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Vocal Compression: How To Easily Compress Vocals Like A Pro

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Hey, this is Jason from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today you’re gonna discover how to compress vocals like a pro. This will immediately help you craft vocals that sound clear and balanced, and cut through any mix.

Now, before we dive in, I also put together a free vocal compression cheatsheet that summarizes everything we’ll be covering today, and also includes some additional tips and tricks that will take the sound of your vocals even further. So if you wanna download this free cheatsheet, you can click the link in the description below or up there on the video and you’ll get instant access right now.

So before we get too deep into compression, I just wanna talk for a second about what the goal for vocal compression actually is, because a lot of people are kind of confused. You know, “Why should I add a compressor to a vocal? “What am I really trying to do when I pull that compressor up,” right?

The first thing I wanna say is that a lot of people talk about compression using all these fancy buzz words (you know—color, character, vibe) but the truth is, the primary goal of compression, especially when it comes to vocals, is to control dynamics.

So when I say dynamics, what I mean is that often times, when we record a vocal, there’s a very big difference in level between the quiet parts of that vocal performance and the louder parts. And so we would say that this track has a large dynamic range, right?

So you’ve definitely run into this if you’ve recorded your own vocals. Let’s say you record a take of you singing through the whole song, and then you’re trying to find the right spot for that fader in the mix, right? And so you might set the fader so it kinda sits in a certain place in the chorus and maybe the vocal sounds great there, but then when it goes back to the verse, suddenly the vocal sounds too quiet, right? It feels like it disappears or maybe it sounds too loud.

So this is a dynamics problem. And primarily, when we’re using compression on vocals, we’re really concerned with how do we control and shape the dynamics of the vocal so that it sits evenly throughout the course of the entire song?

For now I would say just avoid even thinking about color and character and vibe and all that other stuff that people love talking about. And I’m not saying it’s not important, but really, focusing on that primary goal, how do I control and shape the dynamics of the vocal so that I can hear every word clearly, will never lead you in the wrong direction.

So first I wanna talk about how to set the attack time on your vocal compressor.

So the attack time controls how much of the initial impact of words and phrases gets let through that compressor. And you can almost think of this as like a consonant control knob. So a slower attack time is gonna let through a lot more of that initial impact on the words and phrases, those consonants, the kuhs, and puhs. And the impact is that those sounds are gonna become more aggressive. This can add energy to a vocal, it can make the vocalist sound like he or she is spitting out the words and phrases more aggressively.

On the other hand, a fast attack is not gonna let as much of that energy through. It makes the vocalist sound smoother, not as punchy and aggressive. And it also has the affect often of pushing the vocalist back in the mix. Of actually making the vocal sound slightly further away from us.

Which should you choose? Well, it really depends on the vocal itself and what you’re trying to achieve. But I wanna jump into my DAW and show you the effect that a slow or a fast attack time has on a vocal, so you can get a sense of what this sounds like and how you might use it to shape the vocals in your mix.

Okay, so I have a vocal here from a track called “It Starts Today” by Leah Capelle. And before we dive in, I just wanna play this for you dry, without any compression, so we can get a sense for what it sounds like first.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

So I’m gonna pull up this track here. Now, this is just a duplicate of this dry track. And on this track I have two different versions of the same compressor. I’ve tried to match these as close as possible, so there’s no difference in level, but really the only meaningful difference between these two is that one of ’em has a slow attack. So you can see here, this attack is at 20 milliseconds which is fairly slow. And one of them has a fast attack, so this is .5 milliseconds which is basically as fast as this compressor will go.

So I wanna play these two and kind of jump back and forth between them and let’s take a listen to the differences and see if we can point out how the different attack times are shaping the sound of this vocal.

Let’s start with the slow attack compression. I want you to take a listen.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

Immediately, what jumps out to me is that the sound of the consonants feel like they get brought out. So I wanna play this again and I’m gonna flip back and forth between the dry version of the sound, so this is without any compression, and then the version of the sound with slow attack compression. And I want you to take a listen and take notice of the beginnings of the words and phrases, the consonants, the uh, and puh, and kuh, and all of those initial onsets of the words.

So take a listen to the track first, dry again, without any compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

And now with slow attack compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

So you can hear the consonants get brought down. It sounds like she’s kind of singing more aggressively, she’s kinda punching out the words a little bit more, and that’s because the compressor is letting through a lot of that initial energy at the beginning of the notes.

