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Why do people compress electric guitars? Dynamics Plugins
Old 26th July 2014
  #1
Gear Nut
Why do people compress electric guitars?

I've read much about the need to (sometimes heavily) compress distorted electric guitars. This always puzzles me, as I feel that the distortion process adds its own form of compression anyway.
Well, I've tried compressing distorted guitars, and couldn't see any benefit - at best a "slight difference" at worst no difference except bringing the noise floor up.
What's it all about?

I use a Crest Century vx desk, and out board compressors (3630, yes I know!) so is it just that my compressor is so rubish?
Old 26th July 2014
  #2
Lives for gear
 
frans's Avatar
I can speak only for myself and my methods, which may suck, but... I never understood either. If the waveform looks already like a brick you could only grab the frontend of the first block and make it "pop" more, like a snare with maybe 35ms attack. Sometimes it's the extra grit and gnarl some compressors bring without doing much to the levels, like a 1176, running without moving the needle.
Too much compression (or too much gain on a guitar either) makes the sound thin, farty, fizzy, weak. That can be nice to bring it up a bit under tracks that still have some attack and dynamics, like a sauce. But surely not as a main guitar track, in most cases.
Another one would be that some compressors, even without doing any reduction, have the effect of "bringing it forward" a bit, adding a little urgency.

But IF something can take a little friendly compression it's a signal with too wide dynamics or something that GOT dynamics you want to reshape.
Old 26th July 2014
  #3
Gear Nut
Yeh, I guess that's kinda my thoughts, but I just keep hearing/reading about it - puzzling. Maybe it's more for "overdriven" guitar that still has dynamics left...
Old 26th July 2014
  #4
Gear Maniac
 
nazaroo2's Avatar
As an (also) guitarist, here's my 2 cents;


(1) Why Guitarists compress:


(a) #1 reason: sustain. Everyone wants it and will do whatever they can to get more. From heavy brass blocks to hardwood bodies, and especially many combinations of overdrives and distortion pedals, to give as full a sustained note as possible, rich in harmonics and not thin, wimpy or dying off prematurely.

A guitarist wants a note to hold when he holds a note.

(b) #2 noise: Guitars (especially single-coil strats etc.) can be the noisiest instruments around, and cause all kinds of problems especially recording.
So a combination of noise-gate / expander (to drop noise floor and raise soft notes / legit sounds), and compressor (to stay in the sweet zone and get just
the right amount of distortion) is usually necessary for a useful output.

(c) #3 control: The most important quest for a guitarist is the perpetual hunt for tone, which means REPEATABLE and reliable, stable sounds. A compressor
placed before a distortion device (including an amp input section) is pretty
necessary if you want to get the sound you want, and get it again and again.

(2) Why Soundmen compress:

(a) Control: to be able to prevent overload of gain stages, and achieve just the right amount of distortion and/or colour in case the guitarist can't do it himself.

(b) tracking: to balance and even out the varying volume that results when guitarists express themselves, against the rest of the band.

(c) Tone: to scoop out, suppress or enhance whatever frequency range needs adjusting, so guitars don't step on other instruments like vocals, and
for nuanced surgery using parametric EQs.

(d) mixdown: To prepare the final (stereo) mix for broadcast purposes,
with the expectation that stations will also compress the signal further themselves, for efficient transmission. One must mix with an ear to making sure that the mix still sounds good even when processed by independent promoters and venues.
Old 26th July 2014
  #5
Gear Nut
Yeh, I pretty much agree with all that too - but still I feel I'm missing what it is about going right ahead and heavily compressing already heavily distorted guitar tracks, whilst in the mixing process. Or maybe I just misunderstood all those times I thought I heard/read about it. A book I just finished reading mentions it a few times, will have to try and find the relative bits and post...
Old 26th July 2014
  #6
Just because something is distorted doesn't mean it has the dynamics to sound exciting. Reshaping the waveform can give it extra attitude / energy.
Old 26th July 2014
  #7
Lives for gear
 
BOWIE's Avatar
Compression doesn't just affect the dynamics, it can change the tone as well. Then, there's the gear itself. A lot of hardware comps "season" the sound in a special way and you sometimes want a signal running through them for that character, even if you're not compressing much, or at all. My favorite on electric gtr is just riding 2bd gr from an LA-2A. The compression itself gives a touch of fullness and groove, and the gear adds a character that I love on many electric guitar tracks, helping to subdue harshness and bring out the warmth.
Old 26th July 2014
  #8
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KRStudio's Avatar
 

If you double track guitars a little compression on the guitar bus can gel the tracks together. Compression can also be used for tone shaping not just level control. Too much pick attack or not enough? The right compressor and settings can help either problem.
Old 26th July 2014
  #9
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doorknocker's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by BOWIE View Post
Compression doesn't just affect the dynamics, it can change the tone as well. Then, there's the gear itself. A lot of hardware comps "season" the sound in a special way and you sometimes want a signal running through them for that character, even if you're not compressing much, or at all. My favorite on electric gtr is just riding 2bd gr from an LA-2A. The compression itself gives a touch of fullness and groove, and the gear adds a character that I love on many electric guitar tracks, helping to subdue harshness and bring out the warmth.
+1.

