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How to Compress Percussion

how to compress percussion

There are a lot of different percussion instruments out there, and most of them benefit from some compression! In this guide you'll learn some of the most popular compressor settings for common percussion instruments, as well as tips for applying "glue" compression to your compressor bus.

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Challenges of Compressing Percussion


To me, percussion is a broad term for any rhythmic instrument that acts as a peripheral to your typical drum set. 

Percussion instruments include shakers, tambourines, cowbells, bongos, congas, djembes, and much more! The difficult of compressing these types of instruments is that they all have vastly different transient characteristics. 

A set of bongos will sound much more like a snare drum, meaning it will require different settings than a shaker or tambourine. Here's a description of all the different drums and percussion of the world.

I usually compress percussion for two reasons:



Cowbell Compressor Settings


The cowbell is an instrument with a heavy attack and a quick sustain and release. When it comes to cowbell compression, you’ll need settings that can catch the transient to keep it from poking out of the mix.  

I often like to start with a ratio between 3:1 and 6:1, and a slightly fast attack, anywhere from 10-20ms. The release can also be fairly fast, especially if you want to maintain the tail of the cowbell. An 1176-style compressor is great for this type of fast control.

The key is making sure your attack isn’t so fast that it diminishes the transient of your cowbell in any way, as this could take away from its rhythmic properties. 


Conga & Bongo Compressor Settings


I often think of congas and bongos like snares when treating them in a mix. With fast transients and uniquely tonal sustains, there’s a lot of character that’s easy to destroy with the wrong compression settings.  

I’ll typically start with a 3:1 to 4:1 ratio and dial in around 5-6dB of gain reduction to keep these instruments in place. The attack setting is by far the most important here, as you can use it adjust the amount of snap your hand drums have. 

A slower attack will give you more snap, while a faster attack will give you less. 


Tambourine Compressor Settings


A tambourine that is too dynamic can be incredibly annoying to listen to, which is often why I use compression to limit the dynamics between the louder and softer parts of the rhythm. The snap of a tambourine on an accentuated beat often needs control to sit back in the mix, especially when doubling the snare. I usually like to approach this part of a tambourine’s sound like a snare, due to its snappy qualities. 

You can often use a medium to fast compression and a fast release with a ratio between 3:1 and 4:1, dialing in around 3-5dB of gain reduction


Learn more about Mixing with Compression


This is only one part of mixing with compression! Luckily, I've put together a bunch more articles to help you master this crucial mixing skill!


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