5 Minutes To A Better Mix: Mix Bus Compression – Part 2 of 31

| 5 Minutes To A Better Mix, Audio Example, Mixing, Plugins, Pro Tools, Tips, Video

Welcome to day 2 of our month of mixing tutorials! I’ve got another 5 minute mixing video for you, and this one covers how to (and why you’d want to) use a compressor on your mix bus or master fader.

A Classic Technique

Compressors can really help bring some punch and energy to your mix, and if you use one properly on your mix bus, it can really gel or glue your entire mix together before you even begin to do the actual mixing as it were. Take the next 5 minutes to find out what to do and not to do with a compressor on your master fader and try it out in your mixes!


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49 Responses to “5 Minutes To A Better Mix: Mix Bus Compression – Part 2 of 31”

  1. joe

    hey we are only on the 2nd video and the track sounds amazing.
    guess you got it at the source.you are too good.
    will you be using a dynamic meter in this series?
    looking forward to tuesdays video

    • JOHN

      Compressor 1st before you do a mix? Dude you are in the wrong business. Btw, mixing in a daw? Your a no talent fool. Please dont make anymore videos or have children.

      • Ronald Byrdsong

        i disagree, i’ve tried the tips given by Graham and in my 30+ years in analog mixing these are by far the best tips, and are easily explained. i’m not going to throw stones back and forth about it i’ll just say that as a analog man in a digital recording world, Graham IS the only other engineer in the world that i would let baby sit my studio.

      • Spiritphingaz

        John, you’re so empty and in the dark. Keep shut and learn more, expand horizon.

  2. Maria

    Hey, is this compressor working post or pre fader? The thing is I really don’t like to bounce on Pro Tools, so I record my stereo mix directly on to the track you call Submix, but I’ve noticed that the bus compression won’t affect my stereo mix unless I place it on the Submaster. Thank you!

    • Graham

      In this case the compresser is Pre fader since that is how aid tracks work in Pro Tools. If u are recording to your Submix track then it would be an audio track, not an aid track. You want to use an aux track or master fader somewhere.

  3. Joe Gilder

    Great stuff, dude. It’s so good to be reminded to not forget to set the bus compressor EARLY in the mix, rather than waiting around until your 3/4 finished and say “Oh crap! I forgot to compress the mix buss!”

    Then everything gets undone by the compressor…and you’ve got to “fix” a lot of things.

  4. Dave King

    On the last couple of mixes I’ve done, I’ve added a multi-band compressor to my master bus for some overall compression and tonal control. Do you ever use a multi-band on your master bus? Ever begin a mix with one in place and build your mix through it? I believe this is what Charles Dye does.

  5. Graham

    Multi band compression can be really helpful in mastering situations, but I don’t see the need when I can mix and compress each part of the mix individually. But again, no rules. Try it!

  6. Bill Campbell

    Putting a compressor on the master channel is a big mistake, a trick to make things sound louder! This practice is one of the main reasons that music is so over-compressed nowadays. Overall compression of the entire mix is the job of the mastering engineer, why not leave it to him/her and concentrate on getting a great sounding track with the least signal processing you can get away with. Rather than use a compressor to control peaks and bring quiet instruments up in the mix, try controlling these things with the fader or automation, which is what they were made for. I think it was George Massenburg who said,” If you cant fly it, get out of the pilots seat.”
    In the very near future the music with the most dynamics that will sound best on the radio. ITU-BS-1770 or in America ATSC A/85 will cause over compressed music to sound lifeless when compared to the dynamic song that comes before or after it on the radio. Of course I’m not saying one should abandon the use of compressors, but they should be used sparingly and NEVER on the master bus.
    See these sites…



    How to apply compression properly? See Bob Katz…


    • Spiritphingaz

      It’s ok to break rules, yea? Rules were made for man and not man for the rules.
      We work in a fast revolving industry where the market needs yesterday is not the same today. It’s ok to make reference to Bob Katz; don’t stifle your art.
      Inserting a compressor in the mix bus before mix begins still gives you room to keep quiet instruments quiet by adjusting your track faders. The compression used in the mix bus is a light one which is for the purpose of gluing your tracks together. Remember, this is not a hard and fast rule. The genre you’re mixing will inform your mix style decision.

  7. Joe Gilder

    Hey Bill. While I see what you’re saying, I disagree. I’ve talked to a couple of professional mastering engineers, and the general consensus is that they sometimes prefer a mix that has a little bit of compression on it BEFORE they get it.

    Also, you said, “Rather than use a compressor to control peaks and bring quiet instruments up in the mix, try controlling these things with the fader or automation, which is what they were made for.”

    Do you use compression on individual tracks in your session? You could make the same argument about that, too.

    Now I’ll agree that I wouldn’t do as much compression as Graham shows in the video, but compression is an excellent tool to have at mix-down.

    What you’re referring to is “over-compression.” I totally agree with you that people need to stop over-compressing their mix. But the solution isn’t to just stop using compression on the master fader. It’s much more useful to learn HOW to use this tool to help make better mixes. Not make them louder.

