If there's any audio source that's ripe for compression, it's vocals. Whether it's to tame unruly peaks or to add color and character, compression and vocals go together like peas and carrots.
Vocals are the focal point of most contemporary music, so you want them to sound as best as possible. Truth be told, a bad-sounding lead vocal is one of the fastest ways to make a listener hit the "skip" button.
With the possible exception of compressing bass, vocals are the most difficult source to compress properly. One wrong move, and you'll end up with an unnaturally squashed, pumping, spitty, unintelligible mess.
In this blog post, we'll walk you through the process of compressing your vocal tracks. By the end, you'll be able to create ear-grabbing, studio-quality vox that are guaranteed to take your productions over the top.
Automation First, Compression Second
First, before you even think about touching a compressor, you need to sort out your vocal track's dynamics with automation.
While slamming a vocal track with a compressor will tame an overly dynamic performance, it will also give it an artificial, lifeless quality that screams "amateur mix."
To start with, use 1–2dB gain boosts and cuts. If the vocal gets too quiet, boost; if the vocal gets too loud, cut. (Tip: Use a gain plugin insert to do this so you can use your volume fader for overall gain adjustments later)
This is just a starting point, however. You'll be adjusting your automation parameters all throughout the mixing process.
Aim to get your vocal 90% of the way there with automation. The end goal is to make your vocal sit — intelligibly — in your mix without resorting to compression.
Once you achieve this, then it will be time to deploy your favorite vocal compressors to give it that final 10%.
Kill Low-end Mud and Unwanted Resonances
Another thing to be aware of before you fire up a compressor is low-frequency mud and unwanted resonances. Both issues — even if you can't easily hear them — can cause unpredictable compressor behavior.
Vocals, for the most part, don't contain an abundance of low-frequency information. Hence, if there are low frequencies in your vocal track, they probably don't need to be there.
To eliminate unwanted low end, apply a highpass filter to your vocal track.
Start with a cutoff frequency around 40Hz with a gentle 6–12dB slope. Slowly increase the cutoff frequency until your vocal track sounds thin, then back off until it sounds right.
Resonances are essentially a buildup of frequencies within your mix. These frequencies will kill your vocal track's dynamics, steal its headroom, and worse.
Our RESO plug-in is an easy-to-use solution for eradicating unwanted resonances — automatically.
Simply place it on your vocal track, then click the Calculate Targets button. RESO will then supply you with Target Nodes, as well as helpful setting suggestions for achieving a resonance-free track.
Squashing Your Vox: A Recommended Starting Point
Now it's time to fire up your compressors — plug-ins, hardware units, or a combination of the two can get the job done with equal assurance.
Most compressors contain lots of tweakable parameters. We're going to provide you with a sensible starting point, then set you loose to find your own sound.
The best way to get a natural, transparent vocal sound is to use two (or more) compressors in series, one to catch stray peaks and one to add fullness and character. An 1176-style comp into an LA-2A-style comp is a time-tested combo.
Set the first compressor with a high compression ratio (around 12:1) and a fast attack and release. Most importantly, set the compressor threshold so that it isn't exceeding 2dB–3dB of gain reduction during the loudest peaks.
Next, set the second compressor with a slow attack and a release until it meshes well with your mix. Use a medium compression ratio (between 4:1 and 8:1), then tweak the threshold unit you like what you hear.
Don't be afraid of using more aggressive settings on the second compressor. Since the first comp is taming the large peaks, the second unit won't be as likely to over-compress during louder passages.
Whatever you do, don't rely on plug-in presets. Presets are generic — they aren't tailored specifically for your mix, and they're unlikely to give you the sound you're shooting for.
My Vocals Don’t Sound Right — Troubleshooting Tips
Pumping and Breathing
Pumping and breathing — obvious audible compression with a rhythmic, ducking component — is primarily caused by improper attack and release settings.
Start with a medium attack time (around 15ms), then go from there.
