Dynamic range is the ratio between the loudest possible audio level and the lowest possible level.  For example, if an audio processor states that the maximum input level before distortion is +24 dBu, and the output noise floor is -92dBu, then the processor has a total dynamic range of 24 + 92 = 116 dB.  The average dynamic range of an orchestral performance can range from -50 dBu to +10 dBu, on average. This equates to a 60 dB dynamic range.  Although 60 dB may not appear to be a large dynamic range, you’ll discover that +10 dBu is 1,000 times louder than -50dBu

Do we need compression for voice processing? 

The average dynamic range of an uncompressed voicel is around 40 dB.   In other words, a voice can go from -30 dBu to +10 dBu.  The passages that are +10 dBu and higher will be heard over prevailing noise.  However, the passages that are at -30 dBu and below will never be heard over the roar of the noise. A compressor can be beneficial in this situation to reduce (compress) the dynamic range of the vocal to around 10 dB. The vocal can now be placed at around +5 dBu.  

Can we have too much compression? 

Over-compression often sounds horrible.  That statement can be qualified by defining over compression. The term itself is derived from the fact that you can hear the compressor working.   Therefore, the over-compressed sound is likely to have been caused an improper adjustment of the compressor.  Most importantly, a well-designed and properly adjusted compressor should never be audible to other hams!  

So, what constitutes compression/limiting?

Punch, apparent loudness, presence—these are just three of the many terms used to describe the effects of compression/limiting.  Compression and limiting are forms of dynamic-range (gain) control. Audio signals have very wide peak-to-average signal-level ratios (sometimes referred to as dynamic range, which is the difference between the loudest level and the softest level). The peak signal can cause overload in the audio-recording or sound-reinforcement chain, resulting in signal distortion.

A compressor/limiter is a type of amplifier in which gain is dependent on the signal level passing through it. You can set the maximum level a compressor/limiter allows to pass through, thereby causing automatic gain reduction above some predetermined signal level, or threshold. Compression refers, basically, to the ability to reduce, by a fixed ratio, the amount by which a signal’s output level can increase relative to the input level. It is useful for lowering the dynamic range of a vocal, making it easier to be heard over the air without distortion.  

Take, for example, a ham who moves around in front of the microphone during a QSO, making the output level vary up and down unnaturally. A compressor can be applied to the signal to help correct this phenomenon by reducing the louder passages enough to be compatible with the overall signal.

How severely the compressor reduces the signal is determined by the compression ratio and compression threshold. A ratio of 2:1 or less is considered mild compression, reducing the output by a factor of two for signals that exceed the compression threshold. Ratios above 10:1 are considered hard limiting.

As the compression threshold is lowered, more of the input signal is compressed (assuming a nominal input-signal level). Care must be taken not to over compress a signal, as too much compression destroys the acoustic dynamic response.

Limiting refers to the processing that prevents the signal from getting any louder (that is, it prevents any increase in the signal’s amplitude) at the output.

Vocals usually have a wide dynamic range. Transients (normally the loudest portions of the signal) can be far outside the average level of the vocal signal. Because the level can change continuously and dramatically, it is extremely difficult to ride the level with a console fader. A compressor/limiter automatically controls gain without altering the subtleties of the transmission.

Compressor terminology

Threshold. The compressor threshold sets the level at which compression begins. When the signal is above the threshold setting, it becomes eligible for compression. Basically, as you turn the threshold knob counterclockwise, more of the input signal becomes compressed (assuming you have a ratio setting greater than 1:1).

Ratio. The ratio is the relationship between the output level and the input level. In other words, the ratio sets the compression slope. For example, if you have the ratio set to 2:1, any signal levels above the threshold setting will be compressed such that for every 1 dB of level increase into the compressor, the output will only increase 0.5 dB. As you increase the ratio, the compressor gradually becomes a limiter.

Limiter. A limiter is a compressor that is set to prevent any increase in the level of a signal above the threshold. For example, if you have the threshold knob set at 0 dB, and the ratio turned fully clockwise, the compressor becomes a limiter at 0 dB, so that the output signal cannot exceed 0 dB regardless of the level of the input signal.

Attack. Attack sets the speed at which the compressor acts on the input signal. A slow attack time allows the beginning envelope of a signal (commonly referred to as the initial transient) to pass through the compressor unprocessed, whereas a fast attack time immediately subjects the signal to the ratio and threshold settings of the compressor.

Release. Release sets the length of time the compressor takes to return the gain reduction back to zero (no gain reduction) after the signal level drops below the compression threshold. Very short release times can produce a very choppy or “jittery” sound, especially in low-frequency instruments such as bass guitar. Very long release times can result in an over compressed sound; this is sometimes referred to as “squashing” the sound. All ranges of release can be useful at different times, however, and you should experiment to become familiar with the different sonic possibilities.

