Skip multi-band compressors to get a live band sound in your recordings

In the late 1990s multi-band compressors were scarce. There was a rack unit (remember rack effects?) called the TC Electronics Finalizer that cost a few thousand dollars. It squashed audio so nicely, recording engineers and producers loved it.

In our rock band, we did our own recording and engineering, and we fought with Cubase to make a multi-compressed sound, but of course we didn’t have a Finalizer at our disposal. So we hacked together a different approach with a little more natural effect.

First, we normalized areas of the performance tracks that we too soft. This brought up the overall level of the recorded track and maintained a lot of the nuances from the original performance. It didn’t radically change the feel of the performance, it just made the soft parts easier to hear. For example, this works great if you have only a couple of mics on the acoustic drum kit – like we had. Sometimes toms didn’t come in loud enough so going through and normalizing individual hits or rolls/fills helped a lot.

Next we created a few sub mixes: one for kick and bass guitar, one for electric guitars, one for cymbals/drum overheads, one for vocals and acoustic, etc. The idea is to group instruments by their relative frequency range and limit/compress the heck out of that grouping.

The difference in what you hear: more overlap of instruments than when multi band compression is used on the entire mix. The instruments are squashed in relation to other instruments in their respective range, instead of against all of the instruments’ tones in that frequency band. The result is that each instrument breathes more.

So today, even if you have multi-band compressors (such as software plugins) at your disposal, you might want to try your mixes with this approach. Hear if you like the final results better. Overall, it can add a more natural, acoustic, live band feel.

Words and Music by David Cassell. Performed by Rice n Beans. David Cassell, Oscar Hermosillo, Christopher Ohno, Harold Lee. Recorded 1999, Glendale, CA. US.

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