Simple Guide to Compressing Vocals
Compression is one of the most important tools when it comes to mixing vocals, but learning your way around it can be difficult and sometimes daunting when you’re first starting out. Today I want to share a no nonsense, simple guide to compressing vocals, so that you can get to grips with how it works and use it confidently in your mixes.
Why use compression
Before you start using compression, it’s important to know why you’re using it. The human voice is a very dynamic instrument, it can be super quiet on one word and loud on the next. This can make it tricky to get a vocal sitting right in your mix, because naturally, some parts will poke out too much and other parts will fall behind the instrumental. Using compression will resolve this issue by levelling out your audio and creating a more even performance that’s consistent in volume and easier to blend in.
What compressor should I use?
There are ton of different types of compressor out there, all with different tones, quirks and ideal uses. If you’re just getting started and all you want to know is how to use compression to a decent level, I’d stick with the stock compressor in your DAW for now. It will be nice and transparent and will have all of the controls you need to learn to get a professional sound. Once you’ve mastered this, it’ll be worth trying out some different ones! Let’s dive into each parameter and what you need to do with it when you’re working on your vocals…
The threshold defines the point at which the compressor will kick in. For example, if your threshold is set to -10db, it will only begin to compress when your audio exceeds this point.
When you’ve loaded up your compressor, keep an eye on its gain reduction meter and bring the threshold down until you’re taking off about 6db on the loudest peaks. This could be more or less depending on the performance and what sounds good in context with your track, but generally, something around this will be a good amount of gain reduction to aim for if you’re just trying to level things out.
The ratio setting defines how much compression will be applied when the audio passes the threshold point. On a vocal, anything from 2:1 to 4:1 tends to be a reasonable, natural sounding ratio setting. Have a little play around between these numbers and see what works best for your performance. If you are purposely aiming for a really compressed sound, you could take it a little higher, but be really careful to make sure you’re not overdoing it.
Attack and Release
The attack and release settings can have a pretty drastic impact on the sound you get from your compressor.
Attack tells the compressor how quickly to clamp down on the audio that exceeds the threshold. A faster attack is a bit more aggressive and will take off more of the initial transient of the audio, which in this case is the beginning of words and phrases. This tends to give the vocal a slightly more pushed back, distant sound. A slower attack tends to sound a bit more natural and by allowing some of the initial transients through, can sound more upfront, intimate or in-your-face. The release tells the compressor how quickly to let go of the vocal and stop compressing it when it’s dropped back below the threshold. A fast release can sound a bit more snappy and upfront, whereas a slow release will sound smoother.
Generally speaking, I tend to prefer a slower attack, that just about lets through the initial transient of a word/phrase and a medium to fast release. This gets the vocal controlled, but still sounding natural and snappy.
If you’re struggling to hear how your attack and release are affecting the vocal, try pulling the threshold down a lot and adjusting them with a lot of gain reduction happening. This will make it more obvious, but remember to bring the threshold back to its original setting afterwards. This is a great way to make sure they’re really dialled in!
The last thing you’ll need to adjust is the output gain or makeup gain (it's labelled differently on different compressors). When something has been compressed, it will have lost some volume and will sound quieter overall, making it hard to compare to the original sound and ultimately lower in the mix. For these reasons, we need to match the level coming out of the compressor, to the level going in. Most compressors will have an input and an output meter. Bring up your makeup gain or output gain until the levels on the meters are more or less matched. Some compressors have an auto makeup gain setting, but honestly I'd just switch that off and match it yourself - they rarely work that well.
All of this should leave you with a nicely controlled vocal that sits well in your mix! It’s important to note that you shouldn’t rely totally on compression to level out your vocal. Good mic technique and gain automation before compression will be really helpful for this too, and will mean your compressor has to do less work, resulting in a more natural sound, so don’t make it your only port of call when it comes to getting a more even vocal take. Once you’ve got these basics down, you can try experimenting with different types of compressor, stacking compressors and more exciting techniques like parallel compression. I hope this has been helpful for you! If you have any questions or if you’d like me to take a listen to your mix, just shoot me an email on email@example.com.