Compression is one of the most important steps of mixing a rap vocal.
When done right, it will make every sound in a mix sit well without fluctuating throughout the entire track.
When done wrong, other sounds will be loud in certain parts while other tracks will be quieter in different sections of the song.
This will ruin the listening experience, which is why it's important to get it right.
What is the Best Rap Vocal Compression Settings?
In this blog post, I'm going to help you come up with the best rap vocal compression settings all the time.
This is a concise guide so you'll be able to implement these strategies no matter what software you're using.
It doesn't matter if you're using Cubase, FL Studio, Logic Pro, Studio One, Audacity, etc.
The best way to nail compression is to understand different types of compressor plugins and what purpose they serve.
Understanding Different Types of Compressors
In the audio engineering world, there are multiple types of compressors but the most common ones are VCA, FET, Tube, and Opto.
Don't worry, I'll explain these in plain simple English so that you can know when to choose one over the other.
If you're looking for aggression and punch, then a VCA compressor is usually the type of compressor you should go for.
When you have a vocal that has too many loud peaks and you want to control the transients, a FET compressor is normally the best choice because it's fast.
So, it will catch the loud transients better than any type of compressor. It will also work well in cases where you're working on a fast rapper like Eminem or Twista.
The Opto type works great if you want to make your rap vocals sound smoother without pushing the voice at the back of the mix. These work really great on trap vocals where the emcee is singing or rapping slowly.
The final type of compressor is the Tube aka Vari-Mu. These types of compressors work very well as bus compressors. So they're great for gluing your vocals together.
I have to mention that they will make your vocals sound warm and thick, just be careful not to make your mix sound muddy.
Now that you know which type of compressor works best for different situations let's get into finding the best vocal compression settings for rap music.
To get the best results when working with rap vocals, you need to use what's known as serial compression.
Basically, this means you'll be using multiple compressors in series (one after the other) instead of relying on one plugin to do all the heavy lifting.
This way you'll be able to get a transparent sound without introducing any unwanted artifacts.
When a compressor plugin is overworked it can introduce some unpleasant distortion which will mess up the quality of the voice.
So to avoid that you need to use multiple compressors.
Each compressor will be affecting the signal in small increments (2-3dB of gain reduction) to get a cleaner sound and keep the quality of the vocal intact.
In the following parts of this tutorial, you'll get a more practical approach about how to use serial compression on a rap vocal to get it to sit perfectly in a mix.
Controlling Loud Transients With a FET Compressor
The first step to using serial compression is to use a fast compressor to control any loud transients.
The goal is to have the compressor affect the loud transients without affecting the decay or the other transients that are quieter.
To control the loud transients you'll regularly need a FET compressor because it responds much faster than any type of compressor so it's perfect for this job.
When it comes to the compression settings you normally want to go for a fast attack and release time. This way the compressor will only affect the transients.
A high ratio of 5:1 and above works great to control the attack of the vocal.
When it comes to gain reduction, you'll have to use the threshold control until you see the compressor working on the loud transients only.
As soon as you see the reduction meter working on the decay or quieter parts then you need to reduce the threshold.
But don't always rely on the meter, sometimes you might need to rely more on your ears rather than what you see.
Using a VCA to Bring The Vocals Upfront
To keep the vocals well-controlled and upfront in a mix, then a VCA is often the best compressor type for the job.
A VCA compressor is great if you're going for an aggressive sound or working on a rap song that has dense instrumentation.
VCAs are great for adding more punch and power to the vocal so that it's not overpowered by the beat.
The settings for a punchy vocal are really simple.
You'll need to use a medium to slow attack (15-30ms). This will allow the transients to go through unaffected and increase the attack.
The release will depend on the rapper and the tempo of the song also plays a big role.
You can look at the gain reduction meter to make sure that the compressor doesn't stop affecting the vocal rapidly or overlap to the next word.
If the release is too fast you'll hear unpleasant pumping. When it's too slow the vocal will sound too controlled and unnatural.
A good ratio for a punchy sound is around 2:1 to 3:1 and a gain reduction of around 2-3dB should be sufficient enough.
Making Autotune Rappers Sound Smooth
These days a lot of rappers are singing and using autotune so a VCA compressor is not always the best choice for these types of vocals.
What you're going for in this case is usually smooth compression. The best type of compressor for this purpose is an Opto compressor.
