What’s wrong with transient shapers?

Transient shapers are processors that adjust the dynamics of a sound. Rather than changing the dynamic range like a compressor, transient shapers operate only on the initial onset of the sound – the transient. The initial smack of a drum. The plink of a piano. The pick of a guitar or bass. They don’t work with sounds that don’t have a sudden start, such as vocals, violins, or synth pads. Transient shapers can either bring out the transient – making it louder, sharper and more prominent. They can also reduce the transient – making it softer and duller.

The tricky aspect to consider here is that the psychoacoustic (perceived) effects of a transient shaper can be similar to those of other tools.

For example, both EQ and compression can also be used to make a sound sharper or duller. Depending on the tone and envelope of the sound, an EQ or compressor can also be used to enhance or reduce the transients. They certainly can be used to make sounds more or less prominent.

In fact, for most day-to-day mixing tasks, channel EQ and compression offer almost all the sound shaping tools you need.

So why use a transient shaper?

If you only want to adjust the transient, EQ and compressors are blunt tools. Using a static EQ setting to boost the upper mids might bring out the ‘pluck’ of a guitar or ‘smack’ of a drum, but it will make the whole sound brighter. Similarly, using a compressor to adjust a transient will also affect the decay and/or sustain of the sound as well. Compressors are also level-dependent, meaning they process individual notes differently depending on how loud they are. This means that a dynamic performance will be treated unevenly – which is exactly what you want if you’re trying to control the dynamics, but not desirable if you’re trying to control the transients.

A transient shaper, by contrast, will process the sound while keeping its tone and dynamic behaviour intact. Most good transient shapers also operate independently of level, meaning they should apply the same amount of change to the transient, regardless of how loud or soft the sound is. Transient shapers are a subtle tool, and are best used when regular EQ and compression tools are unable to be subtle enough.

As always, a clear understanding of your tools will help you create  the sound you’re imagining.


  1. Thanks for the great job kim! is there a way to drop you an email?!

    Thanks again

  2. Ciao Kim! first of all: THANK YOU! reading ur blog is so helpfull! I am really improving my productions thanks to the clarity of your posts, you do a great job here!

    I produce with a basic setup
    Computer:Mac Power Book 2.5Ghz
    Audio Card: Motu828mkII
    Drum machine: Elektron SPS LV01
    Speakers: Adam A3
    Headphones: Beyer Dynamics DT990

    I have the luck to work with some skilled producers, and it is time for me to expand my studio set up – so I am in the process of selecting a summing desk.

    I was thinking about the following items:
    SSL Solid State Logic X-Desk
    Dangerous Music D-Box
    SPL Electronics MixDream XP Analogsummierer 19″

    but cant make up my mind between the 3 yet…any hints? what should i look at when selecting these ?



  3. @emilio: No probs, send email to music at kimlajoie dot com.

    The short answer is: You need to examine the workflow of each piece – they’re quite different. You also need to listen to them. If, after doing that, you still can’t make up your mind, then you’re not ready.

    The long answer is: Send me an email, I’ve got something cooking…


    • MT
    • April 21st, 2010

    This [great!] post reminded me of a tip published in EQ magazine that explained how to utilize a typical compressor as a transient shaper (attacks only in this case):


    Don’t look for the mentioned “sound examples” though, it seems they were never published online :(

    • Dangerrat
    • April 22nd, 2010

    It seems to me, that the “pros” often use hardware compressors like the 1176 for transient shaping. When mixing ITB, do you sometimes use regular compressor plugins for this task, or would you say that a dedicated transient shaper is the better 1176 emulation in the plugin world?

  4. It depends on what you’re trying to do, and what tools are available to you. As I wrote in the blog post, transient shapers are different to compressors (for a number of reasons). There’s no single tool that’s right for all situations.


    • Dangerrat
    • April 23rd, 2010

    Sorry, I should have been more specific. I was thinking about kick and snare treatment. It seems that hardware compressors like the already mentioned 1176 or the distressor for instance is giving those the right amount of punch and transient boost that I haven’t been able to replicate with a plugin compressor. So would you say that for adding punch to drums a transient designer is the prefered tool?

  5. Sorry Dangerrat, I must have missed your comment.

    I think the term ‘punch’ is problematic because there’s no clear definition that anyone can agree on. Like many terms we use, it falls into the “you’ll know it when you hear it” category. Personally, I think compressors are best for adding (what I consider to be) ‘punch’ to drums. This is because compression can effectively shape the transient *and* the decay. I find transient shapers are better for adding/removing ‘definition’.


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