Vocals and compression go together like peanut butter and jelly. In modern music, it’s as uncommon to hear an uncompressed vocal as it is to hear one that hasn’t been pitch corrected – it’s just not happening that often.
As some of the most nuanced instruments you’ll find in a recording session, vocals tend to gain a lot of benefits from compression. Compression can help tame the peaks of a loud signal, but that’s really just the start. It can also make a performance sound more aggressive or more intimate. It can pair with the right microphone to bring a new sound to a voice. It can even tie many different voices together in a way that no other processor can.
Let’s talk about how you should be compressing vocals in your recording sessions.
Vocal Compression During Tracking
On the way into the DAW, compression is one of the most debated processors to use. Many engineers are against it because it limits the dynamic range of an instrument from the very start. But even some of the engineers against using compression during tracking change their mind when it comes to tracking vocals.
By tracking vocals with compression, you allow the singer to be as loud or as soft as they want without risking a chance of digital clipping on the way in. A singer can scream or shout – if your compression settings are dialed in just right, those louder parts are going to compress and saturate long before they clip.
Tracking with compression also tends to make a singer feel more confident in their performance since they’re generally leveled out with the rest of the song. They don’t have to strain to hear themselves over the drums or guitars and they can back off the mic to an extent without losing themselves.
As a small precaution, tracking with compression generally requires an outboard compressor that can be applied BEFORE your signal hits your A/D converters. Once the signals been converted, your clipped peak is printed to the audio track.
Even if you don’t have access to a hardware compressor, using a plugin during tracking has its benefits. While you might not be able to catch those digital overages, you, and your singer, retain that confidence that the signal is being leveled out and made consistent as you work. That confidence can be just what your singer needs to record a perfect take.
Vocal Compression in the Mix
Once you get to the mix, compression can be applied much more aggressively than you would during tracking. Since the process during tracking is considered destructive, engineers tend to be more reserved – using less compression or a lower ratio than they might want on a final vocal. Once you’ve captured and comped the vocal though, you’ll often want to give it a bit more.
This is where your compression can really shine, acting as a way to enhance your sound. If tracking with compression is an insurance policy again peaks, compression in the box should work as your polish that helps make your vocals bright and present.
Using a heavier compression setting can make a vocal sound thick and creamy. Driving a vocal compressor harder can bring out some harmonic distortion that fills it out quite nicely. If you’re really trying to push a vocal to the edge, a limiter can often come in handy as well.
Don’t be afraid to stack different limiters or use them in combination with other plugins. Some of the best vocal tones I’ve ever gotten came from two or three lighter stages of compression with proper gain staging between them. While I could’ve achieved the same dynamic control with a single compressor, it doesn’t quite sound the same as having the multiple compressors each add their own flavor to the sound.
Vocal Compression on the Aux
As a final stage of compression, it’s often a good idea to use some type of bus compression like BG-Vocals on the final vocal bus where all of your individual tracks are routed. By compressing this shared stereo group, you can glue your vocals together in a way that’s sonically more cohesive than individual compression efforts yield.
Use compression on your vocal bus for a full, leveled tone that sits just right with the rest of your mix. When you’re done, the vocals should sound front and center in your song, sound more professional and even than they did before.
How Does Compression Interact With Other Plugins?
Compression is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to mixing vocals. You’ve got to use it in combination with EQ and a whole slew of other processors to get the most out of it.
If you’re interested in learning how your compressor interacts with your other plugins, where it should be placed in your signal chain, and how it changes the way other plugins work, look no further than the JST VIP group.
JST VIP members get access to all kinds of exclusive resources around recording and mixing rock and metal genres, as well as unique insights into other genres like pop and country. Learn how your favorite plugins work within your session and even send me a mix to critique when you’re ready by joining today!