Over my years in the studio, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with tons of amazing vocalists. While my main focus has been with hard rock and metalcore, I’ve also gotten to expand into the pop world and worked with some of the best singer-songwriter types I could imagine. What I’ve found across all of those genres and singers is that vocal compression is different for each and every one of them – and it changes with the songs they’re singing.
I think it’s important to have a foundation you can start from when you’re just starting to compress vocals. Maybe you’re someone who’s just downloaded their first vocal compressor and you’re looking for the best way to start using it. Or maybe you’re someone who’s got tons of experience recording and mixing your own vocalist, but you’re looking to start working with other bands and artists.
Whatever your level of experience in the studio, here are some of the best compression settings you can start with when working with different vocal styles.
Soft Vocals in a Quiet Mix
It’s important when talking about soft vocals that we understand the context of what those vocals have been placed in. I’m going to treat a soft vocal in a modern pop song very differently than I would in an acoustic-style performance. With the acoustic performances, your goal is to remain as natural and transparent as possible.
Start out with lower settings and just a few dB of gain reduction. A low ratio such as 2:1 or below is going to allow your vocals to naturally get louder, especially with a slower attack time. Don’t be afraid to leave a longer release time as well to draw out the tail of each note – this can create a sense of intimacy, which is perfect for this style of music.
Vocals in Pop/Electronic Music
In contrast, modern pop vocals tend to require a much more aggressive approach to compression. These are the vocals that you want to squeeze every ounce out of, even if they’re coming from a softer singer. With recent productions focusing heavily on electronic instrumentation and pushing every element into the mix bus as hard as possible, it can be a lot to get these vocals to sit right in the mix.
With these vocals, a higher ratio is absolutely okay to use (and even encouraged). Settings ranging up to 10:1 are common in this style and engineers will even go so far as to use a limiter to squash the dynamics and push the whole vocal forward in the mix. You can approach the attack and release times in a similar manner to the soft vocals: slower attacks and longer releases to help the vocal stay lively and draw out each note respectively. If you’re struggling with a “spiky” vocal performance, shortening that attack time can help clean things up nicely.
Dynamic Rock/Metal Vocals
In rock and metal, the dynamic changes a bit as to the role the vocal will play in your final mix. Even though it’s still the centerpiece of the song, the energy is a bit different and the live instrumentation behind it requires a slightly different approach than pop.
Because rock and metal vocals compete with the same mid-range as guitars (and lots of them), I actually lean pretty heavily on EQ to help guide the position of the vocals in the mix and compression to really drive that range home once it’s been found.
Compression ratios for rock and metal vocals are usually right down the center as far as amount, with 4:1 – 6:1 being my starting point. From there, I’m pushing the input pretty hard, aiming for as much as 10 dB of gain reduction with fast attack and release times. We want these vocals to sound aggressive & energetic.
Other Vocal Styles
There are tons of other vocal styles out there that demand a unique approach to compression. For some real-world examples, check out this walkthrough of Ryan Wood using Gain Reduction 2 on a variety of vocalists:
As you can see here, he follows the same basic principles we’ve applied already – lower ratios for softer songs, higher ratios for more aggressive vocals, and a strong understanding of how the input amount and speed of the compression fundamentally changes the way the compressor works.
Vocal Are Always a Work In Progress
Vocals are the number one place where engineers and producers can drive themselves crazy trying to perfect every little detail. It takes a lot of experience and self-discipline to know when a vocal is finished, not perfect.
To better understand this concept, we’ve created an eBook called The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook as a way to demystify the common misconceptions around vocal recording, arranging & producing. In this guide, you’ll learn the best practices for recording and editing vocals, as well as how to mix them efficiently.