To contrast this, I wanna take a listen to fast attack compression now. And I want you to notice the sound of the consonants and kind of compare this in your head.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

So you can hear there’s a significant difference on the beginnings of the words and phrases. So we don’t hear as much of the consonants coming out. It feels like things are a lot smoother and more controlled.

So take a listen again and I’m gonna flip back and forth between the sound of the slow attack compression and the fast attack compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

So you can really hear it on the front end of the notes and phrases. If you’re having trouble identifying this, listen to the “I” on “I won’t tell you.” So right at the beginning of this first word. Take a listen again.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your ♪

♪ I won’t tell you ♪

♪ I won’t tell you ♪

♪ I won’t tell you ♪

So you can hear on that slow attack compression, that “I” punches down a lot more, it feels like she’s spitting out that word. Whereas on the fast attack compression, that initial onset of the note is just subdued, right? It sounds like it’s not as punchy and aggressive.

So this is really the main difference between slow attack compression and fast attack compression when it comes to vocals. So really, if you think of the attack knob as a consonant control knob, that can be very helpful within the context of the mix.

So next I wanna talk about how to set the release time on your vocal compressor.

So the way I think about release time on a vocal compressor, is it allows you to control how much of the low-level details on the vocal you want to bring up. So a fast release time means the compressor’s gonna get out of the way very quickly. And the impact of this is that a lot of the low-level stuff on the vocal, the kind of ends of the words and phrases where the vocalist kind of trails off, gets brought up.

So the effect of this is that often, it can make the vocalist sound more urgent and give a vocal more kind of aggressiveness and impact. And this works really well on rock and pop stuff where you really wanna add a lot of energy to the vocal. Because if you think about it, if you bring up a lot of those low-level details, let’s say the tail ends of words and phrases, or the breaths, it makes the vocalist sound more urgent and aggressive. Like, if you take a big breath in and then start singing, we’re kind of tuned to pay attention to that, right? It sounds like, oh, that vocalist is about to say something important. Whereas a slower release time is not gonna bring up as much of that energy. And so the vocal sounds a little bit mellower and more natural.

As always, all of this stuff kind of really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. But I wanna jump into my DAW and show you the impact of a fast versus a slow release time so you can get a sense for what this sounds like and how you might use it to shape the vocals in your mixes.

We’re back in Pro Tools and I have the same vocal track here from Leah Capelle. And if you take a look at the two versions of this compressor I have on this track, you’ll see the only real difference, other than some level matching, is the release time. So on one of these compressors, the release time is set very fast, and on one of them the release time is set kinda slow.

I wanna play these back-to-back and I want you to get a sense for kind of the differences between them. Listen to the way that she comes off the words and phrases and listen to the quiet parts in the performance and listen to the breaths. So kind of the tail ends of the words and phrases.

So first, let’s take a listen with the fast release compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

And now slow release.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

So right away I notice that the fast release compression sounds much more urgent to me. It seems more aggressive. There just seems like there’s more energy.

So I wanna take a listen to this one part here of the performance, and kinda zero in on this ‘cause I think this demonstrates kind of what I’m talking about here.

So let’s take a listen to the fast release compression first. And I want you to listen to the way she comes off this word here and then the breath leading into the next word.

♪ On the wire, our feet ♪

Take a listen again.

♪ On the wire, our feet to ♪

And now let’s take a listen to the slow release compression.

♪ The wire, our feet to ♪

♪ The wire, our feet ♪

And now I’m gonna flip back and forth between them.

♪ The wire, our ♪

♪ The wire, our ♪

♪ The wire, our ♪

♪ The wire, our ♪

So it’s subtle, but on the fast release compression, a lot more that of that breath is getting brought out and a lot more of the kind of tail end of that word is getting brought out. On the slow release, we’re not hearing as much of that low level energy.

And so, over the course of her performance, by bringing up a lot of that low-level detail with a faster release, we can make her sound like she’s singing with more passion, because the breaths come up, the tail ends of the phrases come up, and it just sounds like she’s singing a little bit more urgently.

So, again, there isn’t one right choice here, but depending on the sound that you’re trying to go for and the genre and style that you’re trying to nail, you might choose to go for one versus the other.

