Compressing R&B Vocals Like The Pros

Ask anyone what their favorite part about a great R&B track is and you’ll get a wide variety of answers. For some, it’s all about the beat or groove of the song. For others, it’s the space and ambience in the track. At the core of every great R&B song is a silky, intimate vocal track.

 These types of vocals often rely on the timbre and tone of a particular singer’s voice, but that doesn’t mean you can slack on the recording techniques and mixing processes involved in making them sound their best. A great singer with the wrong vocal chain can completely disconnect the lead vocal from the song. 

Working with R&B vocals comes down to a certain amount of dependence on compression to get the results your productions deserve. So what does that mean for you?

Recording R&B Vocals With Compression

During your tracking sessions, don’t be afraid to use some compression right from the start. You should take a conservative approach with compression during recording – enough to control your dynamics and shape your sound, but subtle enough to where you’re not significantly impacting the quality of your recording.

Remember: You can always add more compression later on but removing compression from a printed signal is extremely difficult to do and often won’t give you the results you’d expect.

When tracking, a light amount of compression can pull things out of your vocal you wouldn’t otherwise hear. With a particularly soft vocal, things like breaths cut through even more with compression. Consonants start to form a bit more of a bite. Your vocal becomes closer and more intimate, especially with a close mic’d vocalist where the microphone’s proximity effect is in full swing.

Using a low compression ratio (2:1), fast attack, and slow release, you can get a compressor to catch the peaks and hold onto them, drawing more life out of your vocals. Dial in your input to where you’re getting the needle just barely moving on your compressor – just a few dB of gain reduction is all you need for tracking.

Compressing R&B Vocals In The Mix

When you get to the mixing stage, you can start to get more aggressive with your vocal compression. Since it’s not destructive, you can begin
pushing your ratios higher with higher amounts of gain reduction without the risk of committing to something that you can’t roll back from in a later session.

This second stage of compression also adds a level of transparency you can’t get when trying to do everything with a single compressor. By catching most of the peaks with the compression used during tracking, you’ve eliminated or reduced many of the peaks that might have triggered this compressor. New peaks will begin to influence the compressor. As the listener, these multiple stages of compression sound smoother and more natural than trying to do it all with a single compressor.

Compressing R&B Vocal Effects

Because of the ambience in an R&B track, many pros really love their delays and reverbs that surround their vocals. These time-based effects can sometimes have as big of an impact to the vocal production as the lead vocal. As such, they deserve just as much attention as the vocal tracks do.

While many reverbs and delays offer some level of tonal control through high-pass and low-pass filters, you’re less likely to find any form of built-in compression. It’s reasonable to think that a compressed vocal going into these effects will come out sounding pretty controlled dynamically, but there’s nothing stopping you from using another compressor if it doesn’t.

For a final stage of compression, many pros will use a vocal bus to combine their vocals with their effects – merging all vocal elements into a single, manageable fader. Just take a look at this example submitted by Delvonte Tate:

Can you hear just how much of a difference BG-Vocals made on his vocal bus? The effects really start to stand on their own while the main vocal track gets a bit more edge to it with the settings he used.

Getting More Control In Your Mixes

Like I said in the beginning – not every fan is going to love an R&B track for the vocals. They need a great beat or groove to go with it. There’s an entire “vibe” to any given song that makes it catchy. Everything needs to be precise and calculated.

Compression has a role in all aspects of your mix – not just on the vocals. For this reason, we started offering JST VIP members all kinds of guides and courses for getting the sounds they desire, not the least of which is our Taking Control of Your Drum Mix eBook. Inside the eBook, we walk through the anatomy of a drum kit and how to correctly group and process them for complete dynamic control.

Download the eBook here.