These types of compressors usually have limited settings. These are normally program-dependent so the settings are really simple because all you have threshold and output gain (aka makeup gain).
They work well along with a FET compressor. Basically, you'll insert the FET compressor taking care of the transients and then have the Opto after it to make the vocal sound smoother.
So the compression settings for this type of rap vocals are a no-brainer.
However, in most cases, you want to go for tonal compression.
Tonal vs Dynamic Vocal Compression
The purpose of tonal compression is to smooth out your vocals and give them just a little bit of dynamic control.
As an alternative to squashing the transients, it usually adds some musical tone to the performance rather than pushing the voice further back in the mix.
To achieve this effect you’ll need to use a lower ratio (1:5:1 to 3:1) and then focus more on the attack and release settings.
It works well for a slower vocal performance such as a love ballad, jazz, folk, classical song, etc.
However, some emcees might need tonal compression, especially if they’re singing or rapping slowly.
A slow attack and release time with just 2-3dB of gain reduction usually does the trick.
Dynamic compression is normally used to catch the loudest peaks and to control transients.
You’ll need to use a fast compressor. For the settings, you need a faster attack and release time.
The ratio needs to be higher, starting from 4:1, and then go higher if needed. Adjust the threshold till the compressor is affecting the loudest transients without touching the quieter parts.
You still need to be careful not to compress the transients too much to a point where you’re pushing the vocals further at the back, especially if it’s the lead.
Reducing Sibilance & Harshness With a De-esser
One thing about compression is that it will bring up sibilance.
These are harsh vocal sounds mostly produced by words that have syllables with "s", "sh", "ch", "f", "z", and "t".
You can use an analyzer to find these problem frequencies.
For female vocals, you will usually find sibilance around the 6-10kHz frequency range. For male rappers, these are often found around 4-7kHz.
But these numbers are not always correct due to many variables such as choice of microphone, placement, studio environment, pre-amps, etc.
Once you've found the correct frequency range you can use a de-esser plugin to reduce all these harsh sounds.
You can check out my previous vocal de-essing blog post for detailed info.
Controlling Loud Frequencies With a Multiband Compressor
In some situations, you could be working on a vocal where you would like to control different frequencies to get a good tonal balance for the voice.
In that case, a multiband compressor will be the best tool for the job.
A multiband can also be used for dynamic boosts. This is also known as upward compression.
Basically, upward compression boosts the amplitude of an audio signal when it goes below a certain threshold.
These types of boosts are great if certain frequencies keep fluctuating in different parts of the vocal performance.
Using a multiband compressor will automatically boost those frequencies every time they get too quiet and bring them down whenever they become too loud.
Sometimes a dynamic EQ can be the best choice for this type of compression, especially if you want to create narrow dynamic cuts.
For instance, if you have an annoying "F" sound that occurs once or twice in the chorus.
So, use multiband compression on a vocal if you want to control the frequency balance. Be careful not to change the timbre or character of the voice.
Compressing the Adlibs & Other Supporting Vocals
Everything I've mentioned above needs to be done on the lead vocal.
For the other parts of the vocal recording such as Adlibs, harmonies, and other supporting vocals you'll need to use a different approach.
The goal is usually to push the supporting vocals behind the lead vocal. So, they need to be audible without overpowering the lead.
To achieve that your compressor settings will need to be a bit more aggressive as compared to the ones used on the main voice.
This means you'll need a fast attack (5-15ms) and medium to slow release time (30-80ms) to keep them well-controlled and pushed behind the main vocal.
The ratio (5:1 or more) and gain reduction settings also need to be higher as well. Just be careful not to squash them to a point where they end up sounding robotic or unnatural.
It's up to you to choose whether you want to use serial compression or one compressor on the supporting vocals because the transparency doesn't matter that much in this situation.
If you have a stack of vocals (like harmonies) then group them together and compress them as one.
They will sound more cohesive and glued together when grouped as compared to compressing them one by one.
Compressing rap vocals is all about making sure that the rapper’s performance remains consistent throughout the entire song.
This can be a bit hard because emcees like to move around when rapping. Unlike singers who are always facing the mic for an entire performance.
But with all the techniques shared above you should be able to tackle any type of situation.
If any of the stuff mentioned is confusing, then leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
You can also leave a comment just to leave a ‘Thank You’, that would be very much appreciated.