So next I wanna talk about ratio. Now the way that I think about ratio is it really controls how aggressive the compressor is. So a higher ratio means the compressor’s gonna clamp down more aggressively on a vocal. It’s gonna control it more tightly. And this can be helpful if you have a track that’s widely dynamic, where there are huge peaks and valleys and you really want to kind of control it and really make it kind of sit really evenly in the track. Whereas a lower ratio is gonna make the compression more gentle and less obtrusive, more transparent. This typically works better for jazz, acoustic music, folk music, stuff where you really don’t wanna hear the sound of the compressor or even notice that it’s happening. You just really wanna more transparently control the dynamics of the vocal.

So typically, more aggressive compression would be, I would say above 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, whereas a more natural kind of a lower ratio would be 2:1, even 3:1, that’s getting a little bit more aggressive. You should experiment and don’t take any of those numbers as rules, more so guidelines for getting started.

So now that you know how the different parameters on a vocal compressor work, I wanna talk about how to actually put this stuff into action. So how do you actually go through the process from start to finish of applying compression to a vocal?

So a couple of tips I wanna give you here. The first is that you should try to make your compression decisions in context with the rest of the mix playing. We’re not just trying to make the vocal sound good on its own, we’re trying to fit the vocal in with the rest of the mix. And so instead of soloing the vocal and pulling up a compressor and tweaking things, listen to the vocal playing with all the other tracks in your mix and compress it while everything else is playing.

Now the next tip I have for you when you’re compressing vocals is to use a framework that I call Concentric Circles. Now, the way to think about this is that, a lot of people, when they’re applying a compressor to vocal, immediately will start making really fine movements. So they’ll grab the attack knob and just push it up a little bit, or the release knob and pull it down a little bit. This isn’t the best approach. So when you first start, when you first throw a compressor on a vocal, you should start by making really broad circles. Really cranking them, right? And maybe you crank the attack knob all the way to the left and then all the way to the right and listen to those gross movements and kind of get a sense for what you prefer. And then, as you’re moving through the process, you kind of circle in on your movements and you start making finer and finer adjustments.

Next, I wanna jump into my DAW and show you how I apply compression to a vocal from start to finish.

Okay, so we’re back in Pro Tools, and I have the same lead vocal we’ve been playing around with here. But this time I have the lead vocal as well as all the other tracks in this mix. So we have everything together and we can start making decisions contextually, based on how this lead vocal is fitting in with everything else.

I just wanna play it first, without any compression, in context with the rest of the tracks in the mix.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

♪ Tell ’em right ♪

Okay, so it sounds like overall, the level of the vocal is not terrible. It feels like it’s sitting above the rest of the mix. I like where it’s sitting in the mix but it feels like certain words are getting lost, certain words are too loud, so the vocal’s a little bit too dynamic for my taste. I wanna kind of rein that in a little bit so the vocal sits more evenly in the mix.

The other thing that I’m noticing is that there’s so much energy in this track, we have all these guitars, the drums are playing, and it feels like the vocal doesn’t quite match that energy. I wanna see if we can use compression to add a little bit of urgency and aggression to this lead vocal.

So let’s add a compressor to this vocal. And now you’ve noticed me use this Oxford Dynamics compressor a couple times, and the reason why I like this is because it’s so versatile. You can really do just about anything with this compressor. But if you don’t have this plugin, don’t worry. You don’t need to go out and buy it. Really, any compressor you have is gonna work fine. Even the stock plugins in your DAW. So don’t let the plugin that I’m using hold you back.

So the first thing that I wanna do is set this compressor up so that it basically is set to kind of the average or medium setting, so a good starting spot. And the good news is this preset that pops up exactly as-is when you pull up the compressor is a great place to start. So we have a medium attack time, a medium release time and a medium ratio. And I don’t want you to copy these settings because the truth is, if you apply these exact settings to a different compressor, you might get completely different results. So the settings don’t always transfer perfectly from compressor to compressor.