Distorted/Overdriven guitars are compressed to begin with but additional compression will focus on a different part of the sonic spectrum. That's why even several 'stacked' compressors can work great, say a pedal altering the sound going into the amp, something like an LA-3A after the mic pre/before tape/harddisk and then one or more hard/or software comps in the mix.

It sounds excessive but with each compressors doing very little compressing but changing/adding to the tone you might end up with a final sound that actually feels more organic than a 'true' representation of a roaring Marshall stack.

Euphonic is probably the right word. Or as somebody once said somwhere, compression IS the sound of rock.
Old 26th July 2014
  #10
Gear Nut
Excellent answers guys, thanks. Yeh I do tend to double track the guitars Mind you my playing is a little shaky so maybe I could try working with the comps to get that gel. Normally I just see how far apart I can pan them before the inconsistencies become too bad. And I get the attack thing too. And the "seasoning".
Probably I don't have a compressor that can add a real nice voice to anything - might look into that LA-2A
Old 27th July 2014
  #11
Lives for gear
Quote:
Originally Posted by johnylondon View Post
This always puzzles me, as I feel that the distortion process adds its own form of compression anyway.
I've read that meme many times and never understand it.
You compress guitars if you think it sounds better.

I almost always think it sounds better.
Old 27th July 2014
  #12
Gear Nut
thanks for that - I imagine a high quality compressor is going to stand a far better chance of improving a sound, even with little gain reduction - but I wonder, do you find it most helpful on guitars that are just overdriven or clean? If I play an overdriven sound, I normally really need a compressor pedal/patch in the fx/pre amp (ie before the signal gets to "tape", so I guess adding more at mixdown could be useful too?
What about very distorted guitars, is a lot of compression that useful in your experience?
Old 5th August 2014
  #13
Everything is situational. Insert the compressor and if you can't get it to sound better, then get rid of it. Play with the release to adjust the timing of the tails to the song's tempo. Set the attack to the proper amount of impact you want the signal to have. Good luck
Old 5th August 2014
  #14
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by johnylondon View Post
I've read much about the need to (sometimes heavily) compress distorted electric guitars. This always puzzles me, as I feel that the distortion process adds its own form of compression anyway.
Well, I've tried compressing distorted guitars, and couldn't see any benefit - at best a "slight difference" at worst no difference except bringing the noise floor up.
What's it all about?

I use a Crest Century vx desk, and out board compressors (3630, yes I know!) so is it just that my compressor is so rubish?
yeah definitely a total amateur thing compressing distorted guitar. Maybe if you use a solid state amp but tubes have so much compression the only way you need to add a compressor if you screwed up tracking and have lots of peaks. Though I can't imagine how one could do that. Compressors make distorted guitars sound really cheap..
Old 5th August 2014
  #15
It's all your choice man.. I never compress heavily distorted metal guitars..

I'm working on a song now that has heavy rhythm guitars that I didn't touch at all with compression, then a solo section with a light fuzzy distortion that leaves a ton of dynamic range intact, so I compressed that... I only compress distorted guitars when the distortion isn't crushing the dynamics enough.

It's all up to you.
Old 5th August 2014
  #16
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filipv's Avatar
For the same reason they compress other stuff: control of peaks and average levels. You can't mix a track (guitar or whatever) with levels all over the place.
Old 5th August 2014
  #17
I always do it for 'glue' reasons.. In my own stuff there are always double tracked guitars (Im a sludgy industrial doom metal guy so ya know). Do one take, pan it left, do another take of the same thing pan it right.. Just because I record one instantly after the other doesnt mean the peaks and levels all line up. So they get sent to a stereo bus in Logic, and I use one there to tighten it up and keep em together. I used to throw the Focusrite Scarlett comp on it with the 'Tight Limiter' preset (got the idea from a SOS article I think) and it was pretty good at not really altering the sound just bring them both up so they were on the same page.. Was playing around with some old tracks the other day and started replacing it with the Stillwell Rocket and I think thats now my go to 'glue' (I like it better than the Waves CLA-76 too). The Stillwell definitely colors it now, but in that lovely way that only an 1176 style comp can do.. The CLA was a bit 'darker' I guess, and more rounded on the transients, but the Rocket just made it JUMP and brought out the upper mids in a nice aggressive way that I love..
Old 6th August 2014
  #18
I do it for tone and for sitting lead parts in a mix.

