Hi-Hat Compression – How to Compress Hi-Hats

With their expressiveness and sustain when open in particular, hi-hats generally don’t need compression as often as the kick or snare (incidentally check out my kick compression and snare compression tutorials). That said some hi-hat compression can add a little thickness or even tame a bit of harshness which can creep up in the 2-5k range. This hi-hat compression guide will offer two options on how to compress hi-hats in your mix depending on how they’re sounding going in.

Hi-Hat Compression

hi hat compression cheat sheet

Before we get into this hi-hat compression tutorial, I always preach EQ before compression. With that in mind, make sure you check out my hi-hat EQ guide to ensure it’s properly EQ’d before we compress.

Now let’s get into the first of these two methods of hi-hat compression and the one I reach for when my recorded or sampled hi-hat is sounding pretty good as is.

This first technique involves an optical compressor, a type of audio compressor which uses light to compress peaks and dynamic range. Specifically, the more the input level exceeds the compressor’s threshold we set, the more intense the light becomes which signals more gain reduction.

Of course software based optical compressor plugins are simply emulating this process which hardware based units like the famed Universal Audio LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier make use of.

The benefit of optical compressors is that its process doesn’t color the audio as much of other styles of compressors. This makes optical compression an especially transparent form of peak reduction, just giving you the benefits of compression without the artifacts you hear from other types of compression.

Getting back to hi-hat compression, I typically use a plugin which models the aforementioned LA-2A, specifically the CLA-2A from Waves.

Here is a snapshot of the very simple settings I use to compress my hi-hat via the 2A:

hi-hat compression

The other notable benefit of using an optical compressor is that it’s incredibly simple to use. Most of the audio compressor settings we normally think of like attack and release are automatic and tied to the peak reduction. The compression knee is also soft and transparent which is good for instruments like a hi-hat which don’t have consistent and clear dynamics like the kick or snare. I like to use the 2A as part of my compression on vocals for that reason.

Essentially I just like to set the peak reduction/threshold knob to achieve 1-2 or 3dB at most of gain reduction.

Be sure to set the gain knob to match the input level so that the volume is the same with it on or off to accurately appraise the effect of the compressor (as well as maintain gain staging).

Even with this relatively subtle amount of gain reduction, the 2A adds a little pleasant fatness with a touch of sustain particularly on the closed hi-hat hits which sounds great.

Note that the “Hi Freq” dial disproportionately attenuates the high frequencies the more you turn it to the left. Turning it to the right will result in “flat” compression, even distributed amongst all the frequencies.

I’ll typically turn this further left the more I need to smooth out the highs of my hi-hat. If you are perfectly happy with the tone of your hi-hat pre-compression, by all means turn this all the way to the right.

Multiband Compression on Hi-Hat

Now the other reason to use hi-hat compression. What if you’ve got a really harsh sounding hi-hat which is grating the ears in the sensitive 2-5k region?

I’ll typically try the 2A with the frequency dial all the way to the left. If that doesn’t get me where I want, then I’ll turn to a multiband compressor to attenuate the 2-5k range.

This is admittedly a wide and rough estimate; your hi-hat may need attenuation on the lower or higher end of this, so use your ears.

With that in mind, here are the multiband compression settings I use to tame the hi-hat:

multiband compressor hi-hat

Here I’m targeting 3.5k with a wide band, a 4:1 ratio, attack and release percentages (on the FabFilter Pro-MB) of 40 and 32 percent, respectively, with a 12dB knee. You can just the ratio to be more or less if it sounds like the harshness is lingering or if it’s squashing the excitement and liveliness of the hi-hat, respectively.

Ultimately smoothing out this region should result in a more even, balanced tone from your hi-hat.

Also, make sure to listen to your hi-hat in the context of reference tracks in your mix so you’re constantly reminded of what a good hi-hat sounds like to keep yourself focused on your end goal.

Hi-Hat Compression Reviewed

  • An expressive instrument with plenty of natural sustain, hi-hats typically don’t need as much in the way of compression as the drums in your kit.
  • An optical compressor like the CLA-2A applies gentle attack and knee settings to achieve a more transparent compression, ideal for slightly fattening your hi-hat.
  • In the case of a mildly harsh hi-hat, use the “Hi Freq” dial turned to the left to prioritize compression on the higher end, smoothing out that harshness.
  • To more aggressively tame a harsh hi-hat, use a multiband compressor and target the 2-5k range with a ratio of 4:1 to attenuate the harshness and produce a more even tone.
  • When smoothing out your hi-hat via a multiband compressor, use reference tracks to keep the tone in context with a good sounding hi-hat.

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