Getting a vocal to sit perfectly in a mix is not always a walk in the park, especially if you’re working with a singer or rapper who doesn’t have a proper mic technique.
In that case, getting the right vocal compression settings can be hit-or-miss for a lot of beginner audio engineers.
The key to nailing compression every time is to get a good balance for the dynamics first, then add color and other creative stuff later, if necessary.
You don't want to have too much or not enough compression.
Adding too much may result in a squashed signal, sucking out the life and soul out of the performance.
Not applying enough compression will often cause the vocals to sound loud in other sections of the arrangement and quieter in some parts of the song.
But how do you use a compressor to get the perfect balance on every mix, no matter the genre?
Compression On Vocals
Remember that these are just general starting points; once you understand them, you'll be able to create your own starting points and build from there.
1. Vocal Gain Riding
If you have a lot of time to mix a song, then automation (gain riding) is highly recommended for you.
If you're working on a rushed mix, then you can achieve similar results by using serial compression, which I'll talk about in a moment.
With manual gain control, you have much more control over the loud peaks, breaths, sibilance, pops, and other unwanted recording issues.
This is something you do using pre/clip gain, so make sure that you're not doing it on the channel(s) output fader.
The goal is not to get the performance perfectly balanced at this point. The aim is to reduce anything that's just too loud and bring up any parts that are too quiet.
Don't spend too much time on this because it usually drains your energy. I would also recommend taking a break after doing manual-gain riding to refresh your ears.
For all beginners, I would recommend that you always level match your compressor to get a fair comparison of the before and after and make sure that what you're doing benefits the entire mix.
Some compressor plugins, such as the FabFilter Pro-C, come built-in with an Auto-Gain feature to make things much simpler for you. But you can also do it manually using makeup gain.
Compressors are designed differently, so if any of this is confusing, you can always open the manual for clarity.
Level matching isn't always necessary once you're more experienced and can hear compression, unless you just want to make sure you're not being fooled by the increased volume.
Remember that when something becomes louder, we can perceive that as being better.
But sometimes you could be doing level matching to maintain a certain volume of gain staging. So I always recommend it to both professionals as well as beginner audio engineers.
3. Serial Compression On Vocals
Serial compression (some call it "series compression") is simply using multiple compressors instead of overworking one.
When compressors overwork, they tend to introduce unwanted artifacts and unpleasant clipping.
Usually, this style of compression is used to add intimacy and punch to a vocal. To add intimacy, you'll need at least two compressors.
Compressor 1 is often used to control dynamics. The most popular compressor for this process is the classic 1176; you can find plenty of plugin emulations, both paid and free, online.
The common settings for compressor one are fast attack and release, a high ratio, and a low gain reduction so that you only catch the loudest peaks and leave the rest of the vocal performance unaffected.
Compressor 2 will level out the overall energy. A famous compressor for this is the LA-2A, which also has a lot of great-sounding emulations.
Using serial compression will sound smoother and more transparent as compared to having one compressor do all the heavy lifting.
Basically, you’ll be utilizing multiple compressors on the same vocal track, one after the next, usually at lower amounts of gain reduction.
Experiment with stacking different compressors in series in order to create new and exciting sounds.
4. Upward Compression Trick
This style of compression is not something that's popular in the audio engineering community.
To put it in plain English, unlike normal compression, which brings down all the loud parts, upward compression does the opposite; you'll get extra gain for your vocals and get the quieter parts to be audible.
I wouldn't recommend this if you've already applied both manual clip gain riding and serial compression to your vocals, instead; I would recommend it if you did some manual gain riding and used only one compressor in your vocal chain.
Upward compression is also something that I would only use on the lead vocal and not on the supporting vocals.
Be careful with it because you might end up with an unnatural sounding vocal, unless you're going for a robotic feel, in which case by all means go hard on it.
Keep in mind that robotic-sounding vocals could be tiring to the ear.
5. Compressing Background Vocals
The goal for background vocals is usually to support the lead vocal and add energy to the mix.
The keyword is "support."
This means you cannot have the supporting vocals overpower the lead.
Knowing this just makes your compression settings 10 times easier.
For instance, using a slow attack will make them punchy and upfront which will clash with the lead.
So clearly the best settings will often be:
- Medium-to-fast attack to push them at the back of the mix a bit, but not too much.
- Medium- to slow-release to control the decay or tail.
- In some cases, a higher ratio than the lead is required (but not always).
- Higher gain reduction as compared to the lead to keep them well controlled.
Basically, your compression settings will be a bit more exaggerated as compared to the lead vocal settings.
But you also have to be careful not to choke the background vocals because you’ll end up with an inorganic sound.
One other thing I like to do when I have multiple takes of the supporting vocals is to group them in a bus channel instead of compressing them one at a time.
Another great way is to take your lead vocal compressor and copy it to your background vocal channel. Play around with the settings till you feel them being pushed behind the main vocals.
So, go ahead and play around with the ideas mentioned above so that all of this can make more sense.
6. Sidechain on a Vocal
Using sidechain compression can be a great way for you to create space for the vocal in a mix.
There are multiple ways to use this technique, but here are a few common ideas that should give you a perfect starting point.
You can use sidechain to duck down a particular frequency whenever the vocal is playing.
For instance, you can sidechain your entire instrumentation (or just a few tracks) at a certain frequency to make space for the voice.
Another great way is to duck down the high frequencies of the background vocals whenever the lead vocal kicks in.
There’s also a popular trick called vocal reverb sidechaining.
Basically, whenever the vocals start to play, the reverb is ducked by the compressor, and when the vocal decay drops in volume, the reverb increases back up in volume and becomes audible.
