Compression: All or nothing at all?

Discussion in 'Live Sound [BG]' started by JazznFunk, Jun 29, 2008.

  1. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    Hey friends. I've been battling for the past year or so with trying to use compression as part of my live rig/sound setup. I have had issues with my drummer complaining that he has a hard time hearing changes in my dynamics onstage, even though at times I am barely touching the strings in an effort to bring things down. I run an Aphex Punch Factory as my compressor, active pad on (I only play active basses), and the "drive" knob on maybe 1.5. In other words, I run very little compression, and it really only kicks in very occasionally. I am wondering if I should just ditch the compression totally in a live setting, as we play some very dynamic music, across varying styles, and it seems to be affecting the ability for all this to come across well onstage and out front. I have a good right hand when it comes to controlling my volume anyway, so it's not a matter of controlling wild peaks or chasing bad technique. I honestly started running compression in order to get a bit more efficiency out of my rig, but I think I may be killing my tone and dynamic control with it. We usually find ourselves in situations with little to no monitor support, relying on just our amps or small PA to get guitar and vocals, etc out front, so my rig's ability to carry the band is paramount.

    Any thoughts from sound engineers or fellow players out there who have experimented with, and possibly successfully integrated compression into their live rigs? Also, do most front-of-house guys add compression to bass or other individual instruments as a general rule, or just to the overall mix?
  2. TimmyP


    Nov 4, 2003
    Indianapolis, IN
    The only reason I comp the bass - in the PA that is - is so that when the stage rig gets loud and twanky (string slaps/pops, etc.) the compressor keeps the PA from joining in, so as to keep the volume in check (I prefer a TC Triple C, as it can - if desired - smash the twank yet leave the balls and growl untouched).

    So far as I know I've encountered only one bassist who used a compressor. He playing style did not include any techniques that would required compression in the house (I took my signal from his wireless - pre compression). I doubt that the compressor in his rig accomplished much, but he was happy and his volume was reasonable, so I was happy. If the compressor does not make you happy, take it out and see what happens. (But first, try a slower attack time, as this can sometimes be the most critical adjustment.)

    Perhaps you should put some bass into the drummer's wedge, EQd on the thin side, so he can hear your pitches better, and get a better idea of how tightly you are playing together.
  3. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    Try taking the active pad off and see how that helps. I'm not familiar with the Aphex, but I'm familiar with active pads, and it's possible that it's attenuating your signal so much that it's sucking out your dynamics even with the light settings you're using.
  4. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    Wow... Thanks for the suggestions, Timmy. That definitely helps in my decision to ditch the compression, at least for the next couple of gigs, in an effort to see if that's the issue. The compressor in question is an Aphex Punch Factory optical compressor (stompbox unit), and it sounds very transparent, but ultimately is not very adjustable. No attack/release/ratio parameters, which I think is the meat of my problem.

    When we have a good monitor system, the problem isn't an issue. If my drummer can't hear me, he tells the sound guy. It's an issue when my amp is the only source of bass at all... for the FOH and for the stage. Then the room becomes a big factor, and when it's boomy that's when it's the biggest problem. BUT, your suggestions definitely helped and I'll employ them over the next few gigs. Thanks!
  5. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    I never thought of that... we'll experiment and see what happens. Thanks!
  6. Eric Grossman

    Eric Grossman

    Nov 3, 2004
    St. Louis
    Endorsing Artist: Hipshot Products, DR Strings and Accugroove Speaker Cabinets
    I never use compression. To me, that's a "room" thing, and the FOH eng. should know the room well enough to use it at his/her discretion. Just concentrate on even playing.
  7. bongomania

    bongomania Supporting Member Commercial User

    Oct 17, 2005
    PDX, OR
    owner, OVNIFX and OVNILabs
    The Punch Factory is barely capable of compression in the first place. Having the drive knob set so low means there really is almost no compression happening. Note too that I am fairly sure the gain reduction meter is wildly inaccurate, so even if it "says" you're getting a certain amount of compression at those settings, I wouldn't believe it.

    What all that means, even if your views are not as extreme as mine, is that the compressor has pretty much nothing to do with whether your drummer can hear your dynamic changes. Either he's deaf, or he sees the lights flashing on the pedal and it makes him hear things differently (we are all subject to this sort of "hearing with our eyes"), or something else about your rig is reducing the audibility of dynamic changes. I also strongly suspect that the difference he's hearing has a lot more to do with live/stage acoustics and the PA monitors as contrasted with the sound in your rehearsal space, than anything to do with the Punch Factory.

