When playing guitar in the studio, not all strings are created equal—at least as far as their volume levels go. Compressing your guitar tracks can manage frequency transients and variations in your attack to keep your notes ringing clearly during solos and riffs, every note of your chords sounding articulately, and everything busting out of the mix without getting lost in the band instrumentation.
Many compressors—especially the vintage ones—add coloration to the sound, so make sure the model you choose enhances the guitar part without destroying its natural tone (unless you want that). The examples below are from one plug-in and two hardware units, but the settings can usually be adapted to any compressor, whether software or hardware. You should also note that using compression can lower the overall level of the guitar, but most compressors have a “make-up gain” or Level control to turn the rage back up where it needs to be. As always, use your ears and experiment.
For a part performed with a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender Super Reverb, I wanted a punchy clean tone with enough definition so that each note in the chord voicings cut through the mix. I choose the Steinberg RND (Rupert Neve) Portico 5043 plug-in for this task, and I set the controls as follows:
• Ratio at 2:1
• Attack at 8ms
• Release at 500ms
• Threshold set so the Gain Reduction meters read between -4dB and -6dB
• Activated Feed-Back for a sweeter, though less-accurate compression sound
I was seeking a woody, yet ringing tone with plenty of pick attack when strumming chords for a part mixed under some vocals. The guitar was my Guild acoustic with the L.R. Baggs Dual Source System, and I decided to use the Warm Audio WA76 Limiting Amplifier, which emulates the classic FET sound of the famous Urei 1176.
• Ratio at 4:1 (for more pick attack, use 8:1)
• Attack at 7
• Release at 13
• Input knob adjusted until Gain Reduction meters read between -3dB and -5dB
DISTORTED HEAVY METAL ELECTRIC
For this track, I needed a heavily compressed rhythm tone with plenty of scorch and bottom end that would make any metalhead proud. The rig was a Les Paul/plexi Marshall recorded in two passes for a stereo perspective (panned hard right and hard left). I went for the sound of a legendary SSL VCA model for this one, choosing the Audio-Scape Stereo Buss Compressor.
• Ratio at 4:1
• Attack at 3ms
• Release set to Auto
• Threshold set so the Gain Reduction meters read between -6dB and -8dB
• Tip: If you are compressing 7-or 8-string guitars with a lot of low end, you might want to activate the Sidechain switch to let the bass frequencies come through without being overly compressed