Mastering Compression Tips And Tricks


Many engineers overlook the attack and release controls on a compressor but they can affect the sound more than you think, especially during mastering. In the latest edition of The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook, I outline what these controls can do when used across a full mix either during mixing or mastering.

“The key to getting the most out of a compressor is the Attack and Release (sometimes called Recovery) parameter controls, which have a tremendous overall effect on a mix and therefore are important to understand. Generally speaking, transient response and percussive sounds are affected by the Attack control setting. Release is the time it takes for the gain to return to normal or zero gain reduction.

In a typical pop style mix, a fast attack setting will react to the drums and reduce the overall gain. If the release is set very fast, then the gain will return to normal quickly but can have an audible side effect of reducing some of the overall program level and attack of the drums in the mix. As the Release is set slower, the gain changes so that the drums might cause an effect called “pumping,” which means that the level of the mix will increase then decrease noticeably. Each time the dominant instrument starts or stops, it “pumps” the level of the mix up and down. Compressors that work best on full program material generally have very smooth release curves and slow release times to minimize this pumping effect.
Compression Tips And Tricks
Adjusting the Attack and Release controls on the compressor and/or limiter can have a surprising effect on the program sound.
Slower Release settings will usually make the gain changes less audible but will also lower the perceived volume.
A slow Attack setting will tend to ignore drums and other fast signals but will still react to the vocals and bass.
A slow Attack setting might also allow a transient to overload the next piece of equipment in the chain.
Gain changes on the compressor caused by the drum hits can pull down the level of the vocals and bass and cause overall volume changes in the program.
Usually only the fastest Attack and Release settings can make the sound “pump.”
The more bouncy the level meter, the more likely that the compression will be audible.
Quiet passages that are too loud and noisy are usually a giveaway that you are seriously over-compressing.
Don’t just set those attack and release controls to the middle range and forget about them. They can make a big difference on your final mastered sound.”

You can read more excerpts from The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook 3rd edition and my other books on the excerpts section of