Low-level compression is a fantastic technique to bring out the subtleties of a performance. Learn a method of combining the Waves MV2 with a distortion to get great-sounding and creative results.
By Sage Audio
We often speak about plugins individually. Their functionality and purpose are discussed as if they exist within a vacuum, and are the sole form of processing to be used on a track, group of instruments, or stereo master. But in truth, things are much more complex. Plugins interact with one another, affect one another, and can be used in conjunction to create interesting and unique forms of processing. Like a signal running through multiple pieces of hardware, a signal running through multiple plugins is affected by each one. The plugins affect each other in a logical and subsequent manner.
Our intention here is to delve into how low-level compression can be paired with distortion to accentuate any and all harmonic generation and to uncover what would otherwise be masked by louder instrumentation. We’ll be looking into the signal flow, the effects themselves and some of the practical applications of using such a technique. We’ll also be examining some of the more technical aspects of this technique for the sake of being comprehensive and perhaps discovering other ways such an effect can become useful.
The Plugin Chain
The two plugins we’ll be using to explore this effect are Waves’ MV2 low-level compressor and Waves’ Abbey Road Vinyl. As a bonus, we’ll also be taking a look at how the Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter can be involved.
The purpose of the MV2 is to create various degrees of low-level compression, whereas the Abbey Road Vinyl plugin will serve as a means of harmonic generation. We will also be using a frequency analyzer to monitor the harmonic generation, and the effect of low-level compression when paired with harmonic generation.
If you have these plugins, perfect – follow along with them so that you can explore various settings we may not cover here. If not, don’t worry – this can be replicated with another low-level compressor and harmonic generator or distortion plugins; however, it should be noted that the MV2 has been tailored specifically for the purpose of low-level compression, and yields the best results. But first, let’s quickly define some of the effects we’re using to better understand what they do and when they should be used.
What is Low-Level Compression?
Low-level compression causes quieter aspects of a signal to be amplified whenever they fall below a set threshold. Opposite to a typical compressor, a low-level compressor works by amplifying the nuanced details of a track or instrument, not by attenuating the loudest parts of a signal.
The best way to understand a low-level compressor is to picture it being used on an individual instrument, like a snare. A typical compressor would attenuate or turn down the transient of the snare whenever it becomes louder than a specific threshold. A low-level compressor will also turn down this transient, but it will also amplify everything quieter than the transient until that transient occurs again.
Imagine the ring of a snare. If you were to use regular compression and attenuate the transient, this ring wouldn’t be affected. But, if you were to use low-level compression, the ring of the snare would be amplified after each hit. Low-level compression can target and amplify the tail aspects of a snare. If the transient of a snare is the attack in an ADSR envelope, the MV2 attenuates the Attack while amplifying the Decay, Sustain, and Release.
The value of this is the ability to bring out these quieter parts or to amplify them so that they can be better perceived by the listener. Otherwise, louder instrumentation will mask or cover up these nuanced details.
What Makes the MV2 Unique?
The MV2 seems to accurately pinpoint the quieter parts of a signal, without conflating it with any louder parts of the recording. The MV2 works much better than other forms of expansion or upward compression, and always results in the desired effect. It seems like Waves has implemented a variable attack and release time as well as ratio to best capture and amplify the quieter aspects of a signal and attenuate the louder parts. Trying to do so with another plugin or an upward compressor can prove difficult, while the MV2 always seems to accurately decipher and process the low-level information separate from the high.
What is Harmonic Generation?
Harmonic generation is a form of distortion that results in harmonics, or multitudes of the fundamental frequency, being created and made audible. The primary purpose of any analog emulation is to generate low-order harmonics, which are enjoyable to listen to and make a signal more complex and nuanced.
Not only does harmonic generation make an instrument or mix more enjoyable, but it also accentuates quieter aspects of a recording by amplifying frequencies that otherwise would have been lost due to masking. These distortions make detailed instruments sound great, like acoustic guitars, snares, vocals, and even sine-wave based synths. By adding these harmonics, a signal can sound fuller, more present, and can cut through a mix if the harmonics don’t clash with other frequencies or harmonics.
Basically, harmonic generation is one of the most sought after sounds in audio – hence the immense popularity of the analog emulators that seek to recreate them, and the fondness engineers have for the classic analog technology which created these harmonics.
How to Pair the MV2 with Distortion
Can low-level compression be paired with harmonic generation? Yes, of course! And to great effect.
Just as low-level compression can be used to accentuate and amplify the quieter aspects of your signal, it can be used to do the same thing to the quieter aspects of your distortion. That is to say, the harmonics generated by your distortion or analog emulation plugin can be made more apparent, and more perceivable, by pairing that distortion with the MV2 low-level compressor.
It works like this:
Step 1: Use a distortion or analog emulation plugin to generate harmonics. Dial-in the settings you like. For this technique, it’s best to turn down (or off) any noise option, as the MV2 will amplify that noise, increasing your recording’s noise floor.
Step 2: After the distortion, use the MV2 plugin’s low-level compression function to amplify the analog emulation that came before it.
The idea is to create harmonics, and once that has been accomplished, amplify and accentuate the more nuanced details of those harmonics. Your signal chain may vary, but for this technique, the MV2 plugin will come after the harmonic generator.
