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How to Use Vocal Compression

compression vocals
How to use vocal compression

Compression is often the bane of many new producers and mix engineers, especially when it comes to getting professional, upfront vocals. 

The beauty of compression is that it can give your vocals a modern, radio-ready sound. I can’t think of a modern recording that doesn’t at least use a bit of compression. Of course, compression gone wrong can ruin the sound of your vocal, sucking the life out of it and leaving it sounding over-processed.

My hope is that by the end of this vocal compression guide, you’re confident in applying compression to your vocals.

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Goal of Compression on Vocals


Before you apply vocal compression, it’s key to understand why you’re applying it. Compression, as with any other type of processing, requires a purpose. When it comes to compressing vocals, we usually do so because of one of two reasons:


  • The vocals are too dynamic and they need control
  • The vocals need a tone enhancement


And what do we even mean by dynamic control? Well think of it as the difference between the quietest parts and the loudest parts. In most modern genres, you'll want to make sure that every bit of the vocal is audible, meaning you'll likely need to use compression to limit the dynamic range. This will, in turn, allow you to bring up the volume of the quietest parts relative to the louder parts. 

Typically, you’ll want to achieve both of these things with vocal compression, though depending on the genre, one of these goals might be more important than the other. The genre is very important to consider too, as genres like EDM or pop will require much heavier compression for dynamic control than more natural genres like classical or jazz.


Vocal Compressor Settings


As I said before, the settings you use will depend on the genre and the vocal. However, more often than not, I will start at the same point and make slight adjustments depending on what I’m hearing. Here are some vocal compression settings you can start with:


  • Ratio: 4:1
  • Attack: 15-30ms
  • Release: 40-60ms
  • Gain Reduction: 3-6dB
  • Knee: Soft


The attack and release settings are extremely important. For serious dynamic compression, you’ll want to use a fast attack time and a high ratio (5:1-8:1). However, because I don’t like allowing one compressor to do all of the work (as it usually ends up sounding squashed and unnatural), I’ll divide the compression workload between multiple compressors.



How to Compress Vocals with Multiple Compressors


A classic combination of compressors for vocals (and many other instruments) is an 1176 FET compressor before an LA2A optical compressor. 

By the way, here's a review of some of my favorite vocal compressors.

An 1176, like the Comp FET-76 by Arturia, has much faster attack and release settings, allowing you to control the peaks on a vocal while letting the vocal recover back 0dB compression before the next transient. For pop vocals, I typically like to use the 1176 with a fast attack and fast release (both of the knobs turned to 7) and a 4:1 ratio. I’ll dial it in until I’m getting about 3-6dB of compression.

Once the vocal has a bit more dynamic control, I’ll send it to the LA-2A compressor, which is a much smoother optical compressor. Waves makes a great, affordable version of the LA-2A. This compressor will smooth out any leftover peaks while helping the vocal sit upfront. However, because the attack and release times are much slower, you should dial in slightly less compression so your vocal has time to recover before the next transient.

Once you have your desired amount of vocal compression, disable and enable you compressors to volume match your vocals. Essentially, they should be around the same level that you started with when balancing your mix volume, though you shouldn’t be losing any words or phrases at this point.  


Using Parallel Compression on Vocals


Parallel compression is the act of heavily compressing a copy of a signal and blending it in with the less-compressed or uncompressed signal. To do this, you can send your vocal to another track using an aux send and process it with aggressive compression, then slowly blending it with your regular vocal to taste.

Parallel compression is more useful for tone shaping than it is for dynamic control, as it still retains some of the original dynamics.

On the other hand, many modern compressors have mix knobs, allowing you to heavily compress a vocal on the insert and blend it in using the Mix knob. Using parallel compression is a great way to get upfront vocals while retaining their natural dynamics. 


Parallel Compression Settings for Vocals


One of my favorite tricks when I need more aggression on a vocal is to create a parallel channel and send the vocals to an 1176 compressor. Then I enable the fastest attack time possible, a medium release (12 o'clock), and use the "all buttons in" ratio to saturate the hell out of the vocals. You loose all subtlety and dynamic range, but when mixed in with a clean signal, this added aggression can really help a vocal cut through a busy mix.


