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The Perfect Compression Settings for Guitar Every Time

Master your understanding of compression settings:

Quick guides to compression settings for instruments:

Mixing guitars is hard. When compressing guitars, there are a lot of things that you need to think about to figure out how to approach it without obliterating the performance. Because this is a particularly complicated subject, we'll talk about the reasoning behind compressing guitars so that next time you get guitars, you'll know what needs to be done, and do it right.

The Perfect Guitar Compression Settings

There is no perfect guitar compression setting. Each take will be completely different depending on the source audio material. If it's an electric guitar or an acoustic, it will require different compression settings. If it's recorded with a different mic, got different amp settings, etc. It entirely depends on the source audio. So, read on to find out how to set the best guitar compression settings.

Sadly, although compression can make things sound thicker, rounder, and clearer, it can also make them sound smaller, lifeless, and dull.

Audio compression is the process of reducing the dynamic range of a signal. This means that anything that reduces dynamic range is technically a compressor, including de-essers, dynamic EQs, traditional compressors, multiband compressors, limiters, and even distortion.

When we're mixing guitars, compressors can help you solve a bunch of problems if used properly and can create amazing results making your recordings sound alive and fuller.

A few examples can be:

  • Adding thickness – using very slow attack settings and intermediate release with higher ratio values, soft knee, and no more than 4dB of gain reduction.
  • Adding grit – using soft high or mid-frequency distortion
  • Parallel compression for punch – using a compressor with a slow attack, fast release, extremely high ratio values, aggressive compression, and blending with a dry/wet knob or sends.
  • Adding movement using intermediate fast attack and very fast release timed to the tempo of the track, 2-4:1 ratio, and medium knee settings
  • Adding clarity – a shelving 5KHz boost with an EQ followed by a DeEsser around 6KHz and 8KHz.

First – What Are You Trying To Achieve With Compression?

Think of it like a screwdriver, they all have the same purpose, but you need the one that's right for the job.

There are several reasons why compression is a workable approach to solve most of these issues, but that doesn't mean that you should go and slap any compressor to process your signal.

It's important to know whether a signal requires compression, and even more to know which form of compression is best.

To demonstrate this reasoning, let's take for example a mix where we have acoustic nylon-string guitars, clean electric guitars, and distorted guitars.

Here, the first thing I did was hearing how the strums lack presence and are hardly noticeable – the main riff is nearly absent, the melody feels clumsy, and the distorted guitars are all over the place.

First tried to solve the strums, because they're important for the pace of this part.

I tried to EQ some brightness in but it brought up some awkward frequencies in the top mids, mostly between 3 and 5KHz, so I introduced a DeEsser to compress out noisy frequencies and then did another boost with another de-esser, until I found the right spot.

Notice how the strums are now cutting through the mix a lot easier, and feel fuller. Also, notice how they feel like they're centred, but further away
Notice how compression brought the main riff up and placed it perceivably at the top of the mix above the other guitars

Once done, I noticed that the main riff was nowhere to be found, so I added an LA2A to round up its dynamics and make it feel bigger with a slower compression. This resulted in it being pushed to the top of the mix and sounding much clearer and smoother than before.

However, it still lacked presence, but then I realized that there was masking around low and top mids with the electric guitars, so I added a ProMB to the distorted guitars and used the sidechain feature so that I could trigger compression to the frequencies that were overlapping with the acoustic guitar playing the main riff.

Notice how the electric guitar sounds perceivably at the bottom of the mix, and the lowest frequencies are now contained, letting the mix sound cleaner. But, now the main riff sounds a bit muddy and unnoticeable, so let's go through what I did to clean it up.

I decided to do the same as I did with the strums and boosted the top-end with an EQ into a DeEsser to control the upper mids and seemed to work.

Notice how each guitar part is distinguishable and has different spaces: The distorted electric below, the strums in the middle, and the main riff at the top

The strums began to feel a bit jumpy like they lacked energy, which wasn't what I wanted because this was the chorus section and I needed it to go up.

