Using Parallel Compression for Punchier Drums
So you’re looking to beef up your drums eh? Of course you are! And while there are many methods & simple EQ and compression go a long way, overdoing it can result in a dull, lifeless drum sound. Parallel compression (also known as New York compression) is an approach to processing that allows us to have our cake and eat it too: we can indulge in the benefits of heavy handed compression without losing the nuance, detail, and dynamics of the original sound.
Keep in mind that this is a mix technique, so don’t worry about setting this up while you’re still in the production and writing phase with your track. It’s also important to point out that parallel compression is always going to sound better after attention has been paid to the mix of the individual drums. Once the drums are feeling solid and balanced, parallel compression will help them shine. Also, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using Ableton Live’s Glue Compressor. Note that this technique is applicable in any DAW with just about any compressor you favor.
To start, we’ve got a simple techno/house pattern created with one of Live’s stock TR-909 kits. I’ve taken a moment to add processing to individual sounds, and to balance the different elements with plenty of headroom in both my drum buss and master fader. If you’re using another DAW, it can simplify things to manually create a drum sub mix by bussing all of your drum sounds to a single return fader.
Once everything is sounding proper, it’s time to build the parallel track. This approach to processing relies on the same principles as effects returns that you might use for reverb and delay. We’ll be using a secondary track drawing audio from the drum sub mix and processing it separately. To add this parallel track, create a new audio track. Then, in the I/O, in the Audio From menu, select your drum submix track, and then choose Post FX in the secondary menu. Set the Monitor to “In”.
The reason for choosing Post FX is that this new track will be picking up the audio stream after all effects processing, and before the fader and solo buttons. This will allow us to mute the main drum buss while still hearing it in the parallel channel so we can fine tune the processing. Keep in mind that we’ve just made a copy of the drum output, so pull the fader down on the return channel before you test it.
When you’re sure that all of your routing is correct, it’s time to add the compressor. In Live, the Glue Compressor is a good choice because it’s meant to invoke the character of the classic SSL buss compressor, widely considered to be the benchmark for buss compression. Solo the parallel channel, and set the compressor to absolutely smash the drum signal. It’s OK in this case to be heavy handed, but try to keep it as musical as possible. I like to reduce about 15-20 dB. What we’re looking for here is weight and punch. The optimal settings and character will vary greatly based on which compressor you prefer to use. Experiment with different plugins, and different settings to find what suits your taste, and the character of the drums you’re working with. Make sure to adjust the makeup gain to a useful setting, but take care that the signal isn’t overloading any outputs.
Once the drums are creating the punchy block of rhythm we’re looking for, pull the fader of the parallel track down and un-solo it. Slowly fade the parallel track in until the drums feel punchier and thicker. While the drums will be slightly louder, we’re not looking for a big overall change in volume. Make sure that the character of the original drum channel is still coming through loud and clear.
Here are the settings that I found worked well for my loop:
ORIGINAL DRUMS (No Parallel Compression):
PROCESSED DRUMS (With Parallel Compression):
The difference between the original and processed drums is subtle, but the parallel chain will help the drums feel heavier and punch through the mix better without overpowering it. There is a lot of room for taste here, so don’t be afraid to get crazy and experiment with extreme settings. Keep in mind that because of how we’ve set up the routing here, any changes made to the drum sequence or mix will be reflected in the parallel chain.
Parallel compression is a technique that can be just what a mix needs, but be careful not to overdo it. Let the various compressors in your signal chain do their respective jobs, and your mix will feel punchy and balanced. In addition to drums, parallel compression sounds great on many instruments and sounds, especially vocals. Once simple parallel compression is under your belt, experiment with adding other processors such as EQ and saturation to your parallel chain. You won’t regret it.