It can be so hard to get the vocals right.
It’s the part that everyone is going to listen to most intently in the final product. And let’s face it: if the vocal sounds bad, the song sounds bad. That’s just how it is.
There are many things that go into a great vocal production, including the talent of the singer, microphone choice and placement, and mixing techniques.
One such mixing technique is compression.
Today, I’m going to outline three different techniques for compressing a vocal. Each technique addresses different concerns, and they can in fact be used together. One some mixes, I may actually have three compressors stacked on a single vocal track.
The trick, as always, is to be subtle. It’s far too easy to over-compress. Vocals tend to be able to handle a lot of compression, but you can squeeze the life out of them or make them sound unnatural if you’re not careful.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
Technique #1 – Shape the vocal tone
As you probably know by now, a compressor is much more than just an automatic volume control. It is often used to shape the dynamic tone of a track.
For vocals, we can actually affect the balance between the vowels and the consonants.
Vowels are often much louder than consonants when singing. However, the consonants actually contribute more to the intelligibility of the vocal than the vowels. So you really want the consonants to be nice and clear.
To get this effect with a compressor, set both the attack and release to be very fast, and use a gentle ratio of about 1.5:1 or so. Pull down the threshold so that the compressor is pretty much always engaged, maybe knocking off 4-6 dB of gain reduction.
The fast attack and release will work to make the relatively quieter parts (the consonants) closer to the same volume as the louder parts (the vowels) since it will very quickly turn things up and down.
Too much will sound unnatural. But tasteful use of this compression technique can make your vocal sit on top of the mix much better, without needing to add more volume.
One thing to keep in mind is that as the consonants get louder, so does the sibilance. After using this technique, you may need to use a de-esser to tame the sibilance a bit.
Technique #2 – Even out the volume
The more obvious use of a compressor is to even out the volume. Turn loud parts down and quiet parts up.
You can use automation for this, of course, but I like to try to do it with compression before resorting to automation. Using automation to fix dynamic issues like this can be tedious, so I try to minimize it as much as I can.
You’ll want a slightly more aggressive ratio for this. 2:1 is my go-to. Play around and see what works. A higher ratio will turn the loud stuff down more.
Use a fairly slow attack and release to let it bring things up and down somewhat gradually. Start with an attack in the 30-50ms range and a 50-100ms release. The goal is to make it sound natural, so play around with it a bit.
In general, I would try to make sure that the compressor isn’t working all the time for this. Maybe when the vocal is really belting out loudly the compressor might be working hard. But for typical medium or quiet parts of the song, it may just be catching the odd loud note here and there.
Technique #3 – Cut off the tops
Sometimes, a note will just stick out louder than the rest.
Again, you can use automation to tame this down, but as above, I like to try a compressor first.
In this case, use a more aggressive ratio, maybe between 2.5:1 and 4:1. Use a fast or medium attack, with a medium to slow release. Bring the threshold down until it’s just hitting those loud notes.
Mess with the ratio, threshold, and attack settings until it’s turning them down as much as you want. Keep in mind that an aggressive ratio with a fast attack can sound unnatural.
So hopefully these three techniques will give you something to try out on your next mix, especially if the vocal just isn’t quite sitting right.
If you’re confused about compression, or feel like you have more to learn, be sure to check out Understanding Compression. It’s a tutorial series by my buddy Joe Gilder from homestudiocorner.com. He’ll walk you through how to use a compressor, step by step.
Before I went through the Understanding Compression videos, compression was a complete mystery to me. I knew how a compressor worked, but I didn’t know how to use it to make my mixes sound better.
Joe cleared all that up for me in this little tutorial series. If you want to get your hands dirty with compression, go check it out.
Otherwise, please leave a comment below, and tell me what you think!