compressor aficionados (2) – Nico from BigTone

Nico, why did you wanted to be a sound designer?

this happened by accident actually. i am and always was a sound fetishist. to me music is simply based on sound at the very first. no sound, no music. sound to me is the core element of music, way before you start a composition you need a sound to do so, be it a synthesizer or a guitar, it doesn´t matter. so the sound you choose greatly influences the composition that follows. that just was my natural understanding of music. since i was producing music in the mid 80´s i did so in the electronic area, using a lot of synthesizers. i never liked the presets provided with them, so i started to screw around on the knobs, until i liked what i heard. i started to study manuals (i still do this regularly, just for fun). it was easier for me to do it that way, as i then was able to make the sound fit into the composition/arrangement, as opposed to make everything fit searching preset by preset, not finding what i wanted anyway. over the years experience growed, and musical success went along with it, until i realized by 1997/98, that the music business went into deep trouble, so one day i thought, i might as well print an audio cd demo with some of my sounds i collected over the years for various synthesizers, and give those to the relevant guys at the music fair in frankfurt, which i visited regularly anyway. just to check if there was a market. well, after this year (1999) at the fair, the phone didn´t stop ringing…
so from that point on it came like it had to, suddenly i earned way more money than with producing music. so i went that route quite fast. i had to, the demand was huge.

Was that the start of your BigTone Studios venture or was that already there?

it was already there, just with another name  – “no lowcut studios”. but i was frequently asked what “no lowcut” means, so i realized very quickly that this “brand” wasn´t sufficient, so, under pressure, for a lack of a better one (i´m not really talented in inventing clever brands) i renamed it bigtone very fast, knowing there´s success around the corner, as i did not want to spread a brand that none understands.

What dominates your studio today: Hardware or software?

it depends, but mostly it´s software nowadays. even though the analog realm grows a strong last hype, it is often the mystifying of analog in general, that the hype is based on. moog here, moog there, most of the musicians today have never heard the original hardware due to the fact that these are very rare. i did, and in my opinion there´s no other route than ITB, it´s just so much more convenient in every aspect. don´t get me wrong, not that i don´t like analog hardware, my favourite synthesizer is, along some others, the oberheim matrix12 (never heard anything like it again). but i still, like if it was yesterday, remember the times with my analog monsters i had, getting out of tune right in the process of mastering, how often they had to be maintained, etc, etc… i lost my hair due to such situations and i am really happy, that software came such a long way. also, software is naturally (mostly) so much more feature equipped, you can simply edit more to make the sound suit your needs, and a lot of features simply trigger creativity. i wish i had these possibilities back then. you´re simply able to create stuff that you couldn´t with the analog hardware. also, one must be blind (or deaf) to not realize that software simply is the way it goes, you can´t avoid it, and there´s thousands of reasons why this is so. last but not least, software has come a long way, there´s a lot of extremely high quality stuff out there, actually superseding even very good hardware (best examples are your plugins, and for free). i mean honestly – who cares if the plugin doesn´t sound _exactly_ like the analog hardware? i owned 2 silverplates, and they sounded different, i owned 3 minimoogs, they sounded different, i owned 3 tb303´s, they sounded different. the convenience in the software is, that, if i need more than 2 urei´s, i simply open another instance and that´s it.
in the end it has to be said, even back then, i never bought hardware just because it has a myth state. i still check everything i am interested in, and decide if it does what i need or not, be it for 100 bucks or 5000. in my opinion people have to learn how to use the stuff, rather than hunting myths. in this regard, myth-busting became a kind of hobby for me, and it really works most of the time… once i did a thread on kvr, posting an audio example of what i found to be a nice reverb tail. the thread exploded, a lot of users, even quite experienced ones, were betting their last pants that it´s a lexicon, or a quantec and whatnot. but it was the artsacoustic reverb. people seriously have to get off that myth hunting syndrome. learn the stuff you got and use your ears. cliche, i know – but that´s how it is.