    Ian Shepherd (pro mastering engineer for 15+ years) wrote a great post on this:


    Happy mixing!!

    • Brian

      I think the right answer as I see stated in some of these comments is there is no right answer. A past teacher of mine, Mix engineer Kevin Doyle, whose credits include Anne Murray, Alannah Myles, Emmy Rossum, Glenn Gould, the Passion Of The Christ soundtrack and Sinead O’Connor rarely uses mix buss compression as he would rather control the dynamics internally. But he has good experience with the mastering process as well and has a close relationship with his mastering engineer which may be a reason he works this way.

  8. Dave King

    One of the theories regarding compression on the master bus is that it somewhat emulates the compression that was naturally created in the old days when tracking to tape. Tape had some inherent compression qualities and generally speaking many folks prefer that sound.

  9. Bill Campbell

    Hi guys, thanks for your reactions to my message. I realize that there are many ways to achieve good mixes – but I think that teaching the inexperienced to ‘automatically’ do something can be detrimental to the quality of a mix.

    Many years ago, I discovered how compressors could benefit my mixes and the advantage of compression on the master buss. My mixes started sounding ‘pro’, or so I thought. Then I attended a lecture by Jim Anderson, president of the AES at the time, on the importance of the right mic and the right mic placement. Jim’s lecture changed the way I recorded from that point on. After much practice, I realized that for some of the music I recorded, I had no need for compression at all (or eq) because placing the right mic in the right position got better results. This was liberating; suddenly I wasn’t just making music that sounded professional, there was a liveliness in the music that I could never achieve with compressors.

    So what I’m saying is that instead of teaching the ‘easy’ way to make a mix gel i.e. by using effects automatically, we should teach other techniques that achieve the same results while the compressor should be used sparingly and for a clearly defined reason. I’ve been researching the ‘loudness wars’ for about two years for my PhD, and I know that putting a compressor on the mix bus it one of the driving factors of the loudness war. In fact, even many of the mixes from the 70’s, which employed tape saturation (compression) to ‘warm up the mix’, were actually over compressed and sounded distorted. Compression is an old habit that is hard to break!

    p.s. I don’t advocate abandoning use of compressors. I advocate using compressors responsibly, for a reason and never automatically.

  10. Ian Shepherd

    Bill, that’s a good point well made. On the other hand, buss compression is ubiquitous not just because of loudness, but because of it’s signature sound. A mastering engineer can sometimes move things in the right direction, but if that’s the sound that’s wanted, it’s better done (carefully and skillfully) at the mixing stage, in my opinion. It’s a tough call, as I tried to make clear in my post, but I think there are strong arguments for buss compression, if it’s well done.


  11. Dexter Beach

    hey graham, could you post the artist of the song your mixing in this video? the song has really grown on me throughout this series and I would love to check out more of their songs!

    Thanks alot!

  12. Jim

    I agree with Bill — “never always anything”. Have a good reason to put any piece of gear (or plugin) anywhere in your signal chain.

    I think an important omission in this video has to do with your video #1 — gain staging. If you are working with a buss compressor from day 1, it might be a little too easy to start sending too much level to the mix buss and not realize it since your buss compressor is squashing it down! I generally check mixes with some buss compression (as it will ultimately wind up with at mastering), but I try not to make any big moves (particularly equalization) while it is engaged. I find that I can put together a coherent mix *faster* if using buss compression at mix-time, but I make *better* mixes without. Even the most transparent compressors (and most stock DAW comps are anything but) impart some amount of sonic coloration, and you are shooting yourself in the foot by coloring your whole mix before you start mixing.

    A good tip would be to periodically bypass your buss compressor and make sure you aren’t hitting the mix buss too hard, and make sure you are still peaking in that good -10dBFS range without the compressor.

    But much of this is dependent upon your gear and your level of expertise. Unless you are a grizzled veteran and have something better than a stock plugin to put on your mix buss, I feel like buss compression early in the mix process can hurt more than it helps and it can compensate for mix errors that you would hear more clearly without anything on the mix buss. (and realize that the first thing your mastering engineer might ask you to do is take anything off the mix buss before sending the pre-masters — again, unless you are a veteran and have some awesome gear & ears, s/he can do it much better than you can.)

    Lastly, I would much rather my mastering engineer not be limited (pun intended) — his Fairman (or Manley or Elysia or Chandler…..) sure sounds a lot better than any DAW plugin for doing that first stage of mastering compression.

  13. DAS

    The thing that people seem to forget, or don’t realize, is that ALL DSP’ing is altering/degrading your audio in some way. That’s why it’s generally not the “best” approach to mix to a compressor on the bus/master channel. It certainly can be done, but it’s not the most “dynamic” approach.

    In other words, it’s not wrong, just not the optimal solution for getting a polished mix. Think about it like this, what is one of the main complaints that audio pros have about mp3’s? That they are not master quality, right? Well why aren’t they? Because, it’s a “compressed” audio format. It takes away certain parts of the audio signal that aren’t considered as audibly necessary, and leaves the other parts that are most noticeable to your human brain, which translates it into a perceptable style of music to your ears.

