At some point in your studio adventures you might be asking yourself this question: do I need to buy an outboard compressor? Maybe you’ve heard that recording with some compression can be helpful. Or perhaps you’ve seen the “big boys” using outboard compressors in the mixing stage. You know they exist. So do you need one?
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What It Can Do For You
The best reason I can think of for someone to use an outboard compressor (i.e. a physical hardware compressor in your signal path) is for recording purposes. A little compression on your vocals, kick or snare drum, or even your bass guitar can be a nice touch when going in to your DAW.
For a dynamic vocalist (someone who varies between loud and soft passages of singing), a simple compressor inserted after your mic pre but before you converters can be a life saver. You’ll tame the peaks, bring up the quiet parts, and get a more even performance going to “tape.” The same is true for recording snare drum. I usually like to compress my snares to get a fatter sound in the mix, so with an outboard compressor you can get this sound set before you even hit record. Nice!
Try A Channel Strip
For most people in a home or project studio you’re using an audio interface with built in mic pres. This means that after you signal hits the mic pre it immediately goes to your converters. No space to slap in a compressor. That is, of course, unless your interface happens to have some insert jacks in the back. Happy clap for you if they do!
If not then you’ll need to not only purchase an outboard compressor but an external mic preamp to patch in before the compressor. Great, just what you wanted. More stuff to buy! Of course the best deal out there for this type of thing is generally a channel strip. This is an all in one hardware unit comprised of a mic preamp, compressor, and even an EQ. I actually use a channel strip in my studio and it’s been super easy to implement. There are some great channel strips out there from companies like PreSonus, ART, and JoeMeek that are super affordable (especially considering you’re getting three units in one).
But, You Don’t Really Need One
To be honest though, you don’t really need an outboard compressor or a channel strip. In fact, up until a year ago I tracked everything for all of my clients straight into my interface. No compression, no EQ, no nothing. Just the solid built in pres. The trick when it comes to really dynamic vocalists or musicians is to keep your hand on the gain knob for the preamp. You have to go old school and turn it down when they get loud. I know it sounds crazy having to do something yourself these days, but trust me it works!
As far as compression in the mixing phase goes, for most people it’s just easier to use plugins. And they sound incredible! They really do. If you have a favorite outboard compressor then be my guest and patch it in to your DAW, but for the rest of you, don’t feel like you’re missing out. Just get to work with your interface and your plugins. You have everything you need to make killer music already!