And the first thing I’m gonna do is play the track and I’m gonna turn down this threshold knob until I start to see some compression on these meters here. So the important thing to realize here is that all of these decisions are gonna be made with the rest of the tracks playing. You’re not trying to make this vocal sound good on it’s own, you’re trying to make it fit with the rest of the mix. So it doesn’t matter what it sounds like in solo, you wanna make these decisions in context with the rest of the tracks playing. And I promise you, if you can do this, your vocals are gonna sound a whole lot better.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

Okay, so we’re starting to get some compression. We can also hear that to vocal’s getting a little bit quieter. And this is what’s gonna happen because compression turns things down, right? So as I’m turning down this threshold, I’m gonna turn up the make-up gain, and try to compensate for the loss of level so that there’s basically no difference in volume when I flip this compressor in and out of bypass.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the ♪

So I’m gonna give it a little bit more compression ’cause I’m still feeling like the vocal needs a little bit more dynamic control.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

♪ Tell ’em right now we’re gonna be free ♪

♪ Don’t need you to taking care of me ♪

Okay, so you can see when I flip this in and out of bypass now with three and a half dB of make-up gain, there’s no difference in level. We have some compression going, we have some make-up gain, and right away I’m hearing an improvement. So the vocal sounds like it sits a little bit more evenly in the mix. I’m not hearing as much of a dynamic range. So take a listen, first without any compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

And then with compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the ♪

So it’s sitting a little bit more evenly, right?

Now, the next thing I wanna play around with is the release time for it. So I really want that low-level detail to come up, I want the vocal to feel aggressive. So I’m gonna play this track again and bring this release time down so that we’re a lot faster.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

So you notice when I brought the release time down, the overall level of the track came up and that’s pretty common. So I’m gonna back off on the make-up gain and kind of compensate for that level increase and then check my decision here and make sure that there’s no difference in level again when I flip this compressor in and out of bypass.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

♪ So tell ’em right now we’re gonna be free ♪

Cool, so that sounds great to me. I’m hearing a lot more of that lower-level detail now and the vocal just sounds a little bit more urgent and aggressive.

And something I just wanna note here, as you’re kind of seeing as I’m going through this process, hopefully, all these parameters relate to each other. So the place that you have your threshold at is gonna impact your make-up gain, and your release time is gonna impact your make-up gain, and so we’re not adjusting these things linearly. We’re kind of going, again, going back to that concept of Concentric Circles. So we’re starting kind of broadly and just adjusting all these moves, all these parameters kind of quickly, and then as we go through this process, we’re gonna kind of circle in on all of these parameters and adjust them a little bit more closely.

So let’s take a listen to the vocal now with our settings.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

♪ So tell ’em right now ♪

Things sound a lot better. You know, the vocal feels like it’s sitting a little bit more evenly. The main thing that I hear is that there’s a lot more energy and just emotion on the vocal, it sounds a little bit more aggressive, and that’s because of that fast release time.

Now, one of the things that I am still hearing, is it feels like the vocal’s still a little bit too dynamic for me. I’m gonna turn up the ratio a little bit to make this compression a little bit more aggressive, so the compressor kind of clamps down on the vocal a little bit more.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get ♪

So when I turn that ratio up, you can hear the vocal actually gets quieter because now there’s more compression being applied. So I’m gonna go back to my make-up gain and boost the output level on the compressor.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

So I’m hearing that the compression is a little bit too aggressive for my taste now with that higher ratio. So there are two ways that I can make the compression a little bit less aggressive. I can either back off on the threshold so that there’s a little bit less compression going on overall, or I can back up on the ratio a little bit. So I’m gonna play around with those and kind of see what the effect is.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

So you notice when I backed up on those, the level got louder again. So I’m going back to my make-up gain, and I’m gonna adjust that and turn it down a little bit so the track stays at the same level.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck ♪

So again, we’re making these circles, right? We’re going through all the parameters and kind of narrowing in as we go. And so we’re making finer and finer moves as we kind of dial in these settings.

I wanna add a little bit more compression. I’m just feeling like the vocal is a little bit too dynamic so I’m gonna bump this ratio up a little bit now.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

♪ So tell ’em right now we’re gonna be free ♪

♪ Don’t need you taking care of me ♪

So let’s listen without compression.

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet ♪

And now with compression

♪ I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪

♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪

♪ Our feet to the fire ♪

So you can hear the vocal sitting much more evenly in the mix. It sounds like it has more energy, emotion and impact. Again, this is kind of the general approach. So we’re making these broad circles where we start with really big movements and then we narrow in as we go and make finer and finer adjustments. But we’re constantly doing everything in context with the rest of the mix playing.

So I hope you enjoyed this video, and if you’re looking to dive deeper, I put together a free vocal compression cheatsheet that summarizes everything we covered today, as well as some additional tips and tricks that will take your vocals to the next level. So if you wanna download this, you can click the link in the description below or in the video, and you’ll get free instant access right now.

Thanks so much for watching. You can check out more mixing tips at BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.

Video features music by Leah Capelle.