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They’re vital music-production tools, but exactly what are compression and limiting, and how do they work in Ableton Live 10? Martin Delaney gets squished as he breaks it down to the practicalities…

There are times when music production, especially when it comes to mixing, seems like some weird kind of medieval black art, left over from the days when men in lab coats toiled over warm valves in a place called a ‘recording studio’. One of the most mysterious aspects of this process is compression – and this crosses over into limiting, expansion and, if you’re not careful, mastering. Everybody knows that compression is important but, like EQ, not everybody knows how and when to use it, or even what it is. Here, we’re going to avoid technical explanations as much as possible, and instead give you some ideas about how to use it within your Live productions and performances.

The most basic explanation of a compressor is that it’s a device that reduces the distance between the quietest and loudest parts of sound. You set a level, above which you want the loud bits to be reduced in volume, and… end of tutorial! Almost. A limiter is the same, but anything that tries to pass the defined level is stopped dead. It’s limited and cut off.

With the right settings, a compressor can also double as a limiter, but in Ableton Live we have compressors and a limiters as separate devices, which keeps things a bit more immediate. Unlike most audio effects, a compressor doesn’t have a characteristic sound. In that sense, it’s more of a utility, like an EQ. It can be used to even out the notes in a clean guitar performance, so they sound more consistent; it can constrain the dynamic extremes of a slap bass; it can beef up a recorded beat, because when you even out the dynamics in a recording, you can increase the overall loudness without creating distortion; or it can make a stereo mix sound louder and even blatantly pumped up to an extreme level if that’s what you want. One way to appreciate compression is to look at ‘before and after’ waveforms – I do this all the time. Apply compression to a mix, then export it to disk, and bring it back in on another track, to see both at once.

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About MusicTech

The first issue of MusicTech of 2019 is on sale now! This issue we’ve compiled the very best advice, insight, tips and general music making wisdom from our archive of interviewees to arm you with all the knowledge you need to enhance your compositions this year. We’ve also got the first part of a massive guide to scoring and orchestration, interviews with The Streets’ keyboardist Mike Patrick and industry innovators Aston Microphones, a huge review of Cubase Pro 10 and our usual mountain of tutorials, tips and guides. Enjoy the issue!