Last updated on December 15, 2022 by

Audio compression can be daunting. In this guide I want to teach you exactly how to use a compressor.

Some people find learning how to use compression problematic. But here’s the solution…

There are only five key parameters that matter when it comes to compression.

Ratio, threshold, attack, release and gain.

Learning how to use compressors become a lot less scary once you have an understanding of each of these settings. They become valuable, controllable tools.

It takes years to master compression. Don’t even get me started on multiband compression.

But it will only take a few minutes to understand how they work. And this will get you 80% of the way there.

If you want to get compression right every single time, make sure you download my free compression cheat sheet below.

This will give you an overview of compression and a handy reference for when you are mixing.

(I also show you how to approach different genres and instruments)

Get it here:

Anatomy of a Compressor

NOTE: If you prefer to learn by video, I created an extensive 40-minute guide to using compression:

Audio compression can be daunting. In this guide I want to teach you exactly how to use a compressor. Some people find learning how to use compression problematic. But here's the solution... There are only five key parameters that matter when it comes to compression. Ratio, threshold, attack, releas

When you first look at a compressor, your reaction is likely stress. What are these strange knobs and buttons? What does all of this jargon mean?

Luckily, I’ve made a little guide to decrease your overwhelm. Here’s the anatomy of a compressor:

anatomy of a compressor infograph

UPDATE: I also put together this waveform demonstration video, so you can see exactly what compression does to an audio source:

Audio compression can be daunting. In this guide I want to teach you exactly how to use a compressor. Some people find learning how to use compression problematic. But here's the solution... There are only five key parameters that matter when it comes to compression. Ratio, threshold, attack, releas


How To Use Compressor Ratio

To understand ratio, we first need to understand what a compressor actually does.

The clue is in the name – it compresses the volume of audio (in layman’s terms).

When a sound gets too loud, the compressor kicks in and reduces the volume.

The ratio determines how much the volume is reduced by.

Let me give you an example:

You load up a compressor on the vocal and it goes over the threshold by 10dB (more on the threshold in a second).

We have set the ratio to 2:1. This means that the sound will be reduced in volume by a factor of 2.

So, instead of getting 10dB louder, the vocal now gets 5dB louder. With me?


Compressor Ratio

Here’s another one:

If we set the ratio to 4:1, the sound would be reduced in volume by a factor of 4.

10 divided by 4 is… 2.5. So our sound now only gets 2.5db louder.

A ratio of 10:1? Our sound now only gets 1dB louder!

Once again – the ratio determines how much the sound is compressed (reduced in volume).

But at which point is the volume of the sound reduced? Is the whole track reduced?

No. Only when the sound hits the compressor threshold


It’s All About The Threshold

This is the point that the compressor kicks in.

If we set the threshold to -24db, the compressor will not affect everything quieter than that.

BUT, as soon as the sound hits -24dB, the compressor will kick in and reduce the volume.

Here’s a graph that ties threshold and ratio all together:


A graph showing how a compressor works
image source

You can clearly see how the threshold determines when the compressor kicks in, and the ratio determines how much the sound is compressed.

If you set the threshold too low, the audio will be compressed all of the time and sound unnatural. Sometimes this is desirable, but in most cases it isn’t.

We usually use a compressor to catch the louder peaks and make the track more consistent in volume. So we adjust the threshold until the compressor only kicks in when our recording hits those peaks.

On the other hand, if we set our threshold too high, the compressor won’t do anything at all!


Dial In The Attack Time

We have our audio and our threshold is set to catch the loudest peaks.

But what happens when those peaks hit the compressor? Is the volume just instantly reduced?

Attack time is how quickly the compressor engages and reduces the volume of the audio.

If our attack is set to 10ms, and the audio rises above our threshold of -24db, it will take 10 milliseconds for the compressor to fully kick in.

Different attack times can make a HUGE difference.

And it all depends on the instrument that you’re compressing, the pace of the song, and tons of other factors.

But in general, go with a slower attack time. You should be closer to 40ms than 4ms.


Compressor Attack Time

This means that the whole note is compressed, rather than the attack of the note (the plectrum hitting the string of a guitar, for example).

Because we are talking about milliseconds, everything is happening on a very small scale.

If your attack is set to 5ms, the compressor is going to kick in quickly and affect the initial attack of the note. But if we use a slow attack time, the transient (start) of the note will slip through and the sustain (the rest of the note) will be compressed.

Sometimes you might want a fast attack e.g. a guitarist that picks really hard. Use shorter attack times to when you want to compress the transient as well as the sustain.

But in most cases, a slow attack will sound a lot more natural and musical.

