Ah, compression. It can be a great tool, and it can be easily overdone. However, I can’t imagine mixing a song without using compression on the lead vocal. It both tightens up the vocal and helps it fit into the mix.

If you’re not all that clear on what compression does and how it works, I’d recommend watching my Intro to Compression video first. It’s a pretty succinct overview of compression in general.

Alright, assuming you have a basic understanding of compression, let’s look at how it applies to vocals.

Determine what you’re goal is with compression.

Take some time to listen to the dry vocal in the mix. What is it lacking? What does it need? You know what compression can do, how can you use that to your benefit? Be patient. You need to have a plan before you start turning compressor knobs. Otherwise, you’ll end up knee-deep in compression that doesn’t make sense or even sound right.

Control the Peaks

Does the vocalist sing at a consistent level or is he/she all over the place? For doing strictly level control, I would do the following:

  • Set the threshold just below where the louder portions happen.
  • Use a relatively high ratio, maybe 4:1.
  • Keep the attack under 10 ms

With these settings, the compressor will turn down these louder parts and provide a more consistent level across the vocal performance. Important Note: Compression shouldn’t take the place of automation. Even with a perfect compression setting, you should still “ride the fader” on the lead vocal to dial in the perfect level throughout the song.

Lightly Compress Everything

Perhaps the vocal performance is pretty consistent. If your goal is to use compression to alter the tone a bit, maybe make it sound “tighter,” then try the following:

  • Set the threshold well below the average level of the vocal. The compressor should be compressing whenever the vocalists sings.
  • Obviously this will sound overly compressed at first. To combat this, turn the ratio down considerably, perhaps 1.5:1.
  • Use a longer attack.

With these settings, the vocal is always being compressed. But since the ratio is so low, it’s a softer compression. On the quiet parts, the vocal will still have a little bit of a “compressed” sound. As the vocal gets louder, the amount of compression will increase.

This is my favorite way to compress a vocal. To my ears the compression sounds smoother. As the vocal gets louder, you don’t hear the compression “turn on.” It’s always on, it just compresses more and more the louder the vocal gets.

No matter which method you use (I’ve actually seen engineers use both on the same track), you want to keep an eye on the GR (gain reduction) meter on your compressor. If you’re knocking off over 10 dB with compression, you’re probably overdoing it.

Parallel Processing

I’ve posted a couple videos on parallel processing. The idea is that you duplicate the track, then process each copy differently. This can work wonders on a lead vocal. Perhaps you overly compress the second track and blend it in with the first. Or maybe you need to add a little distortion to the second one and blend it in.

Doubling the number of vocal tracks certainly doubles the complexity, but this is something to keep in mind. Check out the video on parallel processing bass to get an idea for what I’m talking about.

De-Esser

Since compression turns down loud parts and turns up quiet parts, you may have the PERFECT compression setting, only to find that all the vocalists S’s are just too loud.

That’s why God created the de-esser. I’ve not done a video on de-essing (hmm…that’s not a bad idea), so here’s the basic run-down. De-essing allows you to compress a very specific range of frequencies without affecting the rest of the audio.

For my voice, the sibilance sounds occur around 7 kHz. When needed, I set a de-esser to that frequency, then have it knock down the S’s when they come through. It takes some practice, but it can really help keep the S’s from cutting your head off…a nasty bi-product of compression.

How do YOU like to compress vocals? Let’s hear it! Share your tips by leaving a comment.

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