Vocal Compression Settings: Practical Advice on Using A Compressor To Tame Wild Vocals

Recording vocals can often be a tricky task, and one that you're not likely to want to mess up too often.

recording vocals in a studio

Vocal Compression Settings

Capturing those perfect-pitch performances is a subtle science that involves skillful direction and guidance on behalf of the recording engineer, exceptional performance and musical ability on behalf of the singer, and a good, open line of communication between them both during the recording process. When wondering whether you should dress up the vocal performance with your varied assortment of analog compressors or processors in order to really "bring it out" or "spice it up", you must realize that whatever you insert into that signal chain before it hits the tape (whether that tape consist of actual analog tape or a hard drive via Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, etc.) will be permanently embedded into that take!


So, it may sound great (or even flawless) at first, but let's say that you get to the mixdown stage and the producer (or vocalist even) says, "Hey, you know what, I think those vocals sound a little too tight in that section. Mind if we loosen them up a bit?" Okay, great, just grab your favorite expander and slap it on there, right? Problem solved! Perhaps, but being able to bypass the compressor (or at least raise the threshold or lower the ratio) as opposed to offsetting it with another processor will be a smarter move in the long run, as it will eat up less CPU (which can become an increasingly significant consideration to keep in mind as you add more and more processors to your signal chain) and result in a smoother, less processed-sounding vocal to begin with.

Using Your Compressor Correctly

Granted, to be fair, you will come across certain vocalists from time to time who just simply have an incredible dynamic range that's very difficult to control, but before slapping on a compressor to "cure" the issue, try switching out mics (dynamic mics tend to work better than condenser mics for individuals with exceptionally wide dynamic ranges) or asking the singer to step back slightly before belting out those opera-esque chorus lines. Strategic gain staging practices will also come in handy, such as turning on the pad switch on your mic if available as well as on your mixing board or preamp or "riding the fader" as the vocalist progresses from softer to louder passages.

So, let's assume that you tried all of the methods I mentioned in the previous paragraph and yet the vocal doesn't seem to be behaving itself as well. At this point, slapping on a compressor and applying a good dose of that transient-squashing "goo" will seem like a fabulous idea, but there is just one more thing you'll need to take into consideration, which is if you've performed automation on the level fader of the track itself, then sticking a compressor on that track won't be of much use because the fader automation will be taking place after the compression already has.

What you want to do is place it before the compressor so that the compressor is the very last element in the signal chain carrying the load.

These are two different ways you could go about doing this:

1. Insert a utility plug-in (before the compressor, mind you) and copy the automation data off of the automation lane of the fader onto the level gain automation lane of the utility plugin. For Ableton users, this is a snap; just select the automation you want to copy, press Ctrl+Alt+C (or Cmd+Option+C if you're using a Mac), and paste (Ctrl+V or Cmd+V) onto the level gain automation lane of the utility plugin. Logic users can copy automation by creating a proxy region on the vocal track (just pick your pencil tool, click it into place onto the vocal track, and stretch it out so that it covers the entire length of the fader automation) and transferring the automation data off of the track onto the region. For Logic 9 users, all you have to do is Ctrl-click or right-click the MIDI region, select the "Automation" submenu, and select "Move Current Track Data To Region". After that, select the level fader lane of the utility plugin and choose "Move Current Region Data To Track". Logic 8 and 7 (as far as I can remember) users can follow the same process by accessing the same commands from the "Options->Region" menus. As far as I know (and I haven't used Pro Tools in a while, so forgive me if this is wrong), you can select the level fader automation lane, copy the data, and simply paste it onto that of the utility plug-in, but if that doesn't work, just follow the next step.

2. Route the output of the vocal track to an auxiliary track and insert the compressor. Not as many steps, right?

Okay, so the compressor's on the track, and you want to start putting the squeeze on those vocals! Depending on the genre, the amount of compression you apply to the vocal can vary, but I would usually start with fairly low-key settings such as 2.5:1 or 3:1for the ratio and 2-3 dB of gain reduction (which means lower the threshold until you see a bar or needle pop out in the gain reduction section). Additionally, set the attack to somewhere between 10-20 ms and the release to 40-50 ms. If you want or feel like you need more compression, try shortening the attack and lengthening the release slightly first, and if that doesn't work as well, then lower the threshold by 2-3 dB or knock the ratio up to 3.5:1 or 4:1.


Just so you know, this isn't exactly a set of "hard and fast" rules but rather a set of guidelines for you to accomplish one goal, which is taking a vocal with a very wide dynamic range and applying compression in a way that smooths it out instead of smooshing and squishing it to death. Of course, if the vocal was poorly recorded, then I would strongly suggest you consider re-recording the vocals in a well-treated environment and proper recording techniques (i.e. make sure the vocalist stays in the front of the mic, make sure the mic stays on the shock mount, gain-stage your prefader properly so there's no clipping, etc.) Alternatively, if you start off with these methods and come with a completely different solution in the process that works for you, then that's great!

About the Author:
Maxx Donafrio is a professional audio engineer who provides production tips and guides at audioengineeringschool.net.

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