Additionally, I will provide some tips and tricks for mixing that you can use once you have a good grasp of the basics and are comfortable with the results.
Although these tricks are not necessary, they can improve your mixing in terms of clarity and intelligibility. This is the purpose of compressing vocals.
You probably already know what a studio compressor does. If you don’t understand, I’ll write a summary at the bottom. You can also read the linked article if that is what you are looking for.
My primary goals are to provide you with a guide you can follow, then I will give you advice on vocal compression settings that can be referred back to in the future, and finally, I will share some tricks that top-tier professionals use.
In 7 Easy Steps, How to Compress Vocals
These steps can be used with hardware or software plugins. They are both vocal compressors. You can still change the philosophy, knobs, and parameters, but your goals will not change. This walkthrough will be done using Logic Pro’s plugin.
Be careful not to mix your eyes with. Although there are many visual ways to see the results of your work, they’re not useful. Only focus on your ears. This is the only thing that matters to your listeners. Mixing vocals solo is not a good idea. Take them into consideration in the context of the whole mix.
This plugin is a default VST for Logic Pro. It doesn’t matter which digital audio workstation ( here are the best DAWs), all will have a default compressor. You’ll be able to follow along even though it may look different.
First, add a compressor plugin for your vocal track to your multi-track mixer. You can find the manual for your DAW software here.
1) SET THE STARTER VOCAL COMPRESSION SETTINGS
These settings are just guidelines. You won’t actually need them. The threshold should be set to 0 dB. Your ratio should be 5:1. Attack and release should occur as quickly as possible (usually in 1 millisecond) and the knee should be 1.0. If you have an output gain, set the make-up gain at 0 dB.
You wouldn’t notice any changes if you pressed play and listened. The threshold is as high as it can be. Although the ratio is quite strong, it’s what you will use for almost every pop, rock, metal, or rap vocal recording. A lower ratio is recommended for opera and ballad vocals.
Whatever your vocal style, it doesn’t matter what genre you are singing. You will always need to use the fastest attack/release. These are used to create a waveform that is not directly relevant to the human voice. It can be important to use a very deep threshold, but it shouldn’t. They will be slightly modified later.
2) LOWER THE THREE HORESHOLD AND WATCH THE GAIN REDUCTION
We now want to lower the threshold and engage the compressor. The threshold you lower will depend on whether you used proper gain staging during recording. Your track’s average volume should be around -18 dB at the moment. You might be able to adjust the input gain knob to make it sound better.
Slowly lower the threshold, while watching the gain reduction meters until it reaches a range of -5 dB. This will reduce the majority of the threshold peaks by approximately 5 dB. It is a good idea to aim for a gain reduction of 4 dB-6 dB.
Gain reduction is an important metric, especially when it comes to dynamic compression. (I’ll talk more about this later). Once we have the right amount dialed in, we can adjust other settings.
3) REVISIT RATIO BASED GENRE & VOCAL PERFORMANCE
Dynamic compression is the key to most applications, particularly modern mixing. This is where you focus on reducing dynamic range and making the average volume more consistent.
You may have to deal with tonal compression in some cases. In these cases, the ratio will be lower and more focused on attack and release. This is for slower vocal performances, such as a love song or a jazz/classical song.
These are the times when subtleties and nuances of vocals matter more. There should be more dynamic range for emotional purposes, especially with sparser arrangements. You’ll squash your vocals more often than you think for most pop, rock, and rap genres, due to denser mixes.
Dynamic compression can be achieved with a 5 to 1 ratio. You may then explore increasing the ratio or even going up to an 8.1 ratio depending on your threshold. Tonal compression can be achieved with a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio.
4) ADD THE GAIN BACK TO THE MAKE-UP GINGER
You can increase the gain reduction if you increase the ratio. This is fine, but it’s something you need to be aware of. You’ll get the average amount of gain back by using make-up gain.
You can reduce the volume of the peak, which will make your track seem louder overall. However, this only happens after you restore the gain. Loudness is measured by the RMS value of the vocals. This is a type of average. This average is increased by compressing but the overall volume is also reduced.
Loop a portion of your vocals, and then look at the gain reduction meters. You can add +6dB to the gain reduction meter if it bounces around -6dB. Volume and gain are two different things (learn more gain vs volume here), but it can be thought of as adding back any volume that you’re losing.
As an alternative to adding back the average gain loss, you should be able monitor an input gain meter. You can use your ears to determine which way it is. It is important to increase the volume in the mix to the appropriate levels.
This allows you to use your fader for actual mixing and not have it go up. To keep your vocal volume in control, you can revisit the make-up gain setting while changing your compression settings.
5) STOP AND CHECK THE VOCALS’ SOUND
You should now take a deep listen and determine what the main purpose of all this is – how do the vocals sound in the mix? Are they able to cut through the mix more effectively? Can I understand the lyrics better? Do I understand the words of the singer better? Yes, so far.
Are they too dynamic? There are three options if some parts are too loud relative to the quieter ones. While you can lower the threshold, it is more common to increase the ratio (or combine both).
To get the right balance, you can go back to the original track and then automate a gain track. I assume you have already done this. You should do it regardless to give the compressor a steady signal.
Are your vocals too compressed? Start reducing the ratio, and gradually increasing the threshold. The squished characteristics will begin to disappear. Make them smaller. It is better to have less than too many.