With vocals, it works slightly differently. Slow attack sometimes sounds unnatural and odd (as does a very fast attack time). Stay around 2-10ms for vocals and voice.

For an in-depth guide to getting the attack time right…

Watch this video, where I share 3 simple tips:

Audio compression can be daunting. In this guide I want to teach you exactly how to use a compressor. Some people find learning how to use compression problematic. But here's the solution... There are only five key parameters that matter when it comes to compression. Ratio, threshold, attack, releas


Don’t Forget The Release Time

This is sometimes referred to as decay.

This is how long it takes the compressor to dis-engage.

It’s the exact opposite of attack.

Once the audio drops back below the threshold, this is how long it takes for the compressor to return the audio to its normal volume.

Release time is just as important as attack time.

You need to be careful – if the release time is too quick, the audio will sound very unnatural. If it’s too slow, the compressor never turns off!

The best way to adjust release time is to tweak it until the audio feels right with the rhythm and tempo of the song.

There is no exact setting that suits every song or instrument.

Use your ears, and trust them.

If it sounds unnatural or odd, tweak the release time with the whole song up (not with the track solo’d).

Start around 60ms and work from there.


Compression Release Time

Here’s another chart, this time depicting how attack and release time affect the gain reduction.

The blue line is the original audio, and the red line is the audio coming out of the compressor (that has been reduced in volume).

Notice how the output lags behind the input due to the attack and release time of the compressor:



A graph to show how attack and release time work
image source

A lot of people struggle with this…

But there are only really TWO ways to set the release time:

Audio compression can be daunting. In this guide I want to teach you exactly how to use a compressor. Some people find learning how to use compression problematic. But here's the solution... There are only five key parameters that matter when it comes to compression. Ratio, threshold, attack, releas


Always Add Some Gain

All of this compression and volume reduction will, of course, make the track sound quieter.

To compensate we use the ‘make-up gain’ or ‘output gain’ control to increase the volume of the audio coming out of the compressor.


Compressor Gain

A lot of compressors have an ‘auto-gain’ feature, but you should avoid this.

Instead, increase the gain until your level coming out is the same as your level going in (most compressors have dB meters to help you do this).

Of course, you can increase the gain even further so that the output is louder than the original track.

This is one of the main reasons for you to use compression…

Because we are reducing the volume of the loudest peaks, we can increase the overall volume of the track.

How to Use a Compressor

Now that you understand what each of the knobs does, let’s go through how to set up a compressor, step-by-step:

how to use a compressor infograph

Now that you understand how to set up your compressor, let’s talk about my favorite compression tips for mixers.

NOTE: Watch Dylan explain exactly why we need compression:

Audio compression can be daunting. In this guide I want to teach you exactly how to use a compressor. Some people find learning how to use compression problematic. But here's the solution... There are only five key parameters that matter when it comes to compression. Ratio, threshold, attack, releas

My 10 Top Tips for Audio Compression


Tip #1 – Try using an attack time around 40ms and a release time around 60ms (if it’s an instrument).

Now, these are just guidelines.

And yes, I have already mentioned these figures. But I just wanted to bring them up again.

In no way will these settings work for every instrument.

But it’s a good starting point. You’re not going to mess anything up too much with these settings.

<How To Use Compression Attack Time and Release Time

Tip #2 – Try using an attack time of 6ms for vocals.

You should approach vocals and voice differently when you apply compression.

Lower your attack time to around 6ms and tweak from there.

You can start with a release time around 60ms on vocals too, though!

Attack Time for Vocals

Tip #3 – You don’t always have to use compression…

Use compression for a reason.

Don’t just use compression for the sake of it.

There are two main reasons you would use compression – to control dynamics or to change the tone.

If you don’t have a clear intention or a clear problem that needs fixing, don’t reach for the compressor.


Tip #4 – Stack compressors for more control.

Let me tell you a secret…

You can use more than one compressor on a channel!

Using multiple subtle compressors in a row (especially on vocals) can sound more musical.

Rather than forcing one compressor to do all the heavy lifting, each plugin does its bit.


Tip #5 – Compress the bass guitar and kick together.

This is a great little trick that I like to use.

The bass guitar and kick drum are usually the most heavily compressed instruments on a track.

They provide the bottom end and usually anchor the song.

This trick doesn’t always work. Depending on the song, you might not want to apply heavy compression to both of these instruments. You might want the bass guitar to have a high dynamic range.

BUT, if you have a song where you want the bass and the kick to be pretty consistent, try compressing them together.

Send them both to a stereo buss/aux and apply compression to both of them at the same time.