Indeed, there are quite some myths floating around the net. Lets talk a little bit about production techniques. When it comes to compression your taste is very distinguished: What makes compression so attractive and important in a production?

well, like with everything, it´s the distinctive sound (some) compressors are creating. back in the 60´s/70´s and early 80`s, compression was (amongst other issues) needed to create some levelling throughout the full song, to overcome the dynamic behaviour over a longer timeframe. due to the recording editing possibilities nowadays, this task has been overcome. it´s rather the sound that i´m after, that compression itself does, call it an artistic approach, if you want. even if there´s absolutely no mojo on a compressor, the simple fact that you modify the “envelope” of the sound, by doing so you of course alter the frequency response over the timeframe the sound lasts within the context of the song. if there´s a compressor, that adds some mojo i like on top of it, if it suits the signal, or modifies the signal to something i prefer over the original signal, i actually compress signals that don´t need to be compressed, just for the love of the sound. it´s like with a reverb. nothing can create the sound image of a reverb except a reverb. you have to use a reverb, if you want to create the impression of a reverb. there´s different sounding ones, so you choose the one that suits the signal as close as what you have in mind. same goes for dynamics. if you want to create the impression of a compressor, you have to use one. even when mastering, i like to hear a compressor. it just sounds so much more organic, so much more interesting and challenging at the same time, if used correctly. the only exception is, if i have to go for pure loudness, there i would want to go for a limiter that is as most as it can inaudible. but if you´re not hunting for the peak of the loudness war, which imho is a really bad thing, you´d wonder the tools that can get you there sometimes. i once mastered a song with the freeware compressor/limiter from mda, which is a very cheap one, in every regard. but it did the trick. like always, i try a lot of compressors/limiters/dynamic plugins in order to find the one that does the trick on the respective task. no signal is the same. even if it is the same, it´s within another context, so the task differs, and what might have worked yesterday on the same signal, might fail today in another context. what i hate is, when compressors/limiters are overused in an uncreative way, which happens a lot nowadays, especially in pop/rock music they squeeze the hell out of the last bit that´s available. to me dynamic tools are there to control the dynamic of a song/sound, not to pull each availlable bit to 0db. my credo is: a song has to live, and to live it has to be able to breathe. don´t get me wrong, i like quite loud compressed/limited songs, but even though i love to compress/limit, this fact always has been a kind of mandala to me. if you want it louder, see that knob over there? at your stereo system? it´s called level knob. turn it up, that´s what it´s there for.🙂

Concerning compression and limiting: Did your production aesthetics changed over the years? Are you mixing through a dedicated bus compressor? And in which situations is a saturator a better alternative from your point of view?

well, yes, i think it changed over the time, and will always change. you see, i can´t help it, i evolve due to experience. also the music styles change, and before them, the production styles do, naturally. so what was done yesterday, simply wouldn´t work today, from an aesthetic point of view. in my opinion compression and saturation has become a quite artistic task. one thing however, never changed for me, and i state that wherever i can: saturation isn´t saturation if you can hear it isolated as distortion. then it actually is, what the latter said – distortion. can be great on some signals, no doubt, but the point is, that saturation was the missing link in so many aspects that influenced each other. what i mean is, that for example on an adt mt5 console, you could pull up the gain well into the range of 20-25db above, and you could hear the character of the sound change. but it didn´t sound distorted, it sounded _saturated_ (hence the word), more refined, some attacks were coloured to another kind of shape, but you didn´t hear any distortion, even though the end result was based on, or should i say partly based on some kind of distortion. that was saturation to me. nowadays saturation is just another buzzword for some kind of distortion, for young producers, that actually never met any kind of what was saturation at all. it´s just like a few years ago everyone jumped on the “tube modelled”, then on the “tape modelled”, then on the “vca/fet modelled” hype, but mostly all of them were just a kind of shaper at the input or the output of the unit, which distorted with a certain shaper curve. but that´s not saturation. saturation is build of way more things that influence each other, such as frequency dependant phase-misalignments of capacitors/resistors, tube lags due to the age of the tube, magnetic smearing of tapes and whatnot. these interactions with each other feed the gainstage – and _that_ result was saturation, which of course is based on distortion. but due to the fact that they influence each other, and the fact that quite some hardware developers back then took their time to carefully choose the respective components within the units in order to actually get this certain sound, it actually did _not_ sound like distortion at all, if you did stick just before the point in gain you could actually hear the distortion. i guess that´s what everyone means when they say it sounds “analog” or “fat”… there´s not many compressors/limiters/dynamic plugins  that respect all these issues, but some are really close. f.e. the artsacoustic cl series, also your thrillseeker or booteq mk2 go quite into that “fat” direction. those are the ones i reach for when i seek some kind of saturation. then there´s recently a fairchild clone i´m investigating, by overtone, called the fc70, from the first try it sounds impressive on vocals, i´ll have to investigate in how far that sound depends on saturation, but from the feel, it could be, to my ears.
right now when i´m mixing, besides the artsacoustic cl1 i love the glue for the ssl style when appropriate, and for the clean compression i often use the fabfilter pro-c. but my favourite two compressors i really used/use day in day out are actually two freeware compressors – g-vst g-comp and the chunkware vanilla compressor. sadly they both seem to be discontinued and it´s unlikely that they will see the 64bit-light of day.
in terms of bus compression – to me there is no dedicated “bus-compressor”. this term is, again, an invented one, a marketing hype. it´s just that ssl had a compressor on the bus, which kind of invented the name. but it´s “just another compressor”, not one that was primarily invented to be on a bus. so in the end, i have my goto´s mentioned above, but that doesn´t mean i´m ending with them. now, for saturation (and not only), and this is no joke, i love your nasty vcs. it ends on a lot of channels here. i just wish it would have 2 more eq bands…:)
for limiting individual tracks i often use upper mentioned g-comp by g-vst or the fabfilter pro-l, which i also sometimes use for mastering. if i need to clip a master, again a  g-vst plugin called g-clip is my way to go. it´s by far the best clipper out there, though don´t ask me why. it simply sounds good, if you don´t overdo it.
as for when to limit/compress or to saturate, i can´t really say, as it depends on the signal, so it varies always. maybe i can say that i avoid to saturate signals with a lot of high-mid content, i like to apply saturation either as an hf-exciter on the very top end, or on some rather bassy signals, to get a bit more of that “roar” (for the lack of a better description).

