Easy Mixing Advice: Compression and Orchestral Music

It’s a common misconception that orchestra music doesn’t need compression. Especially film music relies on compression, it’s important for the “Hollywood sound” we’re used to listening to for the last 30-40 years. So, compression is basically a good thing.

Two reasons why:

  1. Orchestra music with its loads of timbres and combinations of textures is inherently about detail and subtleties. Compression can bring those out. The important thing here is to balance that effect against suppressing the more important “in the face” elements. I advise to be careful about it, especially when using short attack times.
  2. Orchestral music is highly dynamic. ppp is very silent, while fff might hurt your ears. Listening to orchestral music with lots of dynamics requires concentration and in some places it’s not even possible like on the subway or in the car. Compressing the whole mix increases the overall volume and makes it easier to enjoy the music in its entirety.  Of course, the loud parts will be attenuated during compression. If this happens too fast, you’ll notice it as kind of “unmusical” and if it happens too often, it’s called “pumping”. Subtlety rules!

My approach: I use the UAD SSL Compressor on the mix bus with a 10 ms attack time, long-or-auto release time and low ratio (2:1). In order to find the ideal threshold setting, I loop some loud part and reduce the threshold slowly until a compression of 2 or 3 dB is indicated. These settings are my starting point for any orchestral project. Which are yours?


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