Notice how the strums come to life after adding the compressor and become much more rhythmic, opening up the midrange.

To solve this, I added a VCA compressor, more specifically an API 2500, and compressed them no more than a dB with a 3:1 ratio, 300ms attack, 2s release, and medium knee. Just enough to tighten them up.

This rounded up the strums and got them right where they needed to sit.

Finally, I had some issues with the electric guitars still being all over the place and flat killing the whole vibe, so I added an 1176 FET compressor because I wanted to create movement without overcompressing the already distorted guitars and its super-fast attack and release times would deliver the best result.

For this matter, I was careful to be very light-handed with compression and since it's a relatively fast riff, I decided to go with a pretty fast attack and release, almost to their quickest and still compressed about 4dB with a 4:1 ratio until it finally felt good.

Notice how the guitars become controlled, and the low rumble around everything else disappears, making everything else sound fuller.

Now, we bypass all of the processing and level match for A/B comparison, to regain perspective and see whether we really made improvements or were fooled by the level difference:

Before

After

I think it's much better now!

As you can see, effectively combining different forms of compression is the real secret to start getting professional results on your mixes.

Gain Structure and the Importance of Levelling

It's important to always mind the gain structure to avoid digital clipping and unwanted noises coming up on your mix, or worse, during the mastering stage.

Your gain structure is the first priority because it'll allow the best crest factor and headroom, which translates into the loudness of your song. Overlooking it, on the other hand, will end up in muddy, weak, and even distorted-sounding mixes, which no mastering engineer, processing, or magic plugin will be able to fix.

The reason why it works that way is that DAWs were made to mimic the behaviour of a mixing console, and the first thing you adjust in a mixing console when you get any signal is the gain balance to optimize the input signal we're feeding into processing.

The best way to set this up is at the beginning of the mix before any processing takes place.

It's as simple as lowering the input gain, whether it is directly to the audio clips or with a trim plugin, and taking it down between -9 and -16dBFS.

Image of how a gain structure should look like

This is not only a best practice, but also most plugins are optimized to these levels, so whatever you do will sound that much better if you keep your gain structure in check.

Setting The Ratio, Threshold & Knee

The ratio, threshold, and knee settings determine how much compression will occur and how aggressively it'll reduce the gain.

Depending on the type of signal or purpose of compression, you'll need different combinations of these three values. However, they'd work together in a way that makes sense to prevent unwanted noises, distortions, or even changes in the tone of the signal.

Usually, you'd set these values to solve a particular problem, which is mostly related to the dynamics and speed of the input.

Here are a few examples:

  • If the transients are all over the place, you can assume it's intended to be percussive, so you'll keep your threshold pretty high to hit and chop off the transients without affecting the rest of the sound.
  • The ratio should be above 3 or 4:1 because that way you keep the attack of the signal, but make it feel fuller.
  • Finally, the knee should be hard because you want to preserve as much of the transient as possible to keep the energy as it is.

E.g.

We have a British-style electric guitar doing a percussive riff that sounds sloppy because of the transients. To solve this, we loaded an 1176 compressor, which has a hard knee when compressing with a 4:1 ratio and lowered the threshold to reduce around 4dB in gain.

The 1176 compressor has a hard knee when compresses with a 4:1 ratio and a soft knee when compressing with a 20:1 ratio.

Before

Listen to how the dynamics are all around and sound a bit sloppy.

After

Using an 1176 FET compressor it didn't only regulate dynamics, but also the compressor brought back the natural attack of the guitar part.
  • If you want to stabilize performance, you'll probably take the threshold down because you want the softer moments to match with the loudest.
  • The ratio might be from 4 to 8:1, or even higher because you want the compression to be smooth and not necessarily audible.
  • Lastly, the knee should be soft, because you're looking for a rounder sound, and this will give you a gradual gain reduction.

E.g.

We have a clean electric guitar doing a very soft arpeggio that we want to level up to the rest of the performance but without being too obvious. To solve it, we load an optical compressor and adjust to compress between 3 and 5 dB.