A fast attack (around 5ms) will thicken your vocals, but you'll want to be careful not to squash your transients to an unnatural degree — use your ears. A slower attack will add a nice punchy quality to your vox.
Start with a medium release time (around 40ms), then go from there. Keep tweaking until the pumping becomes inaudible (or pumps in time in a musical way).
You can try to resolve pumping and breathing by lowering the gain reduction on your compressor (a higher threshold). That said, even 3dB of compression can cause audible pumping and breathing if your attack and release settings are off.
You can mitigate hissy breathing effects by inserting a noise gate in front of the compressors on your vocal track.
Sibilance — out-of-control s, z, and sh sounds — can really wreak havoc on your vocal tracks. This is especially evident after you're applied compression to your track.
Want to safeguard against sibilance? Then deploy a de-esser.
A de-esser is a high-frequency limiter that attenuates sibilance, while also retaining upper mids and highs to help your vocal poke through your mix.
Don't get carried away, though. Too much de-essing can make your vocalist sound like they have a speech impediment!
Unintelligible vocals aren't unusual. And oftentimes the issues that cause this reared their ugly heads during the tracking or recording phase.
When tracking vocals, proper mic technique is vital.
Vocalists need to remain mindful of the distance between their mouth and the microphone — especially with a cardioid mic. Too close, and the vocal will be buried in low frequencies via the proximity effect; too far, and the vocal will sound thin and distant.
Vocalists also need to be cognizant of the level of their voice. If they sing louder, they need to back away from the mic; if they sing quieter, they need to lean into it.
You should also invest in a high-quality pop filter, and don't be afraid to deploy a de-esser at the recording stage. It will save you headaches during the mixing phase of your production.
As for the mixing stage, if your vocals seem unintelligible only during quieter passages, then you've failed to contain their dynamics.
Before you start adjusting your compressor settings though, try bumping your automation up another 1–2dB during the unintelligible moments.
As for compressor settings, be sure that your attack time isn't too short. You may be swallowing transients.
While compression's primary function is to make it sit properly in your mix, you can also use them to add color, character, and even a bit of grit to your track.
Distressor-style compressors are perfect for colorful dynamics shaping. Not only do they deliver characteristics of both 1176- and LA-2A-style compression, but they can also inject tasty-sounding distortion into your vox.
There are tons of colorful compressors out there, both in plug-in and hardware form. Some great options are the aforementioned 1176-style comps, as well as SSL-style comps, API-style comps, and any compressor plug-in with built-in saturation.
Compression, like most other processing, can dull the sound of your track. Equalizers, like our MIXROOM plug-in, are the antidote for dull-sounding vox.
MIXROOM is an easy-to-use EQ that provides you with application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track.
Just load it up, choose an applicable channel preset, or create a custom target value with the Target icon on the bottom left corner by importing a reference track.
MIXROOM's Target EQ Curve avoids the guesswork and enables you to dial in a pro sound — quickly and easily. Plus, you can use the Add Smart Bands button to deploy EQ bands that match the Target EQ Curve.
MIXROOM is one of the easiest ways to gain an intelligent starting point for your tone shaping.
Get a Reality Check
It's not hard to get lost in the sound of your own mix after listening to it for hours upon hours. That's where reference tracks come in.
A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use for a sonic reality check. This will help you regain your perspective, and it will ensure that your song's vocal tracks sound as great as — or better — than the next song on your listener's playlist.
Cueing up a suitable reference track is a breeze with our REFERENCE plug-in. Simply import a reference track you'd like to emulate, preferably within the same genre you're working on.
Next, listen closely to the reference track's vocal track and use it as a guide for how your vocals should sound. This will help you with levels and automation, plus it will aid you greatly in nailing the right sound and behavior for your compressor.
Compressing vocals is one of the most challenging elements of attaining a pro-level mix. In fact, a great-sounding lead vocal will elevate any song to the top of everybody's playlist.
Follow our tips, and you'll be well on your way to achieving the professional sound you've been hearing in your head.