Unlike reverb, delay, and other time-based effects where you can immediately hear how they affect a signal, compression is different.
It can take months (or even years) to be able to tell what a compressor is doing to a particular sound.
But once you hear it, it’s tough not to listen to it. If a song is over-compressed, it becomes annoying to your ears.
The Best Vocal Compression Cheat Sheet
In this blog post, I want to give you a vocal compression cheat sheet that will give you the best starting point for any type of situation or genre.
To get the best compression settings all the time you have to first determine your intent.
Once you have a valid reason then it becomes much easier to tweak the compressor in order to achieve a certain result.
A lot of people get confused or struggle because they don’t have a valid purpose, they just want to apply compression because they saw it on a Youtube video.
So, you should always picture the results in your mind before even pulling your favorite compressor plugin.
Now, let’s look at some vocal compression techniques for various genres.
Since modern Pop music usually has a lot of vocals and double-tracking you’ll need to apply heavy compression.
You’ll also need to use serial compression instead of using just one compressor to do all the work.
Use the first compressor to control transients without pushing the vocal at the back of the mix and then the other compressors should be for tone control.
In some cases, you might need to apply parallel compression on the lead vocal to help it cut through the mix.
Also, use a soft knee since you’ll be using multiple compressors. This will keep your vocal sounding musical without squashed.
This type of music is often guitar driven with less focus on the drums and bass. So, you’ll need some heavy compression to help the vocal stand out.
You don’t always need multiple compressors, using one often produces great results.
For the envelope settings, use a fast attack (5-15ms) with a slow release (40ms or more) and a soft knee.
You’ll need to apply a high threshold (5dB or more) and ratio (4:1 or more) to keep the vocal constant.
If you find that the compressor is working well on the chorus but the gain reduction reduces in other sections of the song then add a multiband compressor to fix this problem.
When it comes to Jazz, the musicians mostly want everything to sound as organic as possible. So, they don’t want the processing to sound obvious. They want to keep the natural feel of the performance and timbre intact.
You’ll definitely need soft compression for the best results.
A low ratio (1.5:1 to 3:1) will normally sound transparent while keeping the performance uniform.
If you find that certain words are not audible in certain sections then apply parallel compression. You can even automate the parallel track to keep things sounding organic.
When it comes to the threshold, try to keep the gain reduction around -2dB to -3dB. When it comes to the envelope, set a slow attack (30ms or more) and release (40ms or more).
Using a soft knee will keep things sounding musical.
Rap & Hip Hop
In rap and hip hop, mostly you’re going for a punchy and aggressive sound. So, you want the voice to remain upfront in a mix and powerful.
Since the vocals are often too dynamic you’ll need to use multiple compressors. One to control the transients and the other for tonal balance.
Here are the common settings for dynamic compression and tonal compression.
- Ratio - 4:1 or more
- Fast Attack (5-10ms)
- Fast Release (20ms or less)
- Gain Reduction: push the threshold until the compressor affects the transients without touching the quieter words.
- Soft Knee
- Ratio - 1.5:1 to 3:1
- Medium to slow attack (15 or more)
- Medium to slow release (40ms or more)
- Gain Reduction (-2dB to -3dB)
- Soft Knee
If the compressors are adding some unwanted muddy frequencies then use a multiband compressor or dynamic EQ to reduce the frequencies around 250-400Hz to resolve this issue.
RnB and Soul
This type of music is usually slow in tempo and sounds really soothing. So your goal is to capture that emotion and feel with your compression settings.
The singer might go loud in certain sections and soft in the other parts of the song. To keep a constant performance you’ll need to use multiple compressors.
You can use the same settings as the ones above (in the rap section).
The only changes you’ll need to make are in the tonal compression. The attack and release settings need to change to slow settings and the rest can remain the same.
Play around with the attack time to pocket the vocalist into the beat and use the release to keep the voice sounding musical and in the pocket with the tempo.
Also, tube compressors (aka Vari-mu) work well for these genres because tubes sound warm and smooth.
EDM and Dance Styles
In order to keep the audience filling the dance floor, it is very important to keep the vocals constant without any fluctuation.
The groove is usually the main focus in electronic music styles and the instrumentation is often sparse, which makes it a bit easier to fit the vocal within the beat.
So, mostly you’ll need one compressor with a hard knee, fast attack, and fast release because the vocal is not always too dynamic.
To keep everything sounding consistent, also add a multiband compressor to control any frequencies that might get too loud or quieter.
Treat the vocal as an instrument and you should get the best results.
Do Vocals Always Need Compression?
When a vocalist (including spoken word or rap) is recording it’s impossible for them to keep the level consistent throughout the entire performance. For modern genres, vocals usually need to be upfront at all times. Applying compression will result in a constant, loud, modern, and clear-sounding vocal.
Without compression, the vocal will keep fluctuating and make it hard to hear certain words and phrases in some parts of the performance.
So, vocals always need compression because an uneven sound is distracting to the listener.
This is why it’s even used on movies, TV series, radio, etc. so that you can set the volume once and enjoy the show.
Should You Track Vocals With Compression?
Compression during recording should be avoided if you want to have more flexibility and control during post-production. The biggest issue is that you cannot undo compression, which will force you to re-record the performance if you got it wrong during recording.
This is why most engineers would rather leave it for later. Most engineers will use compression during recording just to add character and analog warmth without affecting the signal (the gain reduction will remain at zero with a ratio of 1:1).
This is done to get a rich tone for the voice because digital recordings tend to sound too clean and boring.
So, you can let your vocals go through some analog gear just to add excitement and attitude.
Remember that this vocal compression cheat sheet is just a guideline to give you a solid starting point.
This is way better than relying on presets.
The problem with presets is that you don’t know what type of microphone was used or preamp, interface, mixer, etc.
To nail compression all the time, you should always have a valid reason.
If you can picture the results before pulling out your favorite compressor then you’ll never struggle with finding the best settings.
If anything I mentioned is a bit confusing, leave a comment and I’ll clarify everything for you and let us know which one of these techniques you’ll be trying out first.