Optical compressors have the softest knee and are great to improve the sustain of the signal.

Before

Listen to how inconsistent the sustain of the guitar is when the guitarist lets the chord ring.

After

Notice how it levelled up the sustain of the guitar part and made it sound fuller, but it doesn't sound compressed.
  • If you want to stabilize performance, you'll probably take the threshold down because you want the softer moments to match with the loudest.
  • The ratio might be from 4 to 8:1, or even higher because you want the compression to be smooth and not necessarily audible.
  • Lastly, the knee should be soft, because you're looking for a rounder sound, and this will give you a gradual gain reduction.

E.g.

We have a distorted electric guitar doing a relatively fast riff and it sounds like it has too much gain and the notes aren't as clear. The solution is loading a VCA compressor to avoid adding any more distortion and adjusting the ratio to 2:1. Then, the knee is set to intermediate and the threshold barely scratches the audio with no more than 2.5dB of gain reduction.

VCA compressors, particularly the API 2500 are great because they let you use pretty fast settings without introducing harmonics due to their linear response.

Before

Listen to how the notes in the riff are so much harder to distinguish from each other.

After

Notice how each note is more intelligible, and how the compressor subtly makes the input bounce a little, creating movement in the performance.

Setting The Attack & Release Times

With the attack and release it's much easier to find the best settings since it's as simple as listening to your audio. In the case of a guitar, you'd need to listen to the riff, if it's fast, use faster settings, if it's slow, use slower settings so that compression adapts to the shape of the audio, so to speak.

This way, compression will be more natural to the signal and will avoid flattening the performance.

Another way to go about it is by looking at the waveform and thinking about which part of it you want to improve:

  • If you want punch, you need a slow attack and fast release.
  • If you want sustain, you need a fast attack and slow release.
  • If you want glue you need a slow attack and an intermediate release.
  • If you want tightness, use fast attack and release.

Don't Add Gain Straightaway! Listen To Compression Without Loudness

As soon as you dial your compression signal, it's important to take the time to compare it with the unprocessed signal to make sure that you're not being fooled by the difference in volume.

The reason behind this necessity is how humans perceive sound.

We're more sensitive to high and low frequencies when we listen to a loud source and tend to be more sensitive towards the mid-range with quieter levels. In other words, if it's louder we perceive it as better and clearer.

This is the Fletcher and Munson curve, which is a graphic representation of how loudness levels affect our perception of frequencies across the spectrum

Additionally, when we listen to something several times our brain starts ignoring the small nuances and makes it harder for us to hear the difference. That's why the before and after perspective is so important.

To do this right, we turn the effect on and off while trying to match the levels of the processed and unprocessed signal with the output knob, to finally compare with a clearer perspective and decide.

Basic Guitar Compression Settings for Electric & Acoustic Guitars

Here's a quick list of the best compression settings for electric and acoustic guitars:

  • Clean electric guitar – 2-6:1 ratio, 1-6dB of gain reduction, 10-30ms attack, 50-500ms release
  • Distorted electric guitar – <2:1 ratio, 0-2dB of gain reduction, 5-20ms attack, 30-500ms release
  • Crunch electric guitar – 2-4:1 ratio, 1-4dB of gain reduction, 5-30ms attack, 100-300ms release
  • Acoustic Guitar – 2-6:1 ratio, 4-10dB of gain reduction, 10-20ms attack, 50-250ms release

Advanced Guitar Compression Techniques

Parallel Compression

what is parallel compression

Parallel compression is one of the most efficient and use ways to create energy or add movement to any audio source. People use it to give aggression to a vocal performance, make drums punchier, or give more energy to a particular guitar part.

The basic concept of parallel compression is to duplicate a signal and compressing the living snot out of it using slow attack and relatively fast release settings to exaggerate the compression of the transients or sustain as much as possible.

E.g.

Raw input

Processed duplicate

Blend

Due to all of the compression applied to this duplicate, it'll bounce at a certain rate, depending on the attack and release.