I love the tone of an LA3A on electric guitars and sometimes I will track a lead guitar playing 1/8th notes in the chorus and smash it with -10dB GR on an LA3A which really gets it pumping with a nice gritty tone and it usually sits in the mix beautifully.
Old 6th August 2014
  #19
Gear Addict
 

Heavily distorted guitars (except lead) I almost never compress. Overdriven can be too...attacky sounding...so sometimes that needs compression. Especially overdriven leads that aren't saturated enough. Heavily distorted guitars sometimes you need to control the lows/low-mids, so multiband can work instead of EQ.

That's all damage-control stuff, there are lots of good contributions above about tonal and glue reasons.
Old 7th August 2014
  #20
Likely 99.99% of all rock guitarists are not professionally trained musicians. Many barely have a true grasp on the instrument. The result is uneven playing and wild dynamic range. I would say 10% of compression usage is to saturate or control the tone of good musicians, and the rest is to make the hacks listenable. Even dynamics give the impression of high quality.

Sorry if the guitarists out there take this personally. I'm sure you are in the .01%
Old 8th August 2014
  #21
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by rumleymusic View Post
Likely 99.99% of all rock guitarists are not professionally trained musicians. Many barely have a true grasp on the instrument. The result is uneven playing and wild dynamic range. I would say 10% of compression usage is to saturate or control the tone of good musicians, and the rest is to make the hacks listenable. Even dynamics give the impression of high quality.

Sorry if the guitarists out there take this personally. I'm sure you are in the .01%
Even the .01% find a way to get a comfortable amount of compression in their signal. Without it, they would feel like they were fighting their guitar and no guitarist really enjoys doing that. Also, dynamic range in the traditional sense with regards to distorted guitars, can only truly be controlled with a volume pedal in an amplifiers FX loop. A rolled back volume knob may clean up a guitars signal but the volume is roughly the same, just less saturated. It's not a hill I want to die on but the jargon used regarding the electric guitar is too often wrongly applied.

Now, if we are talking about processing a recorded signal in the mixing/editing phase than carry on because the effect is very different once the guitar track is laid down...
Old 8th August 2014
  #22
Quote:
Now, if we are talking about processing a recorded signal in the mixing/editing phase than carry on because the effect is very different once the guitar track is laid down...
That is what I am talking about at least. Anything that happens before the amp is fair game artistically speaking IMO.
Old 8th August 2014
  #23
Lives for gear
Quote:
Originally Posted by chainrule View Post
yeah definitely a total amateur thing compressing distorted guitar. Maybe if you use a solid state amp but tubes have so much compression the only way you need to add a compressor if you screwed up tracking and have lots of peaks. Though I can't imagine how one could do that. Compressors make distorted guitars sound really cheap..
Pretty much all recorded guitars in the past 40 years for rock, heavy rock and metal have some compressor on them. Blanket statements like this don't help.

If you think Eddie Van Halen's sound was cheap going through an LA-3A, then that's a matter of opinion...
Old 8th August 2014
  #24
KEL
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by rumleymusic View Post
Likely 99.99% of all rock guitarists are not professionally trained musicians. Many barely have a true grasp on the instrument. The result is uneven playing and wild dynamic range. I would say 10% of compression usage is to saturate or control the tone of good musicians, and the rest is to make the hacks listenable. Even dynamics give the impression of high quality.

Sorry if the guitarists out there take this personally. I'm sure you are in the .01%
"hey you kids, get off my lawn"