6) TWEAK THE ATACK & RELEASE SECTIONS
Now the vocals have been compressed and placed in the mix at the correct volume. You now need to consider the attack and release. You should use the fastest attack possible if the vocal track has fast syllables, such as a rap song. Although I prefer 1 millisecond, you can use up to 5 ms or 10 ms.
You may need some transient to preserve the first waveform before the compressor starts to clamp down. This is for slower vocals such as a love song. This means that you will need to slow down the attack until you achieve the desired effect.
This will help listeners to understand new phrases and consonants, as well as allow more emotion to shine through. Timing it according to the length of each syllable is important or it will sound terrible.
Fast releases are best for pop, rap and rock singing styles. Slower releases are better for slower vocals. This allows the compression to release the vocals gradually and not abruptly. Too fast can make the decay tails of the notes held in time below the threshold sound strange.
7) SET THE COMPRESSION KNEE
One setting that we have not touched is the knee. This setting can be described as a “smoothness”. The smoother your compression will sound, the higher it is (maximum 1.0). A lower setting (minimum 0.0) will result in no smoothness but a sharper beginning to compression.
Higher knees are more musical in that the listener will not be able to detect where the compressor clamps down. This makes the effect transparent, as the effect is gradually increased instead of being a binary “on/off”. Push it to 1.0 for vocals and call it a night.
You’re done. You should have 100x more vocal power if you’ve followed the vocal mixing steps (primarily equalization).
Vocal Compression Settings
I will be clear: there is no one setting that you can use for all vocal tracks. You can start with some basic settings, but you’ll need to adjust them to your taste. As we have shown, there are some starting points. These are the basic settings that you can use to get started:
- Threshold -20dB
- Ratio: 5-to-1
- Attack: 1 milliseconds
- Release 5 Milliseconds
These settings are the starting point. From there, lower the threshold to achieve around 5 dB gain reduction. Then, you can decide if more is needed. Consider dropping the threshold and gradually increasing the ratio, but not simultaneously.
Consider a lower ratio of about 3:1 for slower vocals, and a higher threshold with slower releases. Because it changes with each track, tempo, and genre, I cannot give exact settings. Use your ears!
Vocal compression techniques for professionals
I will take you along the path of advanced vocal compression techniques that professional mixers use. However, I cannot go into detail on each one. Some cases, I will link to articles we have written about them. But it would be too much for just one article. Follow the trail!
Also known as New York Compression parallel compression refers to the process of combining a completely dry (uncompressed), or lightly compressed, version of a track with another more compressed version.
This means that you can keep some dynamics for emotional effect, but “fatten” the lower volume sections. This gives you the advantage of being able to control the volume of each track individually and mix them as you please.
Another benefit is that you can add delay and reverb to the uncompressed version. This allows you to preserve more of the original performance while giving the listener a more processed version.
Sidechain compression lets you use a different audio track to trigger the compressor on another track. Sidechaining a compressor to your vocal track would be an example.
You can automatically compress the guitars so they duck away from the vocals. Another common use is to hide the bass guitar behind a kick drum, so that it can be clearly heard.
A noise gate compressor does exactly the opposite of what you would expect. It reduces any sound that exceeds the threshold, and most of the times completely silences it. This is used by mixers to automatically muffle regions that are not meant to be heard so that no noise can be heard.
Sibilance, or loud and sharp sounds made by vocalists making T and S sounds, is the main culprit. When we make P or B sounds, plosives create bursts in air. These need to be taken care of, and a deesser makes this easy.
COMPRESSORS IN SSERIES
Mixers may push vocals through multiple compressors or three at once. They aim to lower the gain by 2-3 dB per compressor. This will result in a more musical, transparent and smoother sound.
Multiband compression can be used by mastering engineers. This is a combination of a compressor and parametric equalizer, which allows you to target specific frequency bands. It is used for full mixes and not on separate tracks.
What is a vocal compressor and how does it work?
It doesn’t really matter if you are compressing vocals, or any other instrument. The same tool can do the same job: to reduce the volume variation across a recording.
This means that the tool aims to reduce the distance between loudest and quietest parts of a recording. Based on the settings you specify, it reduces the volume (amplitude) of the highest waves within the waveform.
You’ll be using the following settings to keep things simple:
The threshold determines how loud a part of the recording should be. The ratio setting determines how much volume you can reduce.
The attack is the speed at which the compressor responds to vocals above the threshold. The release is the speed at which the compressor stops responding to volume drops below the threshold. These are used to create a waveform that sounds smooth and musical and not abrupt and jarring.
Example: When your threshold is set to -20dB and your ratio at 5:1 (five to one), then any spikes above -10dB in your recording will be reduced until it reaches -18dB. This is because the spike was 10 dB above the threshold and was then divided by five. Only 2 additional decibels were allowed beyond the threshold.
This ratio is used to smoothen out transitions, rather than a hard limit . (which is a type of compressor) The ideal balance is between a higher threshold or higher ratio, as well as a lower threshold or lower ratio.
Fast attacks cause the compressor to immediately clamp down, while slower ones allow a portion of the volume peak to come through. Slower attacks can be helpful in helping listeners “grab” the sound but will not sound great on vocals. A faster release is better in general.
This is how to use a compressor on vocals!
This seven-step walkthrough is what everyone uses in the music industry. It’s easy to compress vocals once you understand the basics. However, you can bookmark this page to return to it whenever you need.