Hard/Soft Knee. With hard-knee compression, the gain reduction applied to the signal occurs as soon as the signal exceeds the level set by the threshold. With soft-knee compression, the onset of gain reduction occurs gradually after the signal has exceeded the threshold, producing a more musical response (to some folks).

Auto. Places a compressor in automatic attack and release mode. The attack and release knobs become inoperative and a preprogrammed attack and release curve is used.

Makeup Gain. When compressing a signal, gain reduction usually results in an overall reduction of level. The gain control allows you to restore the loss in level due to compression (like readjusting the volume).

Compression settings for ssb/am (some starting points)

Expansion

There are two basic types of expansion: dynamic and downward. Expansion increases the dynamic range of a signal after the signal crosses the expansion threshold. Dynamic expansion is basically the opposite of compression. In fact, broadcasters use dynamic expansion to “undo” compression before transmitting the audio signal. This is commonly referred to as companding, or COMPression followed by expANDING.

By far the most common use of expansion is downward expansion. In contrast to compression, which decreases the level of a signal after it rises above the compression threshold, expansion decreases the level of a signal after the signal goes below the expansion threshold. The amount of level reduction is determined by the expansion ratio. For example, a 2:1 expansion ratio reduces the level of a signal by a factor of two. (e.g., if a level drops 5 dB below the expansion threshold, the expander will reduce it to 10 dB below the threshold.)

Commonly used for noise reduction, expansion is very effective as a simple noise gate. The major difference between expansion and noise gating is that expansion is dependent on the signal level after the level crosses the threshold, whereas a noise gate works independently of a signal’s level beyond the threshold.

Expansion terminology:

Downward Expansion. Downward expansion is the most common expansion used in live sound and recording. This type of expansion reduces the level of a signal when the signal falls below a set threshold level. This is most commonly used for noise reduction.

Ratio. The expansion ratio sets the amount of reduction applied to a signal once the signal has dropped below the expansion threshold. For example, a 2:1 expansion ratio attenuates a signal 2 dB for every 1 dB it drops below the threshold. Ratios of 4:1 and higher act much like a noise gate but without the ability to tailor the attack, hold, and release times.

Noise Gate

Do we also need a noise gate?

Not usually necessary. Problems can sometimes arise when shack background noise (air conditioner, linear amp fan, etc.) become more audible after the lower end of the dynamic range is raised.  Preferably get rid of the noise in the first place.  Also, close-talk your microphone and keep the level controls as low as possible.  If that's not feasible consider the use a noise gate. The noise-gate threshold could be set at the bottom of the dynamic range of the vocal, say -10 dBu, such that the gate would shut out the unwanted signals between the phrases.

What is noise gating?

Noise gating is the process of removing unwanted sounds from a signal by attenuating all signals below a set threshold. As described, the gate works independently of the audio signal after being “triggered” by the signal crossing the gate threshold. The gate will remain open as long as the signal is above the threshold. How fast the gate opens to let the “good” signal through is determined by the attack time. How long the gate stays open after the signal has gone below the threshold is determined by the hold time. How fast the gate closes is determined by the release. How much the gate attenuates the unwanted signal while closed is determined by the range.

Noise gates were originally designed to help eliminate extraneous noise and unwanted artifacts from a recording, such as hiss, rumble, or transients from other instruments in the room. Since hiss and noise are not as loud as the instrument being recorded, a properly set gate will only allow the intended sound to pass through; the volume of everything else is lowered. Not only will this strip away unwanted artifacts like hiss, it will add definition and clarity to the desired sound. This is a very popular application for noise gates, especially with percussion instruments, as it will add punch or “tighten” the percussive sound and make it more pronounced.

Noise gate terminology:

Threshold. The gate threshold sets the level at which the gate opens. Essentially, all signals above the threshold setting are passed through unaffected, whereas signals below the threshold setting are reduced in level by the amount set by the range control. If the threshold is set fully counterclockwise, the gate is turned off (always open), allowing all signals to pass through unaffected.

Attack. The gate attack time sets the rate at which the gate opens. A fast attack rate is crucial for percussive instruments, whereas signals such as vocals and bass guitar require a slower attack. Too fast of an attack can, on these slow-rising signals, cause an artifact in the signal, which is heard as a click. All gates have the ability to click when opening but a properly set gate will never click.

Hold. Hold time is used to keep the gate open for a fixed period after the signal drops below the gate threshold. This can be very useful for effects such as gated snare, where the gate remains open after the snare hit for the duration of the hold time, then abruptly closes.

Release. The gate-release time determines the rate at which the gate closes. Release times should typically be set so that the natural decay of the instrument or vocal being gated is not affected. Shorter release times help to clean up the noise in a signal but may cause “chattering” in percussive instruments. Longer release times usually eliminate “chattering” and should be set by listening carefully for the most natural release of the signal.

Range. The gate range is the amount of gain reduction that the gate produces. Therefore, if the range is set at 0 dB, there will be no change in the signal as it crosses the threshold. If the range is set to -60 dB, the signal will be gated (reduced) by 60 dB, etc.