Signal Processing Fundamentals: Dynamics

Dynamic Controllers

Dynamic controllers or processors represent a class of signal processing devices used to alter an audio signal based solely upon its frequency content and amplitude level, thus the term "dynamic" since the processing is completely program dependent. The two most common dynamic effects are compressors and expanders, with limiters and noise gates (or just "gates") being special cases of these.

The dynamic range of an audio passage is the ratio of the loudest (undistorted) signal to the quietest (just audible) signal, expressed in dB. Usually the maximum output signal is restricted by the size of the power supplies (you cannot swing more voltage than is available), while the minimum output signal is fixed by the noise floor (you cannot put out an audible signal less than the noise). Professional-grade analog signal processing equipment can output maximum levels of +26 dBu, with the best noise floors being down around -94 dBu. This gives a maximum dynamic range of 120 dB (equivalent to 20-bit digital audio) -- pretty impressive number -- but very difficult to work with. Thus were born dynamic processors.


Compressors are signal processing units used to reduce (compress) the dynamic range of the signal passing through them. The modern use for compressors is to turn down just the loudest signals dynamically. For instance, an input dynamic range of 110 dB might pass through a compressor and exit with a new dynamic range of 70 dB. This clever bit of processing is normally done using a VCA (voltage controlled amplifier) whose gain is determined by a control voltage derived from the input signal. Therefore, whenever the input signal exceeds the threshold point, the control voltage becomes proportional to the signal's dynamic content. This lets the music peaks turn down the gain. Before compressors, a human did this at the mixing board and we called it gain-riding. This person literally turned down the gain anytime it got too loud for the system to handle.

You need to reduce the dynamic range because extreme ranges of dynamic material are very difficult for sound systems to handle. If you turn it up as loud as you want for the average signals, then along comes these huge musical peaks, which are vital to the punch and drama of the music, yet are way too large for the power amps and loudspeakers to handle. Either the power amps clip, or the loudspeakers bottom out (reach their travel limits), or both -- and the system sounds terrible. Or going the other way, if you set the system gain to prevent these overload occurrences, then when things get nice and quiet, and the vocals drop real low, nobody can hear a thing. It's always something. So you buy a compressor.

Using it is quite simple: Set a threshold point, above which everything will be turned down a certain amount, and then select a ratio defining just how much a "certain amount" is. All audio below the threshold point is unaffected and all audio above this point is compressed by the ratio amount. The earlier example of reducing 110 dB to 70 dB requires a ratio setting of 1.6:1 (110/70 = 1.6). The key to understanding compressors is to always think in terms of increasing level changes in dB above the threshold point. A compressor makes these increases smaller.From our example, for every 1.6 dB increase above the threshold point the output onlyincreases 1 dB. In this regard compressors make loud sounds quieter. If the sound gets louder by 1.6 dB and the output only increases by 1 dB, then the loud sound has been made quieter.

Some compressors include attack and release controls. The attack time is the amount of time that passes between the moment the input signal exceeds the threshold and the moment that the gain is actually reduced. The release time is just the opposite -- the amount of time that passes between the moment the input signal drops below the threshold and the moment that the gain is restored. These controls are very difficult to set, and yet once set, rarely need changing. Because of this difficulty, and the terrible sounding consequences of wrong settings, Rane correctly presets these controls to cover a wide variety of music and speech -- one less thing for you to worry about.

System overload is not the only place we find compressors. Another popular use is in the makingof sound. For example when used in conjunction with microphones and musical instrument pick-ups, compressors help determine the final timbre (tone) by selectively compressing specific frequencies and waveforms. Common examples are "fattening" drum sounds, increasing guitar sustain, vocal "smoothing," and "bringing up" specific sounds out of the mix, etc. It is quite amazing what a little compression can do. Check your owner's manual for more tips.

Figure 8. Gate/Expander/Compressor/Limiter Action


Expanders are signal processing units used to increase (expand) the dynamic range of the signal passing through it. However, modern expanders operate only below the set threshold point, that is, they operate only on low-level audio. Operating in this manner they make the quiet parts quieter. The term downward expander or downward expansion evolved to describe this type of application. The most common use is noise reduction. For example, say, an expander's threshold level is set to be just below the quietest vocal level being recorded, and the ratio control is set for 2:1. What happens is this: when the vocals stop, the signal level drops below the set point down to the noise floor. There has been a step decrease from the smallest signal level down to the noise floor. If that step change is, say, -10 dB, then the expander's output attenuates 20 dB (i.e., due to the 2:1 ratio, a 10 dB decrease becomes a 20 dB decrease), thus resulting in a noise reduction improvement of 10 dB. It's now 10 dB quieter than it would have been without the expander.


Limiters are compressors with fixed ratios of 10:1 or greater. Here, the dynamic action prevents the audio signal from becoming any bigger than the threshold setting. For example, say the threshold is set for +16 dBu and a musical peak suddenly comes along and causes the input to jump by 10 dB to +26 dB, the output will only increase by 1 dB to +17 dBu -- basically remaining level. Limiters find use in preventing equipment and recording media overloads. A limiter is the extreme case of compression.

You will hear the term pumping used in conjunction with poorly designed or improperly set limiters. Pumping describes an audible problem caused by actually hearing the gain change -- it makes a kind of "pumping" sound. This is particularly a problem with limiters that operate too abruptly. Rest assured that Rane limiters are designed not to have any audible side-effects.

Noise Gates

Noise gates (or gates) are expanders with fixed "infinite" downward expansion ratios. They are used extensively for controlling unwanted noise, such as preventing "open" microphones and "hot" instrument pick-ups from introducing extraneous sounds into your system. When the incoming audio signal drops below the threshold point, the gate prevents further output by reducing the gain to "zero." Typically, this means attenuating all signals by about 80 dB. Therefore once audio drops below the threshold, the output level basically becomes the residual noise of the gate. Common terminology refers to the gate "opening" and "closing." A gate is the extreme case of downward expansion.

Just as poorly designed limiters can cause pumping, poorly designed gates can cause breathing. The term breathing is used to describe an audible problem caused by being able to hear the noise floor of a product rise and lower, sounding a lot like the unit was "breathing." It takes careful design to get all the dynamic timing exactly right so breathing does not occur. Rane works very hard to make sure all of its dynamic processors have no audible funny business.

Another popular application for noise gates is to enhance musical instrument sounds, especially percussion instruments. Correctly setting a noise gate's attack (turn-on) and release (turn-off) adds "punch," or "tightens" the percussive sound, making it more pronounced -- this is how Phil Collins gets his cool snare sound, for instance.

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Courtesy Rane . Used by permission.

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