This really helps them to work together and form a solid, hard-hitting wall of bass. Awesome!


Tip #6 – Parallel compression on drums is more subtle.

If you want to compress the whole drum kit (not just the kick drum), you need to very careful.

Applying compression directly to the drum overheads can quickly lead to disaster.

There is a way around this though – use parallel compression.

What is parallel compression? It’s when you mix the original, uncompressed audio with the new, compressed audio.

For example, you might want to have 50% uncompressed drums and 50% compressed drums.

This sounds a lot more natural and maintains the natural dynamics of the drums. But at the same time it makes the drums sound bigger and heavier.

Give it a go!

Some compressors have this ability built in. If yours doesn’t, it’s easy to do.

Send all your drums tracks to a stereo buss/aux (and maybe even the bass too). Make sure you do this with sends, not by changing the output of the tracks. You still want the original tracks going to your master output.

Then, apply heavy compression to this new stereo buss/aux. Aim for 8dB reduction or more.

Slowly bring up this new ‘compression’ buss/aux until you can just about hear it and it sits nicely under the rhythm section. Experiment with EQ (trying boosting the lows and highs) and different compressor settings.

Bobby Owsinki talks about this trick a lot, and has coined it ‘The New York Compression Trick’.


Tip #7 – Apply subtractive EQ before compression.

Low frequencies carry a lot more power than high frequencies. They’re a lot harder for a compressor to work with.

You should always put your subtractive EQ and high pass filters before the compressor.

This way, the compressor doesn’t have to deal with these unwanted frequencies!

Compressor and EQ Plugin order
But, BIG disclaimer…

Plugin order really doesn’t matter that much. Play around with it, but don’t obsesses over it.


Tip #8 – Pick a plugin and stick with it.

Although compressors always have those 5 key parameters, they vary a lot in their extra features.

It’s best to settle on one compressor and get used to it.

The one that comes with your DAW will be more than sufficient in most cases.

Don’t confuse yourself by using different plugins every time. Stick to one and learn it inside out!


Tip #9 – Watch the meters.

Most compressors have a graphic representation of how much the audio is being compressed.

If the compressor doesn’t frequently dis-engage and return the audio to normal, your threshold is too low.

Watch the meter and make sure the compressor isn’t constantly on.


Tip #10 – Match the output gain to the input.

This is a common problem in mixing (and mastering).

To our ears, an increase in volume sounds pleasant.

We perceive louder volume as better.

You should frequently compare your new compressed audio to the original audio to see if you have made an improvement.

If your output is louder than the original audio, you will always perceive the compressed audio as better.

To avoid this, it is important to match the output volume to the input volume when you are tweaking the compressor.


Compressor Gain Matching

Then, when you are satisfied with the changes, boost the gain if you need more volume on the track. But only after you’ve adjusted the parameters.



Aren’t you lucky! Here’s a free bonus tip!

You may have noticed another setting on your compressor called ‘knee’.

By default, most compressors have what we would call a ‘hard knee’ (low number). This means that as soon as the audio hits the threshold, the compressor kicks in and reduces the gain at the ratio that we set.


An image to show a hard knee in the Pro Tools stock compression plugin

But what if we want the compressor to act more subtly and gradually increase gain reduction as the level of the incoming signal increases?

We can achieve this by using a ‘soft knee’ (high number).


An image to show a soft knee in the Pro Tools stock compression plugin

Using a soft knee on vocals, piano and melodic instruments can make compression less obvious and more natural. But on a more rhythmic instrument, such as drums, you should use a hard knee.


The Key to Nailing Compression

Rules are made to be broken (or bent).

Once you’ve become comfortable with compression, start experimenting.

You can use compression as a creative effect to achieve all kinds of weird, crazy sounds. If that’s what you want, of course.

As I always say, trust your ears. Use these tips as a starting point, but use your ears above all else.

Now to put everything you’ve learned in to practice. It’s no good having all this awesome info just rattling around in your brain.

You don’t want to forget everything you have learned here…

So I put together a free cheat sheet to help you implement all of this.

Download it here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

61 comments on this article

  • Avatar

    I do accept as true with all of the concepts you’ve
    presented in your post. They’re very convincing and will certainly work.

    Still, the posts are too quick for starters. May you please prolong them a little from next time?
    Thank you for the post.

  • Avatar

    Yes! Finally something about podcast.

  • Avatar

    It sounds like there are a lot of knobs to be familiar with. My office needs some new compressors. We need them to work for some audio recordings.

