How Modern Vocal Compression Has Changed

Vocal compression is one of the few subtle techniques used in the studio that have been carried from decade to decade in the studio. Even before hardware compression was introduced, engineers would naturally overdrive their hardware or tape machines for an organic, natural compression – what many today simply refer to as saturation.

Jump forward a few decades and the options for vocal compression have exploded. It makes a lot of sense – as the price of great recording technology has come down, more and more engineers and producers are looking for plugins that can make an inexpensive hardware chain sound full and complex.

This is where hardware compressors like Gain Reduction 2 enter the game – attempting to take the great sounds of the past decade and combine them into a single unit. We’ve added flexibility and control to the plugin that modern engineers need if they don’t want to maintain a large collection of compressors they need to sift through every session.

Simply put, the modern vocal compressor needs to be something that can stand up the eclectic selection of vocal styles you can expect to record as a present-day vocal producer. What does it take to live up to the task?

Genre-Based Vocal Compression

The two most common scenarios you’ll be in from a vocal compression perspective are one where you need a lot of compression and one where you only need a little. It may sound overly simplified, but for 99% of your work, you’ll either want you compression to be noticeable or you don’t – make sense?

Along these lines, many engineers have maintained a compressor for each scenario. Often it’s a stock compressor for light compression and a super rich, full sounding compressor for heavy compression.

A modern producer needs something that is fully capable of doing both depending on the genre and vocal style. A flexible plugin enables you to learn a single compression workflow, keeping you moving no matter the vocal you’re working on. Simply toggling between a heavy and light compression algorithm should be all you need to get started and all of your downstream tweaking will be identical.

Vocal Warmth & Clarity

Just like there’s a balancing act between heavy and light compression approaches, a vocal’s warmth and clarity have always had a give and take relationship. You want something that’s warm and gooey – filled with subtle harmonic distortion and saturation to create a harmonically dense voice, which is often where tubes come into the mix. Whether added at the preamp stage, as part of your compressor, or as a standalone saturation plugin – tube saturation goes a long way to support your vocal as the front-and-center element of your mix that it should be.

In the past, tube saturation often came at the cost of clarity if not properly placed in the vocal chain. Just like a compressor will act on problem frequencies if not removed with EQ, those same frequencies will be saturated by any plugin with a Warmth or Harmonics control on it. Luckily – the solution is often the same: EQ them out pre-compression.

Alternatively, many newer vocal processors will offer clarity control right within their plugin interface. Gain Reduction 2 places Clarity control right next to the Warmth knob so that engineers can easily balance the two within the plugin. The Clarity knob smoothes out harsh and unwanted frequencies automatically and in a dynamic way that doesn’t suck the life out of your vocal. Think of it as combining the best parts of a tube compressor and combining them with a digital one. Flexibility is everything.

Vocal-Specific Parameters

The final pieces of the puzzle for modern vocal compression are the parameters you don’t often use on other elements in your mix. While certain instruments like an ambient pad might use terms like “Breath” and “Sibilance”, both have been traditionally reserved for vocal performances.

What those actually meant would vary from producer to producer though. A breathier vocal for one professional might barely register as breathy to another. The same goes for sibilance, where modern pop often includes extra sibilance just to cut through the mix more.

Rather than fighting about the definition, seeking out a frequency range than matches the description, and boosting or cutting that frequency based on if you need more or less of it, a modern vocal compressor should be able to do all of that for you – transparently and automatically.

At the end of the day, your vocal compressor should be making your job easier so you can focus on the creative elements of your mix.

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