Almost every producer or engineer will tell you to apply some degree of compression to a vocal track.
But where do you start? In this blog post, we explore the when, how, and why you should (or shouldn’t) apply vocal compression.
When to compress vocals
One of the main use cases of a compressor is to control the perceivable volume difference between the softest and loudest parts (i.e. the dynamic range) of your vocal track. In most modern-day productions, you’ll notice that the vocal levels are consistent throughout the song. That usually means the vocals are highly compressed, and thus have little to no dynamic range.
For example, randomly skip through a song like Post Malone’s “Circles” and pay attention to the vocals:
You’ll notice that the overall level of the vocals doesn’t change across the different sections of the song – this degree of dynamic consistency is typically achieved using the magic of compression.
Now, whether to compress vocals or not is a creative decision you have to make. My general advice is that if you’re working on a modern music genre that’s non-classical, the answer is almost always ‘yes.’ But, like everything in life, compression works best when used in moderation.
Picking a vocal compressor
Now that you’ve decided to compress your vocals, it’s time to pick a compressor. Though all compressors functionally accomplish the same thing, each one comes with its own characteristics and unique sonic flavor. To demonstrate how compressors can impact the character of vocals, let’s run the same vocal through several different compression plugins from Arturia’s FX Collection. Listen to the audio examples below – I used a generic vocal preset for each compressor, without tweaking any settings.
The original vocals
The FET-76 (solid state) Compressor
The VCA-65 (solid state) Compressor
The Tube-STA (tube) Compressor
The vocals are taken from a pop / rock song, and the feel I’m going for is ‘edgy.’ In my opinion, the compressor that delivers that characteristic the best is the FET-76. The VCA-65 and the Tube-STA feel a little too smooth around the edges for this song (especially the latter). Simply put, each compressor gives you a different feel, and thus having a few compressors at your disposal can be highly beneficial.
Determining vocal compression settings
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to vocal compression. However, there are a few key parameters that you can keep in mind when approaching vocal compression.
Generally speaking, a lower ratio (2:1 or 3:1, for example) is good for gentle compression, which works best when you have a pretty consistent vocalist who already has good control over their voice.
A higher ratio of 4:1 and above is used to produce more aggressive results. These sorts of settings will come in handy when you have a vocalist who’s pretty expressive / alternating a lot between loud and soft performances.
Attack and release
Vocal performances that place a strong emphasis on the onset of each phrase (ex. energetic rap vocals) generally benefit from a slower attack time. This preserves the attack of the performance, while only compressing the softer parts of the vocals. The opposite is also true: if a vocal performance has too strong of an emphasis on the onset of each phrase, you may want to tame it with a faster attack setting.
A slow release time is useful for getting a smooth and consistent vocal sound. Meanwhile, a fast release time will ‘reset’ the compressor quicker, and you’ll start to hear a more aggressive sonic character being produced.
Hopefully these tips help you get started with dialing in a few vocal compression settings. At first, it can be challenging to hear some of the nuances of compression, but try not to get discouraged – experimenting firsthand with lots of different plugins and settings will be key to training your ear.
Containing reverbs, delays, filters and preamps in addition to compressors, Arturia’s FX Collection is a great bundle for building a robust vocal chain:
February 27, 2020