Teaching compression by using fatty dance beats

You all know what I mean by fatty dance beats. You’ve all made that “oom-tiss” beat with your mouth before.

In the past I’ve found that teaching compression (and other dynamic-level effects) can be challenging. Most engineers use them to ‘sweeten’ a mix and add clarity and subtlety to a recording. These methods are simply a bit too elusive for most students. They need something rather obvious to start out with when learning how these plugins work.

So I’ve done things like radio ads which are generally over compressed, and it worked ok but then using dance music dawned on me as the holy grail of over-compression.

Learning compression by making dance beats

Since i still haven’t decided which class should do this project, I did it in Ableton Live for now. I’ll post a video of this in GarageBand if I later decide Level 1 should do it.

Let’s start with the kick drum. There are usually two parts to this sound – a sample of an actual kick bass drum, and a synthesized bass note to give it fatness and length. In 99% of dance music you want this to play quarter notes at about 140-150 BPM

To hear the compression artifact we’re about to add, you need something constantly sounding. I like a good four bar chord progression on a pad-style synth. This washy type of sound is common in the Trance genre anyway, so it will make your song a bit more accurate if it’s in there.

To make this type of bass line, you need both a harsh mono synth and a way to make the notes glide. I didn’t put this in the video but it’s easy to try anyway – in Garageband or Logic you can use the “Ominous Dancefloor” presets as a starting point. You can alternate this with your chord pattern, or playing them at the same time.

Now you may already know, but compression basically does two things: it lowers the dynamic ceiling, making louds and softs closer together, and then it brings the whole signal back up to 0db.

For this, you need to put a compressor on the master track, set the ratio to “infinity” (or alternately use a limiter plugin instead). Set the attack to a short length, and the release to a slightly longer length. Then, mix the tracks so the kick bass and supporting synth kick are the loudest tracks. Evereything else should be underneath.

If you do this right, it will sound Iike the once-constant synth part gets “pushed into the background” every time the kick hits. This provides the perceived effect that the music is very loud.

It’s been noted that compression makes music sound louder even if your volume is turned down. This is due to the natural compression that takes place inside of the human ear. Our auditory membranes can only be shaken so hard, and sound beyond that threshold gets mixed together and no longer exhibits a difference in amplitude.

Picture someone yelling in your ear. Or a really loud concert with no earplugs. This is what dance music forces you to hear, no matter what venue you’re in. Bonus points for compressing in favor of the beat, which keeps everyone dancing.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

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