When compressing vocals, it’s easy to make costly mistakes that end up hurting your mix or costing you time during your session. Properly compressed vocals are a quintessential part of any modern mix, but to get there you need to think about what your compressor is doing to your vocal track, how that compressor interacts with the rest of the signal chain, and how that track fits in with the rest of your mix.
Because of all these factors, simply knowing how to compress a vocal isn’t enough. Starting with how to optimize your vocal compression settings is a great start, but what do you do to get it to sit perfectly at the front of your mix?
For starters, understanding basic gain staging and how it relates to your vocal compressor is important. Feed your vocal compressor a signal that’s too hot can cause excessive compression or other issues. A digitally clipped signal is always going to hit that compressor with a peak level of 0 dB, leaving you virtually no headroom to work with.
In practice, this limits the functionality of your compressor. A signal that constantly hits that peak is only ever going to be compressed by the difference between the threshold of the compressor and 0 dB. Ideally, your compressor should never be hit with a “ceiling” level like this – it needs the information provided by additional headroom to know exactly how far above the threshold a signal went.
The same issue can plague your downstream plugins and processors if you turn the output of your compressor up too high. Just like the compressor can’t handle a clipped signal, most other plugins will struggle with a compressor’s output if it’s too loud.
If your compressor is the last in the chain, it doesn’t mean it’s the last stage of your mix – there are groups and your mix bus downstream that need headroom as well (we’ll get to those in just a minute).
The order of your compressor is going to have just as much, if not more of an impact on your sound than the settings of the compressor itself. By placing a compressor at the start of a vocal’s signal chain, you can create a smooth, consistent sound straight from the microphone’s source audio. The compression you’re applying then gives you an even signal to work with throughout the rest of the chain.
But what if you aren’t exactly thrilled about how the microphone sounds?
This happens quite often when mixers are working with vocals tracked by someone else, even from professionally recorded sessions. We’ve all got our own tastes when it comes to what sounds good.
If you’re not completely content with the frequency makeup prior to compression, it makes more sense to apply some EQ before compression to get a more useable sound. This “clean-up” process might not make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but removing a harsh or unflattering frequency pre-compression allows your compressor to work on the frequencies you want to highlight more efficiently.
Feel free to experiment with order to get a sound that works for you, and don’t be afraid to use multiple compressors within your signal chain to get what you want.
Vocal compression just wouldn’t be the same without some level of group compression – especially when you’re managing dozens of vocal tracks in a single mix.
While individual vocal tracks are all about controlling one voice, your group compression settings should worth to glue all of your vocals together. Hard panned vocals, leads, or harmonies – it doesn’t matter. A stereo aux track with compression is the perfect way to make your vocals consistent across your mix.
Using vocal-focused compressors like BG-Vocals will allow you to craft a dependable space for all of your vocals to live in, compressing the group as any one voice (or the summation of voices) crosses the threshold. The end result is a modern, professional sound.
Mix Bus Compression
As our vocals make their way into the final output, it’s worth noting that they’re also some of the biggest drivers of how mix bus compression gets applied to your overall mix.
Vocals get featured as the primary instrument in many songs – especially in pop and any other genres with mass radio play. Because of this, they’re also often one of the loudest elements in any mix. While your drum kit might take the lead still for transients that peak above the mix bus compressor’s threshold, vocals sit right there at the threshold, often crossing over themselves as the dynamics of the song push the overall level up.
For this reason, vocals should be mostly level and consistent before they ever reach this stage. Automation can go a long way, but if your compressors and limiters are doing their jobs on individual tracks and groups, something like BG-Mix would be the cherry on top of an already great sounding vocal mix.
Developing Your Compression Process
If getting compression right in your mixes is important to you, look no further than the JST VIP section of our site for tips on how to perfect your process. We’ve got guides and eBooks focused on helping you get the right signal chain from tracking through mastering. Everything from drums to guitar tones to vocals receives their own resources.
Once you think you’ve got it, you can even submit a mix for me to critique. I’ll give it a listen, make some notes, and provide you honest feedback about what’s working and what’s not.