Sorry, that made me almost laugh at how ridiculously condescending your contention is.
Old 9th August 2014
  #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by nedorama View Post
Pretty much all recorded guitars in the past 40 years for rock, heavy rock and metal have some compressor on them. Blanket statements like this don't help.
all? I don't think so. I think yours is the blanket statement. Compressing distorted guitars is amateur, there is no reason to. Tube distortion is naturally compressed and already has ultra minimal peaks. If you want to use a compressor as an effect, well that is understood. But that is also not exactly "compressing" the guitar tone, It is using a compressor as a color box, which is fine and viable approach. But you shouldn't confuse the 2 approaches to a problem. If you want to compress for more sustain or to change your tone, perhaps you should assess where the real problems are originating?? It's most likely poor playing technique or use of a cheap guitar or amplifier.
Old 9th August 2014
  #26
Lives for gear
I think if you knew more about how rock albums were recorded, you would realize that it's not. Compression has been a part of rock recording for years, both with tube amp overdrive, analog tape saturation, and compressor limiters. Most of the albums weren't using compression as an effect, but as a viable recording method. I'd suggest doing your homework and showing me top bands that didn't use compression/dynamics in their guitars, either tracking or in mix down.
Old 9th August 2014
  #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by nedorama View Post
I think if you knew more about how rock albums were recorded, you would realize that it's not. Compression has been a part of rock recording for years, both with tube amp overdrive, analog tape saturation, and compressor limiters. Most of the albums weren't using compression as an effect, but as a viable recording method. I'd suggest doing your homework and showing me top bands that didn't use compression/dynamics in their guitars, either tracking or in mix down.
People rarely compress distorted guitars, even less so in the analog days
no one ever compressed them to shave peaks there is no point since there are virtually no peaks. Not sure where you are getting your information but if someone compresses distorted guitars it's either because they were poorly recorded or they don't know how to engineer. First off preamp tubes will naturally compress the guitars' signal, then the power amp tubes will compress the output, speakers like celestions will have natural break up and further soften and reduce peaks.......... then analog tape would swash it again, by that point if someone needs compression it would be a seriously baffling situation (not to mention compression was also on the master buss)


I do recall in the early 80s when SSL became common place people had itchy fingers with those compressors on every channel, there was a load of misguided use of compression going on back then (like digital reverb too), but eventually people smartened up and realized it was just removing more energy and clarity from the guitar tracks.

There are no rules and there are exceptions to every rule, but compressing distorted guitar is usually pointless unless you are going for some effect or color. They simply do not have the types of peaks and valleys that require compression or any dynamics manipulation for that matter. Clean guitar and acoustics are a different story. But distorted guitars are already inherently compressed, if not there is a fundamental underlying issue such as a bad amplifier or generally sloppy playing.
Old 9th August 2014
  #28
Gear Guru
 

Quote:
Why do people compress electric guitars?
Who are these people? For my own part heavy distorted guitars = almost never. Frankly I am always trying to go "lighter" on the compression these days anyway.

Quote:
I've read much about the need ...
Even top professionals disagree on doing certain things, always, sometimes or never. And they are all "correct" in the sense that they make good recordings. That's what makes it interesting.

If you tried something and you honestly don't like it, you are free to move on and not give it a second thought. Not everything you read on the forums is gospel, anyway. So much of it is the blind leading the blind. There is probably at least one recommendation for every bad technique that can possibly exist as well as recommendations for the good ones.

Quote:
and out board compressors (3630, yes I know!)
another good reason not to compress those guitars! heh Some people say they are using their "nice" compressors for tone more than dynamic control. I would not put the Alesis in the "for tone" category, that's for sure.
Old 21st August 2014
  #29
Gear Nut
Just to be clear - I was talking purely about compressing the track, nothing to do with anything in the guitar/amp signal path.

Monotremata - I see you do the thing panning one left and one right - so the compressors could tighten the two if they are slightly off? (KRStudio - you mention this too). Interesting. I heard that Hetfield puts a third "thickener" track sat centrally. I thought to try that but feel sure with my sloppy playing it'll just start to sound too indistinct (with three guitar parts of the exact same thing)... definitely one to try with compressors - I guess you need to link the L/R comps and I suppose side chain the "thickener"?

Maybe the answer is just to nail it good and tight like Hetfield does
Old 23rd August 2014
  #30
Quote:
Originally Posted by johnylondon View Post
Just to be clear - I was talking purely about compressing the track, nothing to do with anything in the guitar/amp signal path.

Monotremata - I see you do the thing panning one left and one right - so the compressors could tighten the two if they are slightly off? (KRStudio - you mention this too). Interesting. I heard that Hetfield puts a third "thickener" track sat centrally. I thought to try that but feel sure with my sloppy playing it'll just start to sound too indistinct (with three guitar parts of the exact same thing)... definitely one to try with compressors - I guess you need to link the L/R comps and I suppose side chain the "thickener"?

Maybe the answer is just to nail it good and tight like Hetfield does
Yeah thats pretty much why I do it. As I said, when I track my own stuff I do the first pass, then immediately do the second one. Even then, without moving the mic, amp settings, or anything, the two tracks are never 'equal' so I send em to a stereo bus with an 1176 type comp.. Never squeezing the crap out of em, just a little 'smoothing' and keeping em together..

Randy Rhoads used to triple track as well. One panned hard left, one hard right and a third straight up the middle.. Guy was a madman, he even triple tracked his solos and NAILED each take perfectly..

I never knew Hetfield did that as well. Makes sense though on the classic albums since he was the only one playing on the records, and Kirk's always had pretty crappy tone haha.
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