    Again, you have the world's weakest compressor at a super weak setting. How much do you really believe it is affecting your dynamics? Unless, as the one guy mentioned, the active pad is negatively affecting your signal.

    It's up to you whether you find compression useful or desirable. But (a) I would not take the PF as an example of compressors in general, and (b) I honestly believe your drummer is hearing something different than he thinks (or you think) he's hearing.
  8. ga_edwards


    Sep 8, 2000
    UK, Essex
    You may try using an exciter (BBE sonic maximiser/Aphex bass exciter) instead if you are after getting more efficiency out of your rig. I used to use a Behringer rack 'ultramizer' that made up for deficiency in my amp at the time. Gave me a much bigger sound that the amp could on it's own, with much deeper satisfying lows and clearer highs. As one of my friends noted, paired with my compressor it gave a studio sound in a live rig.

    You may find this helps define you're dynamics more and the tone will be clearer for your band mates.

    Be careful with these units though, it's very easy to over cook the effect and lose your midrange.
  9. staindbass


    Jun 9, 2008
    the reason you cant play quiet is because of the compressor. thats the reason there is no difference. you play quiet, the comp turns up the volume. you cant win. i set mine (avalon 737) so i only compress the peaks. in other words the compressor only activates when i play too loud, such as popping, or a heavy finger strike.. you can control this with the threshold control. the threshold determins at what volume the comp kicks in. that way, the subtle dynamics are preserved when the comp is not actually working. to adjust, turn the thresold off, play a medium finger note, then a pop. notice the volume difference. turn up the threshold (this determines at what volume the comperssor starts working)until the comp starts to make the pop quieter, but the finger the same volume. then you can mess with the compression ratio (how much the unit compresses the signal once its activated) to flavor to taste. even better is no compressor at all, i have to use one cuz i play with a pick and fingers, sometimes switching during a song. fingers have more output than a pick. (at least for me) johnny a
  10. Nick Kay

    Nick Kay

    Jul 26, 2007
    Toronto, Ontario
    +1 to Bongo. The Punch Factory is an extremely light compressor, and with conservative settings like yours, I'm absolutely certain it has nothing to do with your drummer's inability to hear your dynamics. The issue is monitoring - he's got to hear you in general before he can hear your dynamic changes.
  11. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    Thanks for all the responses over the last week, gang. I had 2 gigs yesterday and, even without a compressor in the signal chain, my drummer complained once again that he couldn't hear any difference when I played at a "normal" volume compared to a "quiet" volume, meaning almost at a whisper. I just about lost my $*** when he jumped on me again over it, and I tried as best I could to get thru the gig without making a scene. So, now that I know that wasn't the issue (I never thought it was anyway, but I wanted to change things up), I'm probably going to add the compressor back into my rig because I *do* like what it does for my sound. This all happened at gig #1 which, par for the course, had crappy sound and ZERO use of the monitors by the soundman, even when we made requests to add things to our onstage mix. ARRGH! Anyway, the SECOND gig was on a nice stage with great monitors and good sound guys... and the drummer was happy.

    I discussed the problem with my guitarist/bandleader and he echoed the fact that he never really notices the problem at all... he usually has the benefit of being away from my amp by a good distance, so he has a little more room to hear things develop, but he said that his feeling on the matter is that perhaps my amp, being set fairly loud to give myself the room to get UP THERE in volume if necessary, is preventing me from getting quiet enough for the very quiet parts of some songs. My search for headroom is preventing me from having a truly quiet "floor" to return to.

    My complaint about having to play super quiet is that I physically feel like I can't dig in enough to produce an authoritative tone and feel, and it makes me sound like my lines/figures lack confidence. In essence, I'm barely brushing the strings with my fingers in an effort to be quiet enough to please the drummer. The issue, in general, DOES return again to having adequate monitoring. BUT, in the meantime my next step to helping control this issue is to add a volume pedal to my setup, something I haven't used in years. I think this will give me the ability to roll things off when necessary, adjusting the volume overall, and still allowing myself to dig in a little more and feel confident when we're playing quietly.

    I hope this does the trick because I'm about at my wits end with this situation. The band is great, and everyone else jives really well... this situation is something I've never dealt with before in any band (even past bands with the SAME DRUMMER), so I've been struggling a bit lately with all this.

    Thanks again for everyone's suggestions.
  12. BullHorn


    Nov 23, 2006
    I'm anti-compression. It's like those days when I played an active bass, it was hard to hear any dynamics. Once I moved back to passive, I sounded like an arse because I wasn't controlling my picking strength and style. Compression will just make you worse.

