This article is part of our FAQ series, published on our blog. Click here to view the blog archives.
Question: How do I compress vocals without ruining them?
Most people know that unintentionally over-compressing vocals ruins them.
Vocals are meant to be dynamic. They’re meant to sit on top of the mix but not be squished.
So it’s natural to wonder, given the significant risks, how you should go about compressing vocals.
Fortunately, it’s easier to compress vocals the right way than you might think.
1. If Possible, Use Some Compression When Tracking
I’ve talked with many producers and engineers, and one thing many of the pros do is compress vocals as they’re being recorded.
If you have access to an analog compressor, this can be a huge win.
Light compression during the recording phase can tighten vocals up a bit and really even out the performance.
If you don’t have access to an analog compressor though, don’t worry! You can still get great results when you enter the mixing stage.
2. Start Mixing Vocals With Automation
Before you EVER start compressing a vocal while mixing, you should look at automation.
One of the primary goals mixers have when dealing with vocals is making sure the performance is consistent dynamically.
You want the levels of the vocal to be even and precise (even if the singer was moving around a bit while it was recorded and so on).
This is what’s called “riding the fader” … and it should be done BEFORE you compress.
Compression should not be a substitution for automation.
Using compression exclusively to control a vocal’s levels/peaks is how you kill its dynamics!
Two things you can automate for the vocal performance:
- Volume Automation — This is very popular for controlling a vocal’s levels. Keep in mind though, volume changes occur at the end of the signal chain… so it will occur after other processing.
- Gain Automation — This is something a number of pros do, and it yields great results. Gain changes would occur at the beginning of the signal chain, so you’ll have a leveled out vocal BEFORE you start adding other processing.
Both ways are viable, but I’ve seen many people recommend gain automation over volume automation due to where it falls.
Better to add processing or compression to a nice and leveled vocal, goes the wisdom.
Personally, I recommend you do whatever works best for your workflow. Try both, and see which way gives you results you’re happier with.
3. Make Sure You Know What Your Compression Goals Are
So let’s assume you’ve done your automation and your vocals are much more balanced… it’s time for the next step.
I’ve said this before in my article on how to use a compressor, but it bears repeating here.
You MUST determine what your goals are before you start compressing vocals.
Some reasons you might want to compress vocals:
- Control peaks of the vocal — Even if you do a great job “riding the fader” (using automation), the vocal might still need some compression to smooth out those peaks.
- Achieve your genre’s sound — Some musical genres have vocals that have a very upfront, fierce vocal sound (typically mainstream tracks on the radio)… much of this is done with the help of compression.
- Control the tone of the vocal — Perhaps the vocal is too aggressive for the project and needs to be tamed, or it’s lifeless and needs some more energy.
There are of course other goals you might have, but in general those are the big three.
4. Keep In Mind How Compression Settings Will Affect a Vocal
So you know what your goals are… now it’s time to start compressing.
Keep in mind, stock compressors will work just fine on vocals…
If you have a specific plugin you like, then great! The point is, it’s not a requirement for great results.
Once you choose your tool, simply begin working with it.
Keep these general setting ideas in mind when compressing vocals:
- Fast attack times (~5ms) tend to push vocals further back in the mix and make them less aggressive. If you want this (such as for backing vocals) or want to really tame your vocal’s aggression, then a fast attack can be helpful. But if that’s not your goal and you want your vocals to cut through the mix, avoid fast attack times!
- Slow or long attack times (~30ms) tend to allow vocals to be more up-front and aggressive in the mix. If you need some more aggression, or punch, then consider a slower attack time.
- Fast release times can help vocals be louder and more aggressive.
- In general, slower release times that are adjusted to match the tempo of the track are the way to go.
- Use your thresholds and ratios to control how much compression is happening. In general, LESS is MORE. If you find yourself using really high ratios, you should pause and really consider if that’s the best move.
I’m purposely avoiding discussion of exact compression settings because EVERY VOCAL IS DIFFERENT.
It’s better to have an idea of how general settings affect vocals than to assume a specific setting is the way to go.
Remember too that most of the adjustments of tone and energy to a vocal will happen with your attack time settings.
If you’re still unsure what to do, you can read about how to dial in a compressor.
5. Follow The Best Practices for Compressing
Here are a few best compression practices to keep in mind, especially when working with vocals.
- Use compressors in series for smoother results. Instead of doing 4 dB of Gain Reduction on one compressor… try 2 dB of GR on two compressors.
- I recommend using slower release times and playing with your timing so that you aren’t cutting off transients. Starting slower and then slowly speeding up the attack can be a helpful strategy.
- If at any point you’re gain reduction is over 10 dB, you’re probably over-compressing.
- Unless you’re specifically trying to keep the compressor constantly engaged… if you find it never returns to zero during the vocal performance, you’re probably over-compressing.
- Every compressor is a little different, and some can really color the sound. Be aware of that when choosing one!
6. Make Use of Parallel Processing for Vocals
It’s perfectly acceptable to put your compressor right on the vocal track!
That said, parallel compression can go a long way to help your vocals.
It specifically can make sure you’re not over-compressing your tracks by giving you more control over the blend.
Here’s how to compress in parallel in 3 Quick Steps.
- Create an auxiliary track for your vocal compression and send the vocal track there (this will duplicate the signal).
- Add your compression to the auxiliary track. Feel free to compress hard here.
- Adjust the amount of the send and/or your faders to blend the compressed and uncompressed signals together.
There are of course other ways to set up parallel processing (many plugins offer you an option to blend into the mix too)…
But the point is, it’s a great way to create HUGE sound, while also helping avoid adding in too much compression.
7. Bust Out Your De-Esser
You may notice, especially after compressing a vocal, that unwanted ‘s’ sounds (sibilance) become much more noticeable.
This is where a De-esser can be a mix saver.
De-essers are essentially multi-band compressors that reduce the volume of specific frequencies to tackle unwanted ‘s’ sounds.
A couple of additional points:
- In general you’ll want to focus your efforts around 4 kHz to 7 kHz to address sibilance with a de-esser.
- If a singer is particularly sibilant… then manually going in and reducing those sounds using your DAW’s clip gain function might be necessary.
- In fact, some mixers actively dislike using de-essers and prefer using other methods (including adding their own multi-band compressor manually) to address sibilance. There’s no ‘right’ answer here… but you should be aware of other methods!
- Your recording technique can drastically reduce your need for De-essers.
Truthfully, this only scratches the surface of vocal compression… but should give you some good ideas of how to proceed.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works best for you!
- The Art of Mixing Vocals [Premium Course]
- Mixing Vocals with David Donaldson [AudioSkills Podcast Episode]
- Vocal Mic Positioning Tips for the Home Studio [YouTube Video]
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