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How To Set The Attack Time On Your Vocal Compressor

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Keep watching to learn a quick and simple way to set the attack time on your vocal compressor. Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers. And before we dive in, make sure you grab my free vocal compression cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below. So first of all, what is the attack time? Well this is a parameter that you’re going to find on most compressors. So here’s the stock ProTools compressor. The compressor in your DAW might look slightly different, but chances are you’ll find the same controls – things like ratio, attack, release, threshold. The attack time’s right here, and this parameter basically determines how quickly the compressor reacts to a sound after it gets too loud. So all that a compressor is doing essentially is listening to a sound, and as soon as the sound gets too loud, as soon as it goes above the threshold – which is this control right here – then the compressor’s going to react by turning the sound down. That’s all it’s doing. The attack time is basically telling the compressor how quickly do we want that compressor to turn things down once that sound gets too loud. A fast attack is going to tell the compressor as soon as that sound gets above the threshold, as soon as it gets too loud, we want you to jump in there and turn it down right away. Don’t wait at all. A slow attack time on the other hand is going to tell the compressor to hang out a little bit. We don’t want you to pull it down right away, we want you to kind of wait and ease into it a little bit. Now this parameter has a very significant impact on sounds. It can dramatically change the way compression sounds, and it really can be used to shape and influence the sounds of tracks. When it comes to vocals in particular, I think of this control as a consonant control knob. So the consonants on a vocal – the cuh, buh, puh, those initial onsets on the words and phrases – those are the parts of the vocal performance that are going to be impacted by this control. A slow attack time is going to cause the compressor to bring out those consonants, to actually accentuate them, to make them louder. A fast attack time on the other hand is going to cause the compressor to turn those consonants down. So basically we can use the attack time parameter as a tool to control how much of the consonants we actually want in the vocal performance. So let’s take a listen here, I have a vocal pulled up. This is Dylan Owen, a rapper from a track “Everything Gets Old,” and first let’s just take a listen to this dry. ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets dusty ♪ ♪ Everything gets cold ♪ ♪ Until we do it all again ♪ ♪ Without the interruptions and – ♪ Okay, so the first thing I want to play for you here is this slow attack track. So I have a compressor here, and I’ve set it up with a fairly slow attack time – in this case 36 milliseconds. Now you don’t want to pay too much attention to these numbers because every compressor is different, and 36 on this compressor might be like 24 or 12 on another compressor. So don’t copy the numbers, just think in terms of fast or slow. So I want to flip back and forth between the dry and the slow attack now, and I want you to see if you can listen out for the consonants in particular. ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets dusty ♪ ♪ Everything gets cold ♪ ♪ Until we do it all again ♪ ♪ Without the interruptions ♪ ♪ And no longer can recognize ♪ ♪ The houses we grew up in ♪ ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ ♪ Until tomorrow, when we find a better way ♪ ♪ To end the century ♪ ♪ And suddenly we recognize ♪ ♪ The people that we’re meant to be ♪ So the thing that really sticks out for me is the beginning of the words and phrases. He feels like he’s kind of punching out the words more. We hear more of the puh and cuh and buh in those initial impact sounds right on the beginning of the words. So take a listen again, and let me see if I can find a specific spot and we can flip back and forth. ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets dusty ♪ ♪ Everything gets cold ♪ ♪ Until we do it all again ♪ ♪ Without the interruptions ♪ ♪ And no longer can recognize ♪ ♪ The houses we grew up in ♪ ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ So right around here you can hear it really clearly. So I’m going to flip back and forth again, and just take a listen to the initial onsets of the words, the punchiness in the beginning of the words. ♪ -thing gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ ♪ -thing gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ ♪ -thing gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ ♪ -thing gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ So you really can hear that that punch is being brought out pretty dramatically. So that’s what slow attack compression will do. Now the next thing I want to play for you here is fast attack compression. So you can see here, I have the same compressor set up, and the only thing that I really changed is the attack time. So I have a fairly fast attack, and this is actually 250 microseconds, not milliseconds, so this is below one millisecond. And now I want to flip back and forth, in this case let’s flip back and forth between the fast attack and the slow attack, and I want you again to listen very closely to the consonants themselves. So we’ll start with the slow attack and then we’ll flip back and forth. ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets dusty ♪ ♪ Everything gets cold ♪ ♪ Until we do it all again ♪ ♪ Without the interruptions ♪ ♪ And no longer can recognize ♪ ♪ The houses we grew up in ♪ ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets vintage ♪ ♪ Everything lets go ♪ ♪ Until tomorrow, when we find a better way ♪ ♪ To end the century ♪ ♪ And suddenly we recognize ♪ ♪ The people that we’re meant to be ♪ Let me try one more time. ♪ Yeah, well everything gets old ♪ ♪ Everything gets dusty ♪ ♪ Everything gets cold ♪ ♪ Until we do it all again ♪ ♪ Without the interruptions ♪ ♪ And no longer can recognize ♪ ♪ The houses we grew up in ♪ So to my ears, the main difference between these is that I’m not hearing as much of the punchiness on the beginning of the words, and it just sounds like it’s much gentler. There’s not as much of that punchy aggressiveness. So this is what attack time will do when it comes to vocals. And the real question you want to ask yourself when you’re setting the attack time on your vocal compressor is how much of the consonants do I want to hear? And listen to the sound of the vocal and ask yourself do I want more consonants – in this case slow the attack time down – or do I want less consonants? Maybe I’m hearing too much of that punchiness. In that case you might want to speed the attack time up. Now this is somewhat genre dependent because there are certain genres of music where we want the vocal to sound a bit more aggressive. We want the vocalist to sound like they’re spitting out the words and phrases, things like rock music or hip hop for example. So in this case, you might want to lean more on the slow attack. But if you’re mixing like a ballad and the singer is singing very softly, you’re probably not going to want that level of aggressiveness on the vocal. So obviously it depends on genre, it depends on the specific performance and the track that you’re working on. But hopefully you should now have a better understanding of what the attack time parameter actually does when it comes to vocals. Now again, if you want to dive deeper, I recommend that you download my vocal compression cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below. And that’ll give you more helpful tips and ideas for compressing vocals so that you can make your vocals sound professional and really feel confident that you can mix vocals like a pro. Now before you go, I want you to leave a comment below this video and let me know – do you feel more confident now approaching the attack time control on vocal compressors? Do you feel like you have a sense of what this control actually does now? I’d love to hear your response, so leave your answer in the comments section below. And for more mixing videos and tips like these, check out my YouTube channel here or go to BehindTheSpeakers.com.