10: Mixing and Tracking Electric Guitars – Best use of compression (research and listening)

After some research, it seems that my own thoughts on this matter are valid:
Distorted guitars need little compression, if any at all!
This is due to the way in which distortion and amplifiers already limit dynamics.

But what about cleaner electric guitars?
Should compression be used for effect on more distorted lines? Or to accentuate certain qualities?


This SOS article makes an interesting point, saying:

“You’ll often find that using as much distortion on a recording as you do live results in a very messy sound that spreads right across the frequency spectrum, so a useful trick is to use less overdrive on the guitar and then add compression to get the sustain back.”

I like this idea, as it allows an extra level of dynamic control to guitars after tracking.

For a classic “overdrive rock guitar” sound, it’s advised that compression is not really needed, as it has such a small dynamic range anyway.


Another good point made by this article is this:
“Using a faster release time in combination with a high degree of compression can cause audible level pumping, but this may be used creatively to enhance the sense of power and loudness.”

This is a very interesting idea, as it’s not necessarily the technically correct approach, but instead plays on our perception of dynamics.


Aside from a few interesting points in this article, I found a lot of extremely simplistic, and some plain BAD advice out there regarding guitar compression.

Listening to various recordings shed no light on the matter either, as compression tends to be rather transparent, and without the source material to reference, it’s almost impossible to uncover what their compression is doing to the guitars.

The most important thing that this exercise has taught me is that you should think about what you need from a guitar before reaching for the compressor. Some clean, and rhythm parts simply need smoothing out, although for some lead parts, you may want to accentuate or squash sustain, depending upon the material. The way in which a compressor affects tone should also be considered, as it can sometimes be easy to miss when you’re not listening for it, and can quickly disturb the tonal balance that took so long during the tracking stage.


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