This bouncy version of the source is then to be blended in context with the original in a way that's not particularly audible, but feels that is working as it should.

You can also achieve this using sends, or even simpler by using a compressor plugin with a Dry/Wet or mix control.

Serial Compression

serial compression

Chaining more than one compressor in serial processing is also helpful because it allows more flexibility and compression without damaging the tone and dynamics of the source.

As we saw earlier on, one way to use this technique is chaining different instances of an EQ with a high shelving boost followed by a DeEsser to increase clarity.

However, there's another way to go about this, for example, chaining an 1176 and an LA2A on a guitar solo to make it more upfront and consistent, similar to what you'd look for in a vocal.

E.g.

Before

Sounds dirty with a lot of noise from the distortion of the guitar and lacks definition.

After

Sounds closer and more intelligible, but still a little noisier

You can also combine it with a similar logic as above and get rid of some of the noise from the upper mids of the guitar by adding a DeEsser before the compressors, so the chain would look similar to the image.

This is how it sounds:

Notice how combining these three compressors the guitar sounds closer and more controlled and the notes are clearer, which is particularly noticeable during the last part of the solo.

Parallel distortion

I took this technique from Matthew Weiss, and it's killer, basically, it makes your guitars sound fuller, bigger, and wider without anything other than 3 duplicates of the guitar, EQ filters, and subtle distortion.

First, you create the dups and label them as Lo, Mid and Hi, to make it easy to identify and load a filter to isolate the frequency range of each dup like the image.

The idea is to create a sort of crossover to use different types of distortion in a way that favours each frequency range.

Now, you can get creative and use whatever distortion you like. Keep in mind that you should introduce different kinds of harmonics, hence you want to choose carefully to avoid masking or phase issues.

Here's how different distortion types affect guitars:

  • Tube distortion is perfect for lower mids and low-frequency content in general, it'll make your audio fat and full.
  • Amp/pedal-like distortion is the best way to go to enrich the mid-range and increase presence and sometimes even aggression. It'll give your audio a lot of body, shape, and definition.
  • Tape/cassette distortion is the best for high frequencies because it brings up the least amount of harshness and increases clarity altogether. This will make your guitars feel more alive.

Hear a before and after example of the guitars soloed with and without parallel distortion:

Without

With

Notice how it sounds like a fuller version of the original tone

Now listen to the difference in the context of the mix:

Before

After

Notice how the guitars are far more present and exciting than before. Also, notice that the lower frequencies of the guitars stopped masking the bass and made it more intelligible.

Sidechain frequency compression

Sometimes the problem isn't in the guitars but in frequencies shared with other instruments cancelling each other out. One of the most common scenarios you can find this problem, particularly in rock music, is with the guitars and the bass guitar.

Let's use a similar case as an example of how to apply this solution:

First, I'll insert Pro Q and send my bass into a bus to feed it into the EQ. Then, I'll activate the show collisions feature of this EQ and select the bass to see which frequencies are overlapping.

As you can see, we're not boosting or cutting any gain, but it's rather reduced dynamically as they overlap with the bass guitar, allowing it to breathe and cut through.

Make sure to activate the little button in the dynamic section of each frequency band, by turning the auto-threshold feature off.

This technique is pretty straightforward, but not many people talk about or use it.

Listen to the results:

Before

After

Notice how it feels like it opens up because the low-mid isn't clouding the energy of the guitars and cancelling the bass. Hear how overall, everything is tighter and sounds better.

Common Guitar Compression Setting Mistakes

Choosing the wrong compressor

It's often overlooked, but the type of compression you use makes a huge difference, so it's important to know where you should be dialling these settings in the first place.

For example, in 1176 on a distorted guitar that's playing sustained chords it'd sound dull because it'd eat up all of the transients and the sustain. A fast guitar line can be mercilessly flattened by an Opto compressor for the opposite reason.