What still needs to be improved in the digital domain and is there anything else you would like for people to have in mind when working ITB?

in my opinion, from the technical side it´s everything that needs oversampling. basically everything that generates harmonics f.e. audiorate modulation of any kind, or a proper feedback saturation in an analog filter,  can´t be really controlled except using oversampling or using a higher samplerate in general. those functions are, if properly implemented, extremely cpu intensive. i know, people say that the computers get faster and faster, but they tend to forget, that the demand of the software increases nearly equally (not to speak of the operating systems). so i would be really thankful for the developers to still put great effort into optimizing the software for minimal cpu usage. i have the feeling, that over the years, a lot of developers don´t put much effort into cpu usage optimizing anymore, and that´s a real shame… or someone invents algorithms that overcome the need of oversampling, sounding equally good… well, you can´t fool physics…:)
the second thing is, that i would love to see more developers, that actually really know, what a musician or a mixing/mastering engineer needs. a lot of stuff out there suffers from just that knowledge, because a lot of developers never made music professionally, nor are they interested in doing so, but creating plugins for just that usage. such software often lacks the small and very basic features, that actually don´t need a lot of effort to be programmed, nor do these features need a lot of cpu… it´s the tiny things lacking, that immensely sum up in a bad way in the end…
as for the users and what they have to keep in mind, i think it´s that they really have to stop blaming the tools. i often read on gearsluts or kvr of problems users having to get their mix sounding good and loud, using a lot of expensive frontend and expensive plugins, and often, just from the reading and listening to their audio examples i can clearly hear that there´s no plugin or no hardware in the world, that could fix the problem, as it´s mostly the wrong way of usage. also, often they invest in a lot of frontend gear, plugins and backend mastering/summing stuff, but didn´t treat their control room nor did they invest in good sounding monitors. i always tell them that you can only sound design, arrange, mix or master what you actually are able to hear. if you don´t hear the mistakes right off, you can´t avoid them, it´s that easy. in my opinion, especially if you do contemporary music, you can´t really do so on tiny monitors with a 5-inch woofer, might these monitors be as expensive as can be. imo only a pair of good midfield speakers will be sufficient for such tasks, in order to hear everything relevant from 30hz and all the way up. and these speakers have to sound wise fit into the listening enviroment. cross-checking on smaller monitors will help of course, but good bigger ones show you more clear, if you do mistakes in the mix or not. i think, as soon as you hear what you do, right from the start you naturally avoid to make mistakes, just because you hear them as you do them, it´s that simple. you could do a great sounding mix with just using the onboard plugins of a host, if you really hear what you do. last but not least – if you want to have a great mix/master, listening to reference songs is absolutely mandatory, as, no matter how good your ear and your studio in general is, your ear gets used to your mix, that´s a fact. so i suggest everyone to listen 80% to the references, then switch to the mix you do, do some changes, then switch back to the reference fast, in order to stay with the impression of that one.

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  1. Great article… thanks! Kudos to Nico !

  2. crackbaby says:

    Great article!!

  3. Reblogueó esto en 1982Arty comentado:
    Entrevista de VOS a Nico de BigTone…

  4. G-comp?…That’s an interesting choice. Great read…I’m loving these interviews.

    After reading this interview I did some reading up on G-vst and found this link for 64 bit versions. They were updated in April 2013.

  6. Great article!


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