Compressing vocals

Vocals are usually compressed to make the dynamics even – that means that all the syllables are roughly the same level. That makes it easier keep the vocal balanced with the rest of the instruments. Otherwise the soft syllables will be lost in the mix but the louder syllables will stick out too much. 

Start with highest threshold, highest ratio, fastest attack and fastest release. All other special features should be left at normal (eg hard knee, no sidechain, etc). 

Now, lower the threshold until the compressor is reducing gain whenever the vocals are sounding, but not reducing gain when the vocals are not sounding (for example, in between lines or when the vocals takes a break to breathe). 

You should hear the vocals being crushed pretty heavily. Now, how you reduce the crush depends on how you want the vocals to sound:

  • Increasing the release time will make the compressor act slower, allowing each syllable or word to follow a more natural contour. 
  • Reducing the ratio will add dynamics back to the performance, increasing the difference between quiet words and loud words. 
  • Raising the threshold will allow the quieter syllables to pass uncompressed. The compressor will then only focus on the syllables that were sung louder. 
  • Increasing the attack time will make the compressor “lag” a bit when it’s compressing the start of each phrase. This usually doesn’t sound so good with vocals – it’s more useful with drums and other percussive sounds. 

That’s the order in which I adjust my vocal compressors. It’s very rare that I resort to advanced features like soft knee, side-chain EQ, etc. 

This approach to compression also works well on other sounds, try it on bass, guitars, synths, effects, even drums.

-Kim.

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    • Bryan
    • June 29th, 2009

    Great post! I feel like the people who have been at this for years have been able to gradually accumulate working knowledge as the technology progressed. However for a musician like myself who threw myself into the world of DAWs, VSTs, mixing, sound design, etc. about 6 months ago it quickly became overwhelming. The signal to noise ratio online for self education is pretty poor, and I really appreciate your straightforward and easy to digest bits of wisdom.

  1. I agree with Bryan. Even though I have been working at it for some time, I still haven’t mastered the compression. You made it very understandable. Thanks!

    • STYLZKEYZ
    • June 21st, 2010

    GREAT BLOGS! I look at attack and release envelopes like fade in and fade out. However, I have one question: What actually happens to a compressor when it reacts slowly and allows more syllables and words thru? I’m trying to visualize this. It helps me better understand.

  2. @STYLZKEYZ
    If the attack is too long, the first syllable of each phrase will be much louder, because the compressor is taking too long to reduce the gain.

    -Kim.

    • Stylzkeyz
    • June 28th, 2010

    @Kim Lajoie
    Thank you. Im aware of this. Ill reword the question a little better. To the statement you wrote: Increasing the release time will make the compressor act slower, allowing each syllable or word to follow a more natural contour. Could you explain this? As release is the most common part of the envelop that’s adjusted wrong. Thank you for your response in advance :)

    Producer Stylzkeyz

  3. It means that once the compressor has initially reduced gain (the vocals have started sounding), the release time plays a big part in how the compressor follows the contour of the audio. A fast release time will result in the compressor riding the gain tightly – meaning the natural volume envelope of each syllable will be altered more. A slower release time will better preserve the natural volume envelope of each syllable, making for a more natural sound. The downside of using a longer release time is that a quiet syllable immediately after a loud syllable won’t be brought up in volume much.

    Does that make sense?

    -Kim.

    • Stylzkeyz
    • June 29th, 2010

    @Kim Lajoie
    Yes is does. Thanx! Your blogs are sick and Im addicted to reading them over and over daily so they become naturally part of my producing and mixing mindset. Thanks for sharing:)

    Producer Stylzkeyz

    FYI when I get these placements in ATL using your techniques I would love to give you a shout out.

  4. Cheers Stylzkeyz!

    -Kim.

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