to louder sounds of signing or audiences clapping in the same broadcast. To do that they needed something to even out an audio signal – reduce the loud parts and amplify the soft parts. This was the birth of audio compression.
Since then, the ways in which you can process the dynamic range of your audio material has turned into a science and art form itself, but the basic premises can be boiled down to these basic terms:
Dynamic range – this is the difference in amplitude between the loudest and average volume in your audio material. Dynamic processing is all about processing that range: decrease it, increase it, or use it as a trigger for other processing.
Threshold – the threshold value is the point at which a processor is set to start working.
Ratio – this is the ratio in level between the original and processed signal after the threshold level is reached. As seen in the diagram, a ratio of 3:1 means that if the input signal is 3 dB above the threshold level, it will be reduced to 1 dB. This means the gain reduction will be 2 dB.
Attack and release: Attack is the time it takes for a compressor to reduce the gain after the input signal reaches the threshold level. Release is the opposite: once the input signal drops below the threshold level, how long will it take for the gain reduction to return to normal.
There’s more of course: RME vs Peak, Soft vs, Hard knee, Make-up gain, look-ahead and much more. But we’ll save all that for another day.
There are several main types of dynamics processors that you will come across in a wide range of applications: in guitar amplifiers and stomp boxes, as rack-mounted audio processors, in your audio mixer in your DAW or as audio plugins for use with your DAW.
The main types of processors can usually be divided as follows:
Compressors – the most common form of dynamic processor is used to reduce peaks in audio signals. The practical applications are almost limitless: to bring out nuance in vocal performances, create long, sustaining guitar tones, control transients in a drum recording. The list could go on forever.
Expanders – An expander does the opposite of what a compressor does: increasing loud sounds and decreasing softer signals. This is also useful in transient shaping but perhaps mostly used in noise gates when you want the background noise removed completely.
Limiters – this is a special type of compressor that’s used to stop any signal from reaching over the threshold limit. Practical applications include everything from background music in public spaces to protecting your studio speakers. It’s also a very important tool during mixdown.
Many dynamics processors can do several or all of the tasks mentioned above, and sometimes in combination with other techniques that open up new possibilities for music-makers, producers and engineers.
Blue Cat Audio’s dynamics toolbox.
Unsurprisingly maybe, Blue Cat Audio offers a comprehensive set of dynamic processing plugins that are useful at any stage of audio recording and production. And by amazing coincidence, they are on sale until August 10th. Save 23% Here’s a brief introduction:
Blue Cat’s Dynamics
Blue Cat’s Dynamics is a full-featured dynamics processor: it can be used as a compressor, limiter, gate, expander, waveshaper or all at once! The dynamics response of the plug-in can be tweaked with a unique two-thresholds system, and provides detailed visual feedback about its behavior.
Learn more: Blue Cat’s Dynamics
Blue Cat’s Gain Suite
This freeware plug-in suite is a series of gain utilities which let you control the volume of one or several audio tracks simultaneously, in real-time.
Learn more: Blue Cat’s Gain Suite
Blue Cat’s MB-5 Dynamix
Blue Cat’s MB-5 Dynamix is an extremely powerful all-in-one multiband dynamics processor: it can be used as a multiband compressor, limiter, gate, expander, waveshaper or all combined at once, on any part of the spectrum.
Learn more: Blue Cat’s MB-5 Dynamix
Blue Cat’s MB-7 Mixer
Blue Cat’s MB-7 Mixer is a unique plug-in that splits the signal into several frequency bands and lets you re-mix and process them as if they were separate tracks: change levels, apply panning, add built-in effects, or even third party VST plug-ins.
Learn more: Blue Cat’s MB-7 Mixer
Blue Cat’s Protector
“A brickwall for your master buss.” – Blue Cat’s Protector is a 0 dB stereo brickwall limiter with adjustable dynamics response. It will typically find its place on the master bus of your DAW to protect your audio output from overshooting and thereby saving your mixes, your speakers and your ears.
Learn more: Blue Cat’s Protector
Blue Cat’s Energy Pack
“Dynamics Under Control” – Want to bring energy and dynamics to your tracks? This bundle provides a complete solution for wideband, multi-band and side chain dynamics processing and monitoring.
Learn more: Blue Cat’s Energy Pack