Top 9 Best Tips For Compressing Electric Guitars


Electric guitars are wildly popular, offer superb tonal variety, and can sometimes benefit greatly from compression in the mix. When it comes to compressing electric guitars, there are no simple step-by-step instructions; every mix is unique. However, there are certain considerations we should take into account when compressing electric guitars, which is what this article is all about.

Before we go any further, I should state that there are no hard rules with compression or any other mixing process. The tips mentioned in this article are simply suggestions and techniques worth considering when compressing electric guitar. No procedures work 100% of the time, and every mix is unique in its own needs.

Here are 9 pro tips for compressing electric guitar:

  1. Know when not to use compression on electric guitar
  2. Understand the guitar signal chain and distortion
  3. Consider the genre and the role of the electric guitar in the mix
  4. Compression for depth
  5. Think of EQ before or after
  6. Be aware of bleed
  7. Always A/B test
  8. Make room for the vocal
  9. Use your ears

Let's discuss each of these tips in more detail to give you important considerations when compressing electric guitar in your mixes.

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Know When Not To Use Compression On Electric Guitar

Let's start by considering whether compression is even appropriate for the electric guitar(s) in the first place.

If the electric guitar performance took the song's long-term dynamics into account when it was recorded, it might be the case that we won't need to compress it much, if at all, to have it sit well throughout the mix. However, if the loudest parts of the electric guitar are too loud and/or the quietest parts are too quiet, compression can help smooth out these variances.

Electric guitar signals are often compressed well before we get to the mixing stage. The effects, the amp, the processes in-line between the mic and the recorder, and even the cables to a lesser extent, can cause compression in the guitar signal. It could be that this compression will be enough, and we won't have to compress the guitars any more in the mix.


Understand The Guitar Signal Chain And Distortion

I touched on this in tip 1, but let's elaborate on it here.

Electric guitars are often processed by effects, and effects pedals are commonplace in the signal chain. Understanding the signal chain of effects applied to an electric guitar signal, whether by ear or by knowing the exact effects and parameters, can help us make more informed decisions regarding compression.

This is, of course, true with compression in the signal chain. However, distortion-type effects such as overdrive, distortion and fuzz also have the effect of compressing the signal.

By rounding off the tops and bottoms of the audio signal, these distortion-type effects effectively compress the signal within the wave cycles. We could envision this as intrawave compression.

So then, compressing distorted guitar tones likely won't have a great effect on reducing the dynamic range.

It's often the case, for example, that an amount of compression that could increase the power, presence and sustain of a relatively clean Blues solo tone would suck all the life out of a metal power chord tone.

So, generally speaking, the more distorted an electric guitar signal is, the less compression will benefit it in the mix.

To learn more about the distortion-type guitar effects, check out my article Guitar Pedals: Boost Vs. Overdrive Vs. Distortion Vs. Fuzz.

Beyond distortion-type effects, we should take into account other effects like modulation and time-based effects. Applying compression after these effects will generally bring up the perceived effect relative to the dry signal.

This is why I typically advise putting compressor pedals before modulation and time-based effects pedals in a pedalboard. It's also why I tend to record my guitars relatively dry and then go about processing them, at least with delay and reverb, within the mix session.

To learn more about signal flow and pedal order, check out my article How To Order Guitar/Bass Pedals (Ultimate Signal Flow Guide).

So experiment with compressing highly processed electric guitar tracks, but be aware of how adding more compression in the mix may alter the overall tone and character of these guitars.


Consider The Genre And The Role Of The Electric Guitar In The Mix

Consider the genre of the music you're mixing and the typical mix aesthetic when it comes to the entire mix and the electric guitars. For example, the electric guitar in a raw punk rock song may not warrant the same dynamic control as a pop song.

When in doubt, check out a few different reference tracks in similar genres/styles of music to the song being mixed and listen critically to how the electric guitar may or may not be compressed to fit into the mix. How do electric guitars generally sound in [insert genre here] music?

Of course, every mix is different and will demand different processing. However, being aware of the typical mix aesthetic of the genre in question is invaluable for making appropriate choices.

Armed with such information, we can either follow the “rules” or break them concerning mixing electric guitar (including the use of compression).

The electric guitar often plays a major role in song arrangements, but not always. In some songs, it's beneficial to keep its level steady and its dynamics within a smaller range. In others, we may want more dynamics to allow the guitar to weave in and out of the mix or, alternatively, to sound that much more expressive in the mix.


Compression For Depth

Compression can be used to create a sense of depth in a mix. This is accomplished primarily by smoothing out the transients of the signal. By reducing the transient peaks of the electric guitars, we give the illusion of pushing them further back in the mix.

This is because we naturally hear distant sound sources with subdued transients and closer sound sources with greater transients.

Note that distorted guitars, as previously mentioned, are naturally compressed. However, their added harmonic content can make them sound closer to the listener or at least curb the effect that the natural compression has on depth.

By that token, if our compressor adds significant distortion to the signal, we may not have as pronounced of an effect on the perceived depth of the electric guitar track.

There is also some amount of give-and-take here, especially when using lighter compression. By making the levels of the guitar more consistent (but without necessarily crushing the transients), we help to solidify its position in terms of depth.

For example, if the electric guitar is hot, subtle compression can bring it closer to the listener. Conversely, if the electric guitar is mixed quiet, subtle compression can help solidify its distance from the listener.