    Well, when you mix all of your individual project tracks straight to a bus compressor first, then what your ears are really hearing is an altered & compressed form of each individual track. That’s not that big of a deal if your project is made up of about 10 audio tracks. But if you have a project with about 40 or 60+ tracks, and you add all of those tracks together, your final mix is going to be a representation of what you thought each of your tracks should sound like mixing to a bus compressor.

    Have you ever accidentally recorded an audio track in your DAW that contained a bad ground somewhere, and in the lower frequencies there was this annoying “hum” that you can only hear once you crank the volume all the way up on that individual track? Well even if you did, most people wouldn’t worry about it, because that was just that 1 vocal track. Well what if that hum was in ALL of the 32 tracks of your project? Play them all back together and you have a very bad hum/signal in your final output with your song!

    If you mix each of your tracks in a project without a bus compressor, you’re mixing to the actual signal that you intended to record. And your mix will be more dynamic. The main thing that most people don’t realize, is that when music started implementing mix bus compression, they were mixing through bus compressors that were the BEST quality. We’re talking $3,000+ compressors (Neve, Fairchild, SSL, Amek, Focusrite, API, DBX), not stock VST plug-ins that come with Cubase. The quality is the difference between driving in a Mazda verses a Bentley; really that big of a difference.

    So, again, I’m not saying that you can’t mix straight to a bus compressor before hand. But what I am saying is that you’re robbing yourself of getting the best dynamic final mix money can buy that way. I think a stereo 320kbps MP3 sounds really good. But it does not compare to a 24bit/44.1khz .wav stereo track. If you’re doing popular music, like Pop, Electronic, HipHop, R&B, then mixing to the bus doesn’t really matter that much, although you will be able to tell the difference.

    If you’re working with more dynamic styles, like orchestral, AA Contemporary, Jazz, etc, then you will notice a difference mixing without the bus compressor. In fact, there was an interview I was reading of mixing engineers that only mix post production Hollywood soundtracks for feature films through Nuendo, and they specifically said that they do not use compression for their mixing, they use nothing but automation to tame db levels. And then a VERY HIGH QUALITY limiter for the final stage getting right below 0db.

    If you really want a good final mix, use subtractive eq’ing for each of your individual tracks, and then use bus compression with more emphasis on your threshold settings, low comp ratio, slow attack, fast release, and average makeup gain. It really does give your mixes a “gel”, with more dynamics.

  14. Jason

    Hey Graham
    Is it better to cut down(limit) the peaks with a higher ratio like 8:1, or just lower the level of the peaks with a ratio like 2:1????

    Is mixing into a compressor on the mix bus with a threshold of -6 a good idea, or is that threshold too high?

    How do I setup mix bus compression to leave head room for mastering?

    • Graham

      I like to do a low ration like 2:1 and then just set the threshold to where I’m seeing 1db to 3 db of gain reduction on the biggest peaks. No magic number for threshold, it always depends on how loud your mix is to start. I usually adjust the output gain to match where it was before so it’s not really make the mix louder, just compressed. Leaves the same amount of headroom for the mastering engineer.

      • Jason

        Thanks for the response. I guess as your mix progresses and headroom gets eaten up, you would gradually raise your threshold until the mix is complete.

        As a subscriber to your blog, is there a way that I could request topics that you could talk about?

        • Graham Cochrane

          Exactly. If your mix gets louder as you progress then keep checking in with the mix buss compressor to make sure it isn’t working too hard or compressing too much.

          As far as requests go, just shoot me an email and I’ll try to keep it in mind!

  15. jose


  16. Jesse Garden

    Hi Graham,
    A mate just recently told me to come check out your vids, i’m 2 vids in & becoming more & more intrigued by the second.. I’ve just started mucking about with ProTools & can already see your vids are going to be greatly beneficial. I wish to subscribe to your emails & also i’m very interested in the looks of your free downloadable book ‘The #1 Rule Of Home Recording’ but for some reason I cant subscribe. everytime I enter my email and press the subscribe button, it does nothing and I haven’t received and email as of yet. Would you please be able to add me to your mailing list and send through that e-book. Would be greatly appreciated.
    Cheers mate,
    Jesse @ jesse.garden1995@hotmail.com

  17. landsmen

    this topic seems to have many opinions surrounding it , i think i will try both ways and see what works for me,

    i also tried to download your book and had the same problem, would you be so kind to send me the link? also do you have it as a pdf?

  18. Mzie

    Hey Graham im Duncan i was watching Start  Smart videos there’s a little think that confusing myself is great to mix while there is plugins in mix buss? Or you do remove them after mixing? Because most of the time i just hear pleople said is not good to use

    • Graham

      I leave those mix buss plugins on. The only one to take off is a Limiter if you used it to make the mix louder. Save that part for mastering.



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5 Minutes To A Better Mix: Proper Gain Staging – Part 1 of 31

Welcome to the first of what's soon to be 31 videos in my "5 Minutes To A Better Mix" tutorial...