Using Multiband Compression on Vocals


Multiband compression is great on evening out specific frequency ranges in your vocals. For example, let’s say the vocal isn’t very dynamic overall, though there is a frequency in the 200-300Hz range that intermittently pops out in certain portions of the song. Instead of EQing that frequency out altogether, you can use multiband compression to control it only when it becomes an issue.  

De-essing is a form of multiband compression, which controls frequencies between 4kHz-10kHz. De-essing can be particularly helpful if your vocals have lots of unwanted sibilance. 


Tips for Compressing Rap Vocals


Rap vocals should have more aggressive compression compared to regular vocals. For starters, I like to being my rap vocal compression settings with a 5:1 to 6:1 compression ratio, giving you enough aggression to keep the vocals upfront so that everything is heard. 

The next most important setting is the attack time. While an ultra-fast attack time might be good for locking pop vocals in place, you have to be careful that it’s not so fast that it cuts off the transients of the vocals.

Remember, every word counts in rap.

The last thing you want to do is squash the life out of the vocal transients. Here are some settings to start with:


  • Ratio: 5:1
  • Attack: 20-30ms
  • Release: 40-60ms
  • Gain Reduction: 5-8dB
  • Knee: Soft

 And if you want to really improve the quality of your rap vocal takes, check out these 27 tips to record amazing rap vocals.


Best Vocal Compressor VST


As I've already mentioned, I generally like to use two compressors on my vocals. By splitting the work up among two compressors, each one gets to do what it's best at. On top of that, the vocals will end up sounding much cleaner and transparent by not forcing either compressor to work too hard.

In all seriousness, this combination of compressors has been used on 10,000s of recordings. It works really well, so don't try to reinvent the wheel!


Arturia FET Comp on Vocals


The Arturia FET Comp is Arturia’s version of the 1176 compressor, arguably one of the most popular compressors that ever existed. This particular emulation supplies all of the best analog characteristics of this old compressor, all while providing fast attack and release controls to sit your vocal in place. 

With the All-Buttons-In feature, the FET Comp is also great for compressing vocals in parallel, especially when you need some heavy, gritty compression, as I've already discussed.


Waves CLA-2A Compressor for Smooth Vocals


As I've said before, nothing works like the cherry on top of an 1176 compressor quite like an LA-2A compressor. The CLA-2A is mix engineer extraordinaire Chris Lord Alge’s rendition of the industry’s most iconic optical compressors, featuring a slow attack and release to control your vocals in a smooth fashion while adding a warm, characteristic vibe. 

The beauty of this compressor is that it is super easy to use, delivering near-instatnt results. Waves was able to nail the smooth gain reduction of the original piece of hardware, giving you the sounds of a $3,000 compressor in the box. 


4 Tips For Upfront Vocals


In most modern music, you absolutely need to use these two compressors to get clean, clear, upfront vocals. However, just using compression is often not enough to help your vocals cut through. 

Here are four other techniques you should use, in conjunction with compression, to make your vocal mixes stand out.


Use a Volume Automation Plugin on the Vocals


The best way to make sure you’re getting the most natural compression is to automate the volume of your vocals before they hit your compressor. This way your compressor doesn’t have to do tons of work, especially if the vocal is already very dynamic to start. 

You can automate the volume manually, but it takes a lot of time. That's why I recommend Waves' Vocal Rider plugin. You set the desired vocal range for the vocals, and voila, the vocals stay with in that range! 


Add Tape Compression/Saturation


Not only can tape saturation add a unique vibe to your vocals, but tape has a natural compression that even out the dynamics and smooths out the transients of any signal sent into it. Plus, when you hit tape hard, you get a beautiful, warm distortion that can give your otherwise sterile vocals some hardware character.  

Here is a review of my favorite tape plugins (with demos) and her is a review of the best saturation plugins.


Sidechain Compress Instrument Bus to Vocals


One pro trick to get your vocals to sit atop your mix without cutting out necessary frequencies in your instrumentation is to sidechain them to your instrument buss. In doing so, you can reduce the volume of your instruments each time your vocals play, though maintain their loudness whenever the vocals stop.


Carve Out Frequencies In Competing Instruments


Of course, beyond compression, EQ is a crucial tool for getting instruments to sit together. If you have an instrument that lies in the same frequency range as your vocals, the best way to reduce masking is to make cuts in its competing freuquencies. 


Learn more about Mixing with Compression


This is only one part of mixing with compression! Luckily, I've put together a bunch more articles to help you master this crucial mixing skill!


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