  • Avatar

    Asking questions are actually nice thing if you are not understanding
    something totally, but this article presents good understanding

  • Avatar

    Polʏgon Consensus will open itѕ whitelіsting for NFT minting.
    It is built on the Ethereum network and you’ll fіnd a assortmеnt that is huge of goods
    there. A popup will pгovide you with the choіcе to connect yoᥙr wallet
    with Rarible.

  • Avatar

    Ιn 2019, thе corporate launched Adventure Academy, an educational app
    and recreation foг youngѕtеrs ages

  • Avatar

    When I got to the examples video, there was too much talking. I kept waiting for what the settings sound like and I lost patience waiting. So my suggestion is to remove a lot of the talk about unnecessary things like how popular a particular compressor is. Who cares ! (don’t mean to be harsh)

  • Avatar

    I’m just getting started on my home studio and it’s all so overwhelming! I found this article and can’t believe how much I’ve learned just from reading it! I just wanted to say THANK YOU! What a huge help!

  • Avatar

    That tells the search engine what the post is about so it might
    probably discovver those posts when users search the hashtag.

    But let’s have a have a look at some of thhe perfect hashtags you should use prkper now in your artwork
    accounts. Popular hashtags which have lots of posts implies that extra individuals are
    looking ouut those terms… They are going to seee a spike in the variety of followers, and they will
    watch as their feedback get misplaced within the mess of tthe ones which
    are pretend. Try occasionally integrating new ones
    to see if you see better outcomes. Each piece will have its personal unique properties
    too so remember to strive different hashtags for the whple lot you upload.
    They sruggle to purchae followers, publish erratically, and surrender
    out of frustration. It might take some tweaking
    to find the most effective hashtags that work for
    you, but this list should give you a lot to start out with.
    As Chafkin quickly discovered, it takes a lot
    of labor to be well-liked onn Instagram, which is whhy everyone isn’t instafamous.
    Less standard hashtags are searched much less usually however you’ll
    have a lot much less completion for being seen by these who are looking
    these terms.

  • Avatar

    It’s good to know that some compressors have an auto-gain feature that should be avoided. Now I know what to look for. Hopefully, I can find one that doesn’t have it.

  • Avatar

    I love the way you lay out information. Great teaching. Thanks so much.
    I’m hoping to do some of your courses when I feel more confident with the basics.

  • Avatar

    This is very helpful. Thank you.

  • Avatar

    A realy great article which helps a lot in understanding a compressor.

    In the chart which explains atack and release time, naming of *input and output signal* is inverted either in the text or in the chart.
    Text: the blue line is the audio outcoming vs.
    Chart: the blue line is described as input level.

  • Avatar

    Rob, you’re a legend! Great article, very clear and easy to understand. Simplified it. Extremely helpful. Great job, can’t wait to read more

  • Avatar

    Rob, thank you for this article. Your insight is much appreciated! I am curious about the differences with compressors that are set up otherwise. I use Cubase, which comes with a similar compressor, but also with Vintage Compressor and Tube Compressor plugins. Noticeably different pots! Any insight on using those vs the generic compressors? Thank you!

  • Avatar
    Scott Brownlee says:
    March 28, 2019 at 01:16:23 pm

    This is the first article about compressors I’ve read that actually made sense. Thank you for using regular English so we beginners can figure it out. Super helpful!

  • Avatar

    Great article. Thanks
    Little thing: You mixed up the red and blue line in the text.

  • Avatar

    Very useful things about compressors i didnt know acclaim you…

  • Avatar

    Godsend …
    Thank you for the knowdge . May god bless you.

  • Avatar

    Thanks a lot for this! This is probably the most “just or to the point” tutorial I’ve ever come across relating to compression.
    May God bless you!!

  • Avatar

    I love the way you present things Rob. Your teaching methods really suit my learning style and I find your lessons very informative and easy to grasp. Ive tried to learn to use compressors several times and had a rough understanding but now I feel confident my mixes will sound better tomorrow.


  • Avatar

    please will the compressor work if I connect it as an effect unit on my mixer aux (it’s analog) I have only one compressor and I want to share it on all the channels which will need compression.

    • Avatar

      Yes you can but it will compress everything unless you can set it to a frequency range or its multiband in that case it will compress selected frequencies only.

  • Avatar

    Like a writer would use a paint brush….classic mate. Why do you say “wiff” and not “with”?

  • Avatar

    One of the finest tutorials on compressor…

  • Avatar

    Thanks a hud’ed bro, never knew what it was used for but used it any way. Really helpful.

