A Beginner’s Guide to Stacking Vocal Compressors

You stack plugins on top of plugins in every session just as part of your normal signal chain. Some people EQ before they compress, others compress before they EQ, and for some it’ll depend on the situation.

Other times, you might have a more complex chain that requires some treatment before and after your compressor. Regardless of your EQ/compression approach, have you ever considered how you mix could be improved by stacking a powerful combo of compressors on a particular track?

This technique is commonly used by producers to achieve results that a single compressor alone might not. It not only provides flexibility when mixing, but can also actually rewires the way you think about how a compressor can be used in your sessions.

Let’s talk about why I love the idea of stacking compressors on my vocals.

Less Stress

You know those fail compilations where guitars go flying across the stage because the guitarist had cheap or worn out strap locks? Believe it or not, your compressors can act in a similar way.

Unless your compressor is made to specifically handle heavy compression and saturation, you might find that a single compressor feels cheapened or weak when reaching for massive amounts of gain reduction. Your compressor can feel worn down when you put too much source audio into it for extreme compression.

By splitting your compression goals out over a couple of different compressors, you can let them operate in a way that better handles a large workload. Maybe you want 10 dB of total gain reduction: your first compressor might be able to handle 8 dB before it starts sounding forced, but by adding a second compressor to take a couple more dB off the top, you end up with a usable sound without pushing something beyond what it’s capable of.

Learning where to draw the line for each compressor takes a decent amount of trial, error, and experimentation. Once you learn where each compressor shines best, you can begin applying them in all sorts of orders and with various settings that work for you.

The Compressor Shuffle

Stacking compressors doesn’t need to happen in a specific order. While I generally like to put a compressor first in the chain on a vocal, it might not be necessary if the vocal was tracked with some compression to begin with.

A lot of engineers stack compressors without even realizing it. It’s not for lack of attention, but their natural approach to mixing ends up leading them down a path that calls for it.

A great example of this is when you’re using compression on an individual vocal track, then adding further compression using a plugin like BG-Vocals for some glue on a vocal bus. Your lead vocals end up getting hit twice with compression, and you might not have even noticed it.

To me, that’s the best part. You don’t notice it because there’s nothing there to notice. You got the sound you were after by making narrow, specific adjustments on the lead vocal track, and broad adjustments to make the mix cohesive on the vocal bus. See how Nick uses this approach using Gain ReductionJoel Wanasek’s BG-Vocals on “Right Back at It Again” by A Day To Remember:

Vocal compressor stacking isn’t some type of trick; it’s just common sense mixing.

Where Else Are You Stacking Compression?

Compressor stacking doesn’t have to stop with your vocals. Any instrument can benefit from the same concepts that we’ve discussed here. Bass guitar is one of my favorite places to add multiple compression levels.

Come join the discussion over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook, and happy mixing!