To shed some light on this matter, here are different ways to compress guitars and when to use them:

Multiband compression – On fast genres and guitar parts with a lot of palm-muting, slapping, and any sort of percussive or aggressive playing. Use a multiband compressor to tighten up a guitar part, and dynamically avoid masking. Compress low frequencies with intermediate attack and slow release, medium/hard knee, and 2:1 to 4:1 ratio.

Multiband expansion – Similar to multiband compression, you can use multiband expansion to boost specific areas of your guitars, like 2.5khz on an acoustic stum to increase clarity, or a 150Hz boost on a distorted rhythm guitar to increase body.

DeEssing To control sharp acoustic and clean electric guitars, or reduce the ugly white-noise-y harshness in the high mids of an electric guitar. For example:

* Acoustic guitars (steel strings) Reduce 3.5KHz – 8kHz, and pay special attention to 4KHz if they sound too metallic and reduce 2-5dB
* Acoustic guitars (nylon strings) – Control 7KHz – 10KHz. if they have too much attack, use 2-3dB of gain reduction. For a better low-end reduce no more than 3dB around 2.5KHz with a narrow filter.

* Electric guitar (clean) – Reduce 1-3KHz to avoid sharpness, or 3-4KHz if it has too much presence by around 4dB. If that isn't enough, stack a second DeEsser and cut another four.

* Electric guitar (distorted) Cut 5-10Khz to avoid resonances and clashes with vocals. If you have several layers, cut from 1-5KHz with different DeEssers on different spots to prevent masking between the elements of your mix.

FET compression – Whenever you need ultra-fast compression, FET compressors will be helpful. Keep in mind that FET compressors, such as 1176, will add some harmonic distortion to your audio, so don't use one if you don't wish to alter the tone of the guitar. Great on guitars playing fast riffs or chugs.

Opto compression Use these when on slower or soulful guitar parts, such as expressive guitar solos, arpeggios, and bluesy, very dynamic riffs.

VCA compression Use them when you want a mixture of super-fast response and transparent processing. These compressors have a linear-phase response, so they won't add any harmonics, for instance, they're good for the same as FET compressors, but also good to use on a bus.

waves api 2500 compressor
fab filter pro l2 limiter plugin

Limiting Use it before the amp to have a more consistent performance, or at the end of the guitar bus processing chain to control the overall level of distorted electric guitars for clean peak level control. Avoid going beyond 5dB of gain reduction to prevent pumping.

Transient shaping Particularly on distorted electric guitars, use transient designers to tighten up sloppy performances using it before the amp, or at the end to increase punch.

Distortion – The most straightforward form of compression, use it to even up lead guitar parts.

Sidechain compression Use it to control low frequencies on distorted guitars to avoid masking the bass and kick, or in the 2.5-4KHz range to open space for vocals. Use it on acoustic strums to control upper mid frequencies to avoid masking vocal clarity and snare drum attack.

waves smack attack transient shaping plugin

Compressing just because

Not every guitar part needs to be compressed, especially if there's any distortion involved.

Most of the time, since a lot of the information on the Internet, consists in throwing tricks and tips out there, people are prone to think that every single track needs compression, so they slap a compressor to the track and move the parameters around because…

That's what the pros do, they compress things and make them sound better… right? Well no, not really.

The reality is that not every track or audio needs compression. But how can you know?

Truth is, everyone has their own way to go about this, and mine is to always make sure to have a reason to use compression, which I do by listening carefully to the audio track and trying to listen for level inconsistencies, excessive dynamics, unstable performances, or whether I need any sort of processing to dynamically affect the signal.

If I identify any of these things, then, depending on the specific need, I'll select and use a compressor that can solve the problem with the least amount of movement.

Over-compressing

This is the most common mistake when compressing guitars is going way too far with gain reduction because people keep aggressively compressing an already heavily compressed signal.

As a result, the mix starts to get clouded and everything starts to crumble apart from that point forward.

Especially if you're mixing genres like rock or metal, you want the guitars to be tight, but still want them to breathe and keep their subtleties, rather than squashing the snot out of them and have them sounding like crap.

To avoid this mistake, reach out for a compressor when you're looking to stabilize performance, increase or decrease dynamics, or glue a group. If you need a different result, you might need a different processor.

