written by
Austin Summers

Should you use analog compression before reaching your DAW?

Tips 4 min read

Generally, people in the audio industry are divided into two schools of thought.

Some people believe that recordings should be as pure, dry, and unprocessed as possible, and others believe the complete opposite.

Which of them is correct?

Well, it’s not quite as simple as we think. Here’s why.

Man Deep in Thought about whether or not to compress on the way in.

Recording Environment Factors

The variables that make up the complexity of recording good quality unprocessed recordings also affect the way outboard gear, AKA Analog compression on the way in, behaves, and the final result.

Room acoustics, mic positioning, and vocal dynamic range(loudest to softest points) all affect the way that the compressor will react, and as a result, what the final result will sound like. Something to note is that once you’ve recorded through your analog chain, there’s no taking off the equipment you’ve used, for better or worse.

Hearing the change

To judge whether or not you’ve achieved all the pre-requisites mentioned above to successfully record with analog gear and not end up with a subjectively bad recording, you need to be able to hear the sound properly. You need to be able to monitor the singer live, with a high-quality pair of monitors in a room with excellent room acoustics so you can pick up whether or not the singer is singing incorrectly into the microphone, the wrong distance to the microphone, or whether or not the dynamics of the vocalist is causing the compressor to react too violently(depending on what outboard gear you have at your disposal and the singer, some situations need to be finessed in the DAW and then sent back to the outboard gear in order to achieve perfection).

Often, with a highly dynamic singer, you have two options. First, suppose you’d like to use analog compression on the way in. In that case, it’s better to apply moderate compression in the recording process, be on the safe side, and make critical automation adjustments, clean up breaths, then send the signal back out to analog gear in the mixing process to give yourself the greatest level of attention to detail.

Or, you could record without any signal processing, approach the signal with detailed automation processing, clean up breaths, and then send it back out to analog gear. The distinction is slight, but sometimes, it’s better to choose one over the other for greater control.

Room Acoustics and how to Approach the Process

Room acoustics play a vital role in whether or not you should be recording with analog compression in the first place.

By recording in a sub-optimal room, you’re introducing many unwanted resonances into the signal and then amplifying that with compression before it reaches your DAW.

This isn’t always desirable as a better-recommended mindset would be to record without processing, clean up the resonances with things like Surfer EQ(which follows that resonance, allowing for greater control than an analog EQ could), or a dynamic EQ to only reduce that frequency when it occurs prominently allowing for a natural-sounding reduction(fabfilter ProQ3), and then run the cleaned-up signal it back into analog gear, therefore getting the best result on a technical level.

Committing to the recording

There’s a consensus amongst many of the older recording engineers that committing to the recording is a positive approach to take when doing this and swear by recording into analog gear because it forces the engineer to make decisions with no option to turn back.

They’re not wrong, and there’s a certain validity to be had regarding this approach. It DOES cause your brain to act under pressure and is very likely to cause you to pay more attention to the actual recording process because you know you can’t fix it later. Another thing it does is it shows you what your near-final result is going to sound like, allowing you to then work backwards and troubleshoot any problems in the recording process, mic positioning, vocalist distance, tonality, etc.,

While I agree with this, I also like to approach things with an open mind to technicalities, have an expanded thought progression on details, and not just blindly go with a direction because others say you should. I encourage you to do the same and utilize this mindset based on the situation at hand and all the recording environment factors I’ve mentioned in this article, deciding on a case-by-case basis.

There IS validity in each method. The wisest engineers just know when to use each of them. That is how you reach a truly high level in your ability to provide the best value in this ever-challenging environment we know and love that we call studio recording.

By the way, if you’re looking for a great analog compressor to try on vocals after they’ve been recorded, we’ve got one that really packs a punch.

Our 1176 Revision A, D, and G versions are still free to use for a little while longer. Try it out below. https://mixanalog.com/products/adg76

mixanalog vocals recording