Vocal Compression Settings: How To Nail The Perfect Sound

Many bloggers will tell you what the “perfect” vocal compression settings are.

I wish I could do that too. Heck, it’d certainly save me a few keystrokes.

But the truth is, it’s not that easy. And I don’t want to mislead you.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula to vocal compression. There are no magic settings that work 100% of the time.

With that being said, it is possible to quickly dial in the right vocal compression settings, if you know what to listen for. Here’s where to start…

Can You Hear Me Now?

When you’re searching for the perfect vocal compression settings, there’s one goal worth paying attention to:

You want to hear every word.

Yes…color and character matter too. But they’re far less important, and focusing on them will often distract you from what matters most.

When in doubt, simply ask yourself the question—can I hear every word?

Let the answer be your guide, and you’ll remain on the right track.

Attack Time

Your compressor’s attack time will affect the consonants of a vocal performance.

Faster attack times will pull consonants down. This can make a vocal smoother and less aggressive. Often times, it can also push a vocal further back in the mix.

On the other hand, slower attack times will emphasize consonants. This can add articulation and clarity to a performance. It can also make a vocalist sound like they’re spitting out the words. For this reason, slow-attack compression tends to work well on hip-hop vocals, where clear diction is crucial.

How To Nail The Perfect Attack Time:

  1. Start with a moderate setting (~5 ms).
  2. Adjust the attack control while listening closely to the consonants. Want more of them? Slow it down. Less? Speed it up.

Release Time

Your compressor’s release time will control how it shapes the tail ends of words and phrases. There are really only two options:

  1. Set it as fast as possible
  2. Time it to the follow the natural dynamics of the performance

Option #1 will bring up low-level details, like breaths and tail ends of phrases. This can make a performance sound more aggressive and passionate. This setting works well on harder styles of music, like mainstream pop and rock.

Option #2 will reign in dynamics in a more subtle, transparent way. This can often sound more natural and less processed than Option #1. This approach works well with softer, mellower genres (think folk, jazz, and acoustic). To learn how to pull off this technique, watch the video below:

Threshold and Ratio

Threshold and ratio determine how much compression is applied, and how aggressive it is. They work best when tweaked together.

How To Nail The Perfect Threshold And Ratio:

  1. Set the ratio to a moderate setting (~3:1).
  2. While listening to your entire mix (do not solo the vocal), pull down the threshold until the compressor starts compressing. Add makeup gain as needed so the vocal doesn’t drop in volume.
  3. Adjust the threshold, ratio, and makeup gain until you can hear every word of the performance clearly. If the threshold is down very low but certain words are still getting lost, turn up the ratio. If the compression sounds too aggressive, turn down the ratio.

Knee

Sometimes, you can hear the compressor clamp down on a vocal when it hits the threshold. This can often sound unnatural and distracting.

The solution is to dial in a softer knee. This will cause compression to ease in as the signal approaches the threshold, making the transition from no compression to compression more subtle and less obtrusive. This approach works well on mellower tracks, where transparent dynamic control is often desirable.

On the other hand, a hard knee will make the compressor react more aggressively when a vocal hits the threshold. This can help put a lid on vocals that need to be tightly controlled.

Vocal compression settings: knee control

While some compressors offer independent control over this parameter, others have fixed knees. It’s worth researching the knee shape of your favorite compressors, as this will play a large role in the way they react.

How To Nail The Perfect Knee

If the sound of the compressor kicking in is too noticeable, soften the knee until the problem is solved.

For more on compression, check out 9 Compression Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making.


Do you have a trick for finding the perfect vocal compression settings? If so, share it with the world by adding a comment below!