Summary

Summing up, no, there's not a one-size-fits-all compression setting for guitar or anything else because small differences in the recording and production process can mean extremely radical changes when you're processing them in a mix.

However, the best way to dial in the best setting for guitar compression in each situation is by determining these key factors:

  • The problem that you need to solve
  • Why would you need compression to solve it
  • What compressor is better for the situation
  • How do you need to use compression to solve the problem

Based on these criteria, you'll be in the right mindset to start working on the best compression settings for your guitars.

With that in mind, to effectively compress the guitar you should listen for these things and apply these settings:

ProblemSpeed of musicGuitar typeCompressor typeSettingsWhy?
Sloppy performanceFastElectric hi-gain or distortedVCA/FETSlow attack, fast release, ratios below 2:1, hard/ medium hard kneeThe slow attack lets the transient pass. The fast release makes the signal sound tighter by cutting shortening the sustain of the waveform
Thin soundSlowAcoustic arpeggio or strumOptoSlow attack, slow release, higher ratios and soft kneeThe slower settings will make for a more uniform sound bringing up the quieter parts of the signal
Harshness on the attackFast/slowAnyDeEsserSplit band typically from 3KHz to 5KHzIt's a specific tool for this issue.
Low RumbleFast/slowAny but specifically good for palm-muted distorted electric Multiband compressorLow band from 150Hz-lowest and low-mid band from 150Hz to 350Hz. Match attack and release to performance and use soft knee with 4-6:1 ratiosIt reduces the excessive low frequencies opening space for the kick and bass to breathe. If you use a sidechain, it'll bring extra clarity and movement.
Sounds too smallFastDistorted electric LimiterLower the ceiling to match the desired level and take down the threshold to increase loudness with a slow release timeLimiters bring up the quieter and louder parts of the signal. Since the distortion doesn't allow dynamics, the guitars will sound fuller and more consistent without pumping
Crappy toneFast/slow Electric hi-gain or distortedParallel distortionDuplicate the guitars, separate them for frequency range and add different distortion to each, then balance.Layering these distortions will compensate for the tone and make it feel fuller because we're adding more harmonics that are filling up the spectrum.
Beefy tone Fast/slowAcoustic Third-order harmonic distortionAdd a subtle tape distorter
and dial in small amounts of saturation
Tape distortion introduces 3rd order harmonics, which are harsher and edgier
Harsh toneFast/slow AcousticSecond-order harmonic distortionAdd a subtle tube distorter
and dial in small amounts of saturation
Tube distortion introduces 2nd order harmonics, which are warmer and fatter

FAQ

Does Guitar Need Compression?

Not always, not necessarily. It depends on what you need to achieve and the problems it presents. For instance, if you want to change the tone, it's unlikely you need compression. If you want to add thickness or glue you probably need compression.

Use compression on guitars only when the problem you identify comes up sporadically or inconsistently. if that is the case, then you need a tool that allows dynamic processing, so you need compression.

How Much Should I Compress Guitar?

You should compress guitars enough to control dynamics without creating pumping or artifacts. It all depends on the situation, source and arrangement, e.g., if you're dealing with a distorted electric guitar, more than 1dB of gain reduction can be too much, whereas with an acoustic you might need more.

To be more specific, reduce no more than 1-6dB on clean electric guitars, 0-2dB on distorted electric guitars, 1-4dB with brit-style high-gain, and 4-10dB on acoustic.

Where Does A Compressor Go in The Guitar Effect Chain? Before or After Overdrive? EQ? Delay?

If we're talking about a pedalboard, a good general rule of thumb is at the beginning after the gate because it levels your performance before adding the distortion to prevent unwanted noises. If it's a mix, it varies, but typically somewhere around the beginning and the end.

In a mix, not all guitars get compression, but if it's an excessively dynamic performance it's usually good adding it after the EQ to consolidate the tone, if you want to shape or improve dynamics, it's better at the end because that way you don't change the tone.

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