How To Use A Vocal Compressor

If you’re someone who’s been recording for a little bit but haven’t really ever dove deep into mixing, vocals are an excellent starting point. A well-compressed vocal is something that can really make a beginner’s mix shine even if some other parts aren’t quite as polished as you might like. For professionals, a properly compressed vocal is essential.

When starting with vocal compression, it’s imperative that you know how your vocal works. Even as a beginner, you should understand what each parameter on your vocal compressor is doing and how it affects your vocal tracks and the tracks that surround them.

In addition to understanding how the parameters work on the compressor, I’m also hoping to share with you some starting points for vocal compression so that you can get up and running faster than others who might be launching a vocal compressor for the first time without any guidance. By starting with a general idea of where your compressor should sit, you can focus on making small adjustments toward the perfect sound and free up your time to work on more creative parts of your mix!

What Your Compressor Should Do

It can be easy to misunderstand or misuse compression when you’re just starting out. Many beginners hear about compression being used by the pros, but often they don’t understand why. It’s easy to quickly get carried away – adding compression where it’s not needed and over-compressing vocals, ruining the sound in the process.

So let’s start by setting the record straight on where you should be using a vocal compressor and what it should be doing to your sound.

On a lead vocal, there are a few key things that you should want your compressor to do. For starters, your compressor should be working to tame some of those peaks and help make the vocal performance more even from a volume standpoint. Overly dynamic vocals tend to sound inconsistent and harsh to listeners.

You should immediately recognize a vocal in need of compression when you strain to hear softer words and are suddenly taken out of their zone by a plosive or other loud vocal part. These vocals can sound choppy and buried in the mix, both of which should be red flags that you need a bit more control over the dynamics.

Beyond basic dynamic control, your compressor should bring a level of punch and clarity to your vocal. By smoothing out the level, many engineers are able to bring the overall volume up. A well-compressed vocal will be clear and present at the front of the mix. While you’ll want to be careful not to make the vocal too loud, automation moves will be much more effective AFTER compression.

Understanding Vocal Compression

When you first load up your vocal compressor, it can be easy to become overwhelmed quickly if there are too many knobs or settings.

Some compressors like Gain Reduction Deluxe combine several settings into simple, easy-to-understand controls instead of getting too technical. These can be great for those looking to quickly add something like more Body to a vocal without having to adjust multiple settings. You get a signature sound with less hassle.

If you’re working with a stock compressor, there are several settings you should focus on within the plugin:

  •      Threshold – At what volume should your compressor start reducing the level of the vocal?
  •      Ratio – How much reduction should be applied for each decibel over the threshold?
  •      Attack – How quickly should compression be applied once the level crosses the threshold?
  •      Release – How quickly should the compressor stop reducing the level once the level returns under the threshold?
  •      Gain – What level should the compressed signal be at when leaving the plugin?

Understanding these five settings and how they interact with each other should get you to a great starting point with any vocal compressor.

Setting Your Vocal Compressor

The Threshold is really the key to the whole operation, as it needs to be set at a level low enough where the vocal crosses without staying constantly above it. Essentially, it’s the sweet spot between your softer parts and loud parts that are jumping out of the mix. Experiment within that range to see if catching just the peaks will do, or if more aggressive settings might help smooth out the vocal even further.

From there, your Ratio, Attack & Release work together to decide exactly how the vocal compressor should operate. A high ratio acts more like a limiter, cutting down all of the dynamics and not letting much of anything cross the threshold. To maintain the performance, lower settings between 2:1 and 4:1 tend to be great ratios for vocal compression. These allow the vocals to get louder when it makes sense for the song while still applying plenty of gain reduction on notes that significantly exceed the threshold.

Attack & Release act to color the sound of your compressor and how transparent it is on your vocal. A fast attack is going to snap down on peaks quickly, which can be great for plosives but might be too apparent at higher ratios. Similarly, a release setting that’s set too fast can make your vocal sound unnatural as the quiet parts come rushing back after a heavily compressed note.

Finding the right balance here will once again take a bit of experimentation depending on the vocal style you’re working with. For more aggressive rock and metal vocals, try faster attack & release settings. For something a little smoother, fast attack with a slow or medium release can sound very natural.

Bring It Back To The Start

As you may have noticed, there’s one setting we still haven’t touched on: Gain. Gain is one of the more misleading settings of a compressor. It can be used to make your vocal louder, but should it?

The short answer is that gain is included on many plugins to provide make-up gain because of the compression you’ve applied. This tool can be used to easily level match your signal so that the overall volume going into the vocal compressor matches the level coming out. In most situations, this is the right approach to take.

In some instances, you can use the gain of a vocal compressor to push the compressor more aggressively; such is the case with Gain Reduction Deluxe. When you do this, the vocal begins to saturate, creating a thicker sounding vocal performance. Harmonic distortion kicks in and you end up with additional frequency content that sweetens the vocal.

If you choose to use the gain as an effect on your compressor, keep an eye on your levels. The last thing you want to do is start clipping as a result of something that should be giving you more dynamic control.

More Mix Tips

Once you’ve had a chance to experiment with vocal compression, you should really get to know how it could be used to settle your vocals into a mix and glue everything together. The Learn section of our site has some excellent resources about how you can compress vocals in groups and use vocal-focused compressors on other types of instruments.

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