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3 Ways to Use Multiband Compression in a Mix

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I’ve done a few videos on multiband compression — what it is, some techniques that incorporate multiband compression, etc., and I highly suggest checking those out (update: full workshop now available). However, I also thought it would be nice to give a basic run down of multiband and some common places I find myself using it.

And as a side note for you jargon sticklers — yes, dynamic EQ is technically different from multiband compression, but functionally they are very similar.

When I think of frequency-based compression, the words “tonal consistency” come to mind.

For example, de-essing is generally a form of multiband compression, and it’s most commonly used when the sibilance in a vocal performance is too much. Here, the vocal could be dynamically fine, but the vocal tone is inconsistent because there’s a piercing upper frequency band that keeps poking out on every “s” and “t”. We use the de-esser to make the vocal more tonally consistent, and control those spikes. De-essing aside, here are three ways I tend to use multiband compression in a mix.

1. Controlling Pop Vocal Tone

In a lot of styles, a tonally dynamic vocal is very much appreciated. However, in Contemporary Pop, we’re often going for a vocal sound that is just vice-locked in place.

At the same time, we also want a sound that is consistently present, but never harsh, and consistently full, but never muddy. I find that multiband compression particularly in the low-mids and/or upper-mids can achieve exactly that.

A band from 150 Hz – 400 Hz is usually good for reacting to times that the vocalist may lean into the microphone, or incorporate a little more chest sound in her/his delivery.

A band centered around 2 kHz – 3 kHz is usually good for catching those few times that the vocalist gets a little strident or tenses those neck muscles on a note.

2. Bass In Your Face

Bass guitar can be an impressively tricky instrument to get right (probably second on my list of most challenging after drums). In order for a mix to be weighty, we want a consistent low end — but it’s amazing how fast a mix becomes lifeless if we start really messing with the dynamic changes in the bass.

In order to preserve the sense of playing and dynamics, but still keep the low end heavy, I find multiband to be extremely useful.

I’ll set my crossover point to separate the lows, basically everything under 120Hz, and the mids/highs  — everything above. The stuff above that point is the articulation: the growls, finger noises, attack sounds and texture. That stuff loves dynamics. The low end stuff — that’s the fundamental tone — and I find more often than not the fundamental wants to be locked in solid.

I’m generally pretty liberal with my low end compression. I want it to be thick, sustainy, and at the same level. The real magic is in the release time of the compression. If I go too fast I’m going to get modulation distortion, or the bass may just feel choked. If I go a bit too slow I don’t get that extra weight (I get punch, which can be good sometimes, but usually I want weight).

Setting that release time is like adding salt to the recipe — how much is up to the chef, but there’s definitely such thing as too much or too little.

3. Top End Management

Certain elements like cymbals and acoustic guitars can have an absolutely brilliant top end that I don’t want to mess with — except on certain reoccurring moments like finger slides or loud splashes. Because these moments can occur so frequently, going in and editing every single slide and cymbal hit isn’t going to be practical. I also generally don’t want the entire guitar or drum kit to duck out on those hits, so volume automation isn’t even always effective.

A multiband compressor is a great choice for leaving these elements generally untouched while just reigning in those moments that get a little crazy.

Conclusion

Now, these aren’t the only places I use multiband compression — just the times that I find I’m most commonly using it.

I don’t think that multiband compression is the be-all-end-all of mixing, actually I think it can be a bit overrated, but it certain serves its purpose.

What are some of the ways you find yourself using multiband compression regularly?

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.

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  • Ryan D. Williamson

    I like to use multiband on drums. Particularly if I’m working with mostly overheads from an economy recording situation. Generally I’ll be pretty heavy with it and use it parallel to the original signal. I have no idea if this is a good idea or not. It seems to work for me. Any comments or criticisms welcome.

  • Rob Kidd

    I sometimes use it on Kick drum instead of EQ – I’ll split the kick into the different bands (Sub, punch, click) and then manipulate the levels of each band to get the tone and consistency I want. Sometimes this results in little to no need for EQ.

  • Great video Matt!

  • George Piazza

    Many books and mixing websites discourage the use of multiband compression in mixing, but in these days of low budget recordings and limited studio time, it can be a lifesaver. My most common use is on bass guitar, followed by vocals; though almost anything can benefit from multiband in certain situations.
    My favorite trick is to ‘duck’ the low-mids – mids of an instrumental sub-mix (bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.) with the lead vocals using a side chain into a multiband compressor (You can use the vocal as the trigger, or if you have the time, set up a ‘static level’ trigger with a noise generator and a gate keyed to open when the vocal starts, then feed that into the mid band key input of the multi-band compressor; this gives you ‘true’ ducking with a consistent level drop in the mid band). That way, you just push down the masking frequencies without affecting the lows and airy highs; you can get away with a bit more ducking that way and keep the vocals on top without a lot of finicky automation work. It’s amazing how much room can be opened up with this trick without it being detectable to the average ear that any adjustment is taking place.

    • Colin Drake

      Great idea! What mb compressor has individual keys for each band?

    • George Piazza

      Izotope’s Alloy 2 has a multiband compressor that can use an external ‘key’ input; that is the one I use.

      DMG has a plugin called Essence that is mainly a high end de-esser, but it can be used for a number of tasks (including excellent parallel compression in Mastering); you can assign an external key to either an adjustable band pass, high shelf or low shelf, and it has adjustable look-ahead (unlike Alloy 2). It also theoretically can target only the mid or side with an external signal (but I have had problems doing this with the side channel).

      Other plugins have key input capability, but it depends on the plugin format. Eventide plugins do not have external key functionality with the VST format at this time, but they supposedly have external keying in other formats (AAX, AU); Waves is hit & miss in both availability and effectiveness with VST (they are apparently still porting their plugins from VST2 to VST3). If you are using ProTools, you might check out Waves C4 or C6.

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