    Learn to play equally with your fingers, rather than with a piece of hardware. ;)
  13. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    I appreciate the insight, but you may have missed the history in previous posts regarding this discussion. I have no trouble playing with dynamics... I made that a focus from day one when I started playing music 11 years ago, and it really comes into play when I play acoustic bass. I don't use compression (or any other piece of equipment) as a band-aid, I use it because I like the effect a very subtle amount applies to my tone. The issue at hand is that my drummer is super picky about what he does/does not what to hear onstage and thought for a while that my use of compression was reducing his ability to hear my dynamic changes. Turns out it wasn't. When our monitor situation isn't what it SHOULD be, and when my amp serves as the bass monitor AND the FOH presence for the band, he says it's too loud for his taste, even when played SUPER quiet. He is one of the few drummers who plays extremely quietly, even at his loudest moments. I fully agree that no one should ever rely on a piece of hardware to control their dynamics. In this instance it's a matter of rectifying what I hear onstage, what I NEED to hear onstage to play effectively, and what my drummer wants to hear to interact effectively.
  14. joegeezer


    Mar 9, 2005
    Northern Wisconsin
    Avatar Club#12 Eden Club Lucky# 13--USA Peavey Club#37 Carvin Club#5
    For our smaller system, 4000 watts out front, I use compressor on Drums only. I think thats all thats needed, and thats just to tame the hits a bit.
  15. TimmyP


    Nov 4, 2003
    Indianapolis, IN
    I'll bet there's a particular frequency range that's so hot in your cabinet - off to the side - that no matter how quiet you get, that one area drones incessantly - for him anyway. 160Hz is pretty hot in most 4x10s for instance (this is 2 octaves above your open E). There's commonly a minor bump about 65 as well, which is just above the lowest B on your A string. (Below that, the response of most cabinets drops like a rock). I find that most bassists are so used to this that they fail to notice even when they are wireless and they walk the room - which is going nuts at that (or another close) frequency range. Regrettably, few bass heads have the EQ required to flatten the 160 hot spot. (Like one of the rigs I worked with this evening: The bass sounded very nice in the phones and in the PA, but even with the low mid all the way down on the GK head, the Eden 4x10 was spitting out so much upper bass/lower mid crap that it was barely tolerable in the room, because the head's low mid EQ was not at the right spot. (I had the offending area all the way down in bass channel of the PA, which made it all work fairly well.) (In fairness, a lot of soundguys also either don't notice it, or don't bother to try to solve the problem.)

    Of course if the PA is not helping the bass, and the rig is not too hot in the room at any given frequency range, the drummer will just have to suck up, stop whining, and play.
  16. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    I tried bringing that fact up, Timmy. I told him that because he's off to the side of the speaker cabs (I use a 1x12 SWR combo w/a 2x10 extension cab in a lot of cases), he isn't getting the direct DETAIL of the bass coming at him in a lot of cases. He's most likely hearing the low-mid rumble and not enough detail. Without proper monitoring, that's all I can give him. Trying to explain things like this is like trying to talk to a brick wall sometimes. I even offered to bring a separate bass amp, split the signal, and give him his OWN bass amp/monitor so that he can EQ it however he likes to hear what he needs/wants, and he thought that was overkill. It's the same as having the bass coming through a monitor, so I didn't agree that it was "overkill".

    Drummers... arrgh!
  17. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    ...almost forgot. The head I use on larger gigs has a sweepable mid adjustment. I might just try that cut around 160 you mentioned and see if that helps.
  18. TimmyP


    Nov 4, 2003
    Indianapolis, IN
    How about pointing the 1x12 at him and the 2x10 at you? (Or vice-versa.) If that does not work, put one beside him pointing at him, and one behind you. If you get the right spacing between the cabinets, you might get a cancellation at the range that bugs him. For 160Hz, I think that either 21" or 42" apart might do it.
  19. Steve


    Aug 10, 2001

    The more I read about your struggle, the more I came to the same conclusion.

    If I offered to bring a seperate rig just to make him happy and he still bitched, I would be done with his problem.

    Good on ya for trying to go the extra mile. I wouldn't. It's the nature of how most bands set up that the drummer ends up too close and off axis to the bass cab to get any real clarity of bass tone. IMHO
  20. therex


    Jun 24, 2007
    in my experience, small amount of compression + active basses = loss of dynamics
    i dont know why but with the compression i have used always sucked away the real sound of any acctive bass