  • Avatar

    Always knew what compressors do, never really understood HOW they do it. Why? Because I’ve never had it explained to me with such brilliant simplicity before. Thank you sir, I think I GET it now. :)

  • Avatar

    Fantastic Rob! I’ve always understood compression to a degree, but this really improves my understanding. Especially on vocals!!!

  • Avatar

    Thanks for all this detailed overview of compression.

  • Avatar
    Kaydeegroove Akinbuwa says:
    November 21, 2017 at 09:25:14 am

    Thanks so much for this detail teaching on compressor
    Please, I need more teaching on the terms Limiter, Auto gate and other dynamics

  • Avatar

    Rob, your tips are pure gold! Thank you very much!

  • Avatar

    Thanks Rob this is a Brilliant im Gonna use then all :-)

  • Avatar


  • Avatar
    Andrea Chiantore says:
    July 21, 2017 at 10:16:03 am

    Amazing guide! Thank you so much! :-)

  • Avatar

    Thanks so much for this very clear presentation, Rob. You’re a good teacher, and I learned a lot.

  • Avatar

    Rob … thanks man
    this is so cool … I believe it’s for everybody
    Great !!

  • Avatar

    There was no better way anyone could have explained this to me! Thanks…I have also tried using multiple compressors atop each other…this had helped me to get a better boost…but is there anything that I should be aware of while doing so? Hope you also shed some light on this.

    • Avatar

      This is called serial compression, it’s a great technique. Apply less gain reduction on each compressor than you usually would to avoid over-compressing.

  • Avatar

    […] even then, once you have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of compression, there is still so much more to explore. So much more that could go […]

  • Avatar

    Hi, I appreciate you have done the compressing course in such simple way. Thumb up!!! As for the picture
    “how the output lags behind the input due to the attack and release time of the compressor” shown above, the threshold is set at +3, an input signal is +9dB and is compressed to +6dB. So this means the ratio is set at 1,5:1, isn’t it?
    How about a knee? It is set in dB. Does a soft knee start under threshold level and before attack time? Thank you

  • Avatar

    Great posting. I’ve been using compressor not knowing these basic things..
    It was simple and perfect guide for compressor! Thank you so much :)

  • Avatar

    Best info on compression ever. Well understood.

  • Avatar

    I’ve read in mixing books and various sites that it is always best to apply dynamics before equalization. Also my presonus eureka (which is intended for vocals) presets the compressor into the eq although there is a button to switch this. At the same time I’ve purchased mixing vids that state to corrective eq first. If you use corrective eq into the compressor won’t the compressor just raise everything you notched out? Also one of the mixing vids I have doesn’t use additive eq on lead vocals but instead applies it at the master phase. What do you think of all of this and what would be the safest bet in your opinion? Thank you and great article by the way! Very helpful and informative.

    • Avatar

      Hi Kwame,

      There is no right or wrong answer – everyone has their preferred method, but it mostly comes down to experimentation.

      80% of the time, I will go: Subtractive EQ > Compression > Additive/Tonal EQ

      Then I will experiment with swapping the plugins around and see if it works better in a different order.

      My general view is this… remove the ugly stuff with surgical EQ, then compress, then add any tonal adjustments with EQ. But sometimes, the compressor works best right at the end.

      Try out different ways, and see what works best for the source.

      As for lead vocals, it’s normal to use both additive and subtractive EQ directly on the vocal. In fact, aggressive additive EQ on the top end (6-10kHz+) is pretty standard.

  • Avatar

    I’ve plowed thru tons of articles and videos about compression and your article is BY FAR the easiest to understand. Thanks for taking the time to put this together for everyone.

  • Avatar

    you are the man my friend…thank you

  • Avatar

    Amazing and very clear information, really it was a moment for me, to finally understand compression! Thanks a lot!!

  • Avatar

    I’m going to experiment with the knee setting a bit more next time!

    Thanks Rob

  • Avatar

    This is so helpful! Thanks Rob :)

  • Avatar

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. I have read a bit about side chain compression but it seems like an added level of complexity that may not get me much. Do you recommend spending some time learning side chain compression?

    • Avatar

      Hi Blake!

      Side chain compression definitely has its uses, but I wouldn’t say it was a necessity. In certain situations, it’s the right tool for the job.

      I sometimes like to compresses all the backing instruments with the vocal side chained. This drops the whole band by a decibel or two when the vocal comes in. Side chaining is also used a lot in dance music. The whole track is compressed with the kick side chained. This gives that ‘pumping’ effect.

      But otherwise, I wouldn’t say it’s a tool that you should focus too much on. That is, until you are in a situation where you see a clear need for it!

  • Avatar

    Which tip are you going to try next time you use a compressor?