Let’s run some tests so that we can visualize this process:
Step 1: First, let’s use a test oscillator to create a sine wave. We’ll make ours 300Hz. At any point, feel free to mute the output, as a test tone can become unpleasant to listen to. (Set yours to various frequencies, as the effect will be similar regardless of the fundamental sine wave.)
Step 2: Observe the sine wave on your frequency analyzer, and notice that the “spike” exists exactly at 300Hz and at a constant amplitude.
Step 3: Place an analog emulator after your Test Oscillator in your signal chain. For our example, we’ll be using the Abbey Road Vinyl analog emulator.
Step 4: While observing your frequency analyzer, adjust the harmonic generation settings of your analog emulator, which will most likely be represented as a “drive” function. Notice the harmonics that get generated on your frequency analyzer. You’ll notice that each harmonic is a multiple of the original 300Hz fundamental frequency.
Step 5: Insert the MV2 plugin after your analog emulator. As you slowly increase the low-level fader, notice that the harmonics and the fundamental slowly increase in gain.
In this instance, all of the signal’s information is being amplified, not just the quieter harmonics. This teaches us something very important about how the MV2 operates. Because the sine wave is played at a constant amplitude, there is no way for the MV2 to differentiate between the quieter and the louder aspects of the signal. It is only when dynamics are introduced that the compressor settings of the MV2 can capture these nuanced details and amplify them.
Let’s try this same process, but on a snare drum. As we generate harmonics and then slide the low-level fader upward, we notice this yellow bar under the low-level fader.
This bar indicates how much of the lower-level aspects of the signal are being amplified. Notice that once the snare hits, and the transient is captured by the MV2’s compressor, the signal is attenuated, but quickly amplified afterword. This shows that the quieter aspects of the snare, like the decay, sustain, and release (what is often referred to as the snare’s “ring”) is being amplified, while the transient is being attenuated in comparison. Have a listen below:
01 - Snare
02 - Snare + MV2
03 - Snare + MV2 + Distortion
What Does This All Mean for Harmonic Generation?
As stated before, the harmonics and the other quieter aspects of the signal are made more apparent when using low-level compression. By creating these harmonics and then using the MV2, you’re essentially amplifying these quieter aspects with harmonics, and then amplifying those harmonics.
In turn, you take the nuanced aspects of your signal, add harmonics to create complexity and bring out masked frequencies, and then make that effect even more apparent by using the MV2’s low-level compression function. Your harmonics will be captured and amplified, resulting in a fuller, more complex and desirable sound. If you’re looking for a way to efficiently add a lot of character to your instruments, mix or master, this will do it. If used correctly, this technique will take any bland recording and turn it into something great.
Bonus Tip: Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter
An exciter is used to amplify any harmonics created from an instrument or from distortion. Like distortion plugins, exciters alter the harmonics of a signal. Unlike distortion plugins, exciters don’t create harmonics – they amplify the ones that already exist.
If you wanted to accentuate your harmonics even more, place the Aphex Vintage Exciter between your distortion or analog emulation plugin and your MV2. This will cause the harmonics to be amplified prior to the upward compression of the MV2.
The effect can either be subtle or obvious, depending on the extent to which you excite your harmonics, but this offers extra flexibility. For example, if you’d prefer to primarily accentuate harmonics and not other low-level information, this technique will work well. It allows you to target the harmonics more than an instrument’s decay and release.
Other Uses for this Technique
By this point, you may have realized that the MV2 can be used after other plugins to accentuate the quieter aspects of their processing. That being said, you certainly aren’t limited to using the MV2 after distortion alone. Try using the MV2 after a reverb plugin to enhance the quieter aspects of the decay, and the shape the reverb’s envelope. Maybe try the MV2 after a doubler or harmonizer to bring out some of the more unique and hidden effects of the plugin.
Honestly, you can try adding an MV2 after any effect to see if you can find and amplify any quiet, unique or unheard aspect of the processing. It truly is exciting when you consider what may be discovered from amplifying the quietest part of a recording or of any effects processing. Who knows what you’ll uncover in the process!
Although placing the MV2 after an effect can be used for the benefit of your mix or master, doing so haphazardly and irresponsibly can have negative effects on your project.
For example, many analog emulators include an “analog” function – often, this simply means that analog noise is introduced to the signal to increase the realism of the plugin. If you were to use an MV2 after introducing this noise, you would no doubt increase the noise floor of your recording. If this was done to an entire mix, the effects could be disastrous. (Disastrous may be a bit melodramatic, but you know what I mean.)
If there are aspects of your mix that you don’t want to uncover and amplify, like noise, buzz, hum, maybe the sounds of a guitar string being scraped or of saliva moving about in the mouth of a singer, then the MV2 may not be your best choice. Consider the ramifications of using the MV2 on sound sources you don’t wish to amplify, and then approach the technique with caution. Just as the MV2 can highlight the best parts of your mix, it can highlight the worst parts as well. That being said, it’s best to use the MV2 after any errors in your mix have been remedied.
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Sage Audio Mastering, Nashville, Tennessee
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