Think Of EQ Before Or After

Compressing before or after EQ is largely a matter of taste and is often subtle in the differences it provides. But, when it comes to electric guitar parts, we may want to consider, or at least experiment, with having compression before or after EQ.

In general, compression before EQ offers a cleaner, sharper result.

Compressing an electric guitar before EQ gives us less control over what the compressor reacts to but more control over the tonal balance of the guitar. Note that the EQ should be applied more sparingly here since the audio has already been smoothed out.

In general, compression after EQ will yield a smoother, warmer result.

EQing an electric guitar before compression lets us shape the frequency content more aggressively, knowing that the compressor will help smooth it out. It's also good to control what the compressor “sees” and reacts upon.

Since electric guitars often have a good amount of harmonic content in the mid-range, decent transient information and a wide variety of potential effects, utilizing both EQ and compression can often help mix them perfectly into the mix.

For more information on EQing electric guitars, check out my article Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Electric Guitars.


Be Aware Of Bleed

If the electric guitar's cabinet has been miked up in an isolated room or if we're recording direct through an amp simulator, you can skip this tip.

However, if the guitar amp was miked up and recorded at the same time and in the same space as the vocal and other instruments, we ought to be aware of the bleed from these other sources in the electric guitar's track.

Because compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal, it will have the effect of bringing up the quiet parts of the signal relative to the loud parts. This applies to the wanted signal (typically loud) and the noise or bleed of the environment (typically quiet).

So when it comes to compressing the electric guitar, we should be wary of any bleed and how we'll be bringing it up in the track with compression.

Revisiting the previous tip, we can opt to EQ out some of the bleed, resonances or noise from the signal before the compressor to help reduce the amount of noise/bleed brought up by the compression.


Always A/B Test

A/B testing is one of the best habits you can get into when processing anything in a mix, let alone the compression of an electric guitar.

A/B testing effectively tests two options (option A and B) and compares the two to make an informed decision on which is better. We can A/B test by turning the electric guitar compressor on and off (bypassing it).

Whenever we make any adjustments to an electric guitar compressor, it's worth A/Bing them against the original signal and listening to whether the compression improves the guitar's sound in the overall mix.

When A/B testing, bypass the compressor and listen for about 10 seconds. Turn it back on and listen for another 10 seconds. Repeat the process and decide whether to keep the compressor, readjust it, or get rid of it.

The human auditory system tends to adjust to whatever we're listening to. When mixing, we can quickly lose perspective and our objective decision-making skills. As we adjust parameters to achieve balance and any other goals in the mixing process, we can quickly lose our frame of reference of what good electric guitar compression actually is.

So use A/Bing to your advantage when compressing the electric guitar in a mix.

If you're interested, be sure to check out my video on the top 5 A/B tests worth incorporating regularly into your mixes:


Make Room For The Vocal

Frequency masking is one of the most common and problematic issues in mixing. It happens when two or more tracks compete in similar frequency bands and effectively mask each other in the mix. Neither track, then, is heard clearly as a distinct sound source. Rather, within the band of high competition, the tracks blend together and cause poor separation.

Frequency masking is a fairly common issue between the electric guitar and the vocals, especially in guitar-heavy genres of music.

While EQ is perhaps the primary tool for tackling frequency masking, we can also use level differences and panning differences to balance the vocal a bit louder or more centre (and therefore more present) than the electric guitar.

We also have a more technical compression technique for the job: sidechain compression.

Put simply; sidechain compression is the technique of inserting a compressor on one track but having another track control the amount of compression.

The sidechain signal of a compressor is typically the same as the input/program signal (taken either directly before or directly after the gain reduction circuit (see feedforward or feedback compression). The sidechain signal is effectively converted to a control voltage that controls the compressor's gain reduction circuit.

However, in the “sidechain compression” technique, we utilize an external sidechain signal to control the gain reduction circuit.

Here's a basic diagram of a feedforward compressor with a switch to toggle between an internal and external sidechain. Hopefully, it helps to clarify what I'm writing about:

So let's say the electric guitar competes too much in the mid-range with more important elements (the vocal is a common one, but another lead instrument could also be considered).

It's critical to get these elements working together well within the mix, allowing both to be heard as distinctive tracks without too much competition and frequency masking between them.

In this case, we try sidechain compression to attenuate the guitar slightly to make room for the vocal when it's present and have the guitar back to its original level when the vocal is not present.

To use sidechain compression, we insert a compressor on the electric guitar and set the vocal as the sidechain insert to compress the guitar whenever it's present.

When done subtly within the mix, the vocal can punch through a bit more without reducing the electric guitar's overall perceived loudness or presence.


Use Your Ears

Okay, perhaps this tip is a bit too obvious, but it's vital that we use our ears when using any processing on any tracks within a mix. This, of course, includes compression on electric guitar.

Any tips I could give you in this article are null and void if they don't serve your tastes or the mix as a whole. It's impossible to give instructions about specific parameter settings because every mix will demand something different.

While I can give you good starting points and general advice, the best piece of advice I could ever give you when compressing electric guitar is to use your ears.

If the guitar compression doesn't sound good or serve the mix, either get rid of it, change the compressor being used, or adjust the parameters of the current compressor. Rely on your ears (along with A/B testing) to get the best results!


Other Compression Tips For Common Elements

Be sure to also check out my top overall 11 compression tips for mixing in this video:


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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