Now that the transients are not affected by the reverb, the vocal will sound punchy and in your face, yet still sound lush and exciting.
This works great for a spoken word vocal or on a busy mix. You can do this with delay as well, or any other time-based audio effect.
Play around with sidechain compression to create space for the vocals in your mixes, whenever necessary.
7. Vocal De-essing
The mistake a lot of people make is to rely on plugins to reduce sibilance on a vocal.
This approach usually sounds amateurish because a de-esser plugin is not perfect and might miss some of the sibilance.
A better way to deal with sibilance is to use manual clip gain riding to manually control each sibilant sound, then later use a plugin to polish your work.
This might be tedious and time-consuming, but it will give you the most pleasant results.
You can learn more about de-essing in my previous post titled: Vocal De-Essing – How To Get Rid Of Sibilance In Vocals
8. Parallel Trick
Parallel compression is a great technique to add more power to your vocals, especially if they are sounding too thin.
Basically, vocal parallel compression involves minimal processing on the lead vocal and applying a more obvious compression to the same source on a parallel track.
This allows you to lightly blend the overly compressed vocal sound with the original signal.
You can learn more about this vocal parallel compression in my previous post to get a more detailed explanation.
If you're looking to take your vocal mixing skills to the next level, multiband compression is a tool that can help you achieve a more polished and professional sound.
By targeting specific frequency ranges, you can achieve greater control and flexibility in processing your vocal tracks.
So, what exactly is multiband compression?
Instead of applying the same amount of compression across the entire frequency spectrum, multiband compression lets you control the dynamic range of specific frequency ranges.
This can be particularly useful for vocals, where different frequency ranges may require different levels of compression.
For example, you might use multiband compression to tame harsh frequencies in a vocal without affecting the rest of the signal, or to compress the lower midrange frequencies of a vocal without affecting the higher frequencies.
This level of control can help to bring out certain elements of a vocal and create a more balanced mix overall.
One of the key benefits of multiband compression on vocals is that it can help preserve the natural dynamics of the track. You can avoid over-compressing the entire signal, which can result in a more transparent and natural sound.
Another benefit is its flexibility and versatility.
By working on different frequency ranges, you have more options for processing your vocal tracks. This can be particularly useful for complex signals and vocals that were recorded in a room that’s not acoustically treated.
It is a powerful tool that is definitely worth exploring for taking your vocal mixes to the next level.
Which Compressor Plugins Are the Best for Rap Vocals?
This is a question I get asked a lot. And for that matter, so do many other engineers who use rap vocals in their beats.
Now, the short answer to this question is obviously, "It depends."
It depends on how you want your vocals to sound, the type of voice you're working on, and the purpose of your music.
Basically, this means that once you have a proper intent, it will be much easier to choose the best compressor plugin for your rap vocals.
So, it’s really important to understand different compressors and their purposes. For instance, a FET compressor reacts super-fast, which makes it great for controlling transients.
VCAs are aggressive, which makes them perfect for adding power and punch to your vocals. An Opto uses a medium attack and multi-stage release, so it’s perfect for making a voice sound smooth and well-controlled.
Tube compressors are usually old school; they add a lot of color and normally glue sounds together, which makes them perfect for the vocal bus.
As you can see, once you understand the different types, it becomes much easier to choose a compressor depending on the result you’re going for.
Cheat Sheet for Compressing Vocals
There are usually 4 different scenarios where you’ll need to reach for a compressor.
These are Dynamic, Tonal, Transient Taming, and Punchy.
Once you understand these four techniques, you should be able to avoid a lot of guesswork and confusion.
Dynamic compression is used in a situation where some words and phrases might be too quiet while others are too loud. If there’s a big difference between the loud and quiet parts, then you’ll need to use this approach.
- Ratio: 4:1 or more
- Attack Time: fast to medium (5-15ms)
- Release Time: medium (around 20ms)
- Gain Reduction: Push the threshold until you’re affecting everything except the quieter words.
- Knee: Hard
Tonal compression comes in handy if the dynamic range is not too drastic but the vocal is still lacking that “bite” and “pop” to it. This type of method will bring out the energy of the vocal and help it sit well in a mix.
- Ratio: 1.5:1 to 3:1
- Attack Time: medium to slow (15ms or more)
- Release Time: medium to slow (20ms or more)
- Gain Reduction: around -2dB to -3dB
- Knee: Soft
Transient taming can be used when your vocal has some loud transients, pops, and any annoying peaks. This type of compression will make the vocals sound much smoother and easier on the ear, without piercing.
- Ratio: 5:1 to 8:1
- Attack Time: fast (5-10ms)
- Release Time: fast (10-20ms)
- Gain Reduction: Increase the threshold to only affect transients; once you start affecting all the words, lower the threshold. You should only affect the loudest transients.
- Knee: Soft
Punchy compression is the exact opposite of transient taming. In a case where the voice just sounds flat in a mix, you can use this technique to bring up the attack to help the vocal cut through the mix.
- Ratio: 3:1
- Attack Time: slow (30ms or more)
- Release Time: slow (40ms or more)
- Gain Reduction: around -2dB to -5dB
- Knee: Soft
Search my blog for the complete cheat sheet in my other blog post to see how this applies to different genres.
Vocals are one of the most difficult instruments to mix. It’s very easy to over-compress them, this is why serial compression is the best approach for most mixes.
But I trust that all the information provided will help you maintain constant nail compression. Check out my other tutorials related to the subject for a much better understanding.
If any of this information is confusing, leave a comment below. You know that I'm always here to help.