How To Set The Release Time On Your Vocal Compressor

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In this video, you’ll learn how to set the release time on your vocal compressor.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers. And before we dive in, make sure you also grab my free vocal compression cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below.

So first of all, what is release time? Well release time is a control that you’ll find on most compressors. So let’s take a look at this compressor right here. This is the Waves version of the 1176, which is a classic, iconic compressor that’s been used in studios for a long time.

Now regardless of whether you’re using this specific plug-in or the stock compressor in your DAW or some other plug-in, chances are you’re going to find a control on your compressor called release. It’s right here on this specific plug-in. And what the release time does is it basically tells the compressor how quickly to let go of a sound once it’s started compressing.

So all that a compressor is doing is listening to a sound, and as soon as the sound gets too loud, as soon as it goes above a point that we call the threshold, the compressor reacts by turning that sound down, that’s all that compression is.

Now, if that sound goes above the threshold, there’s going to be a point where it dips back below the threshold again. And at that point, the compressor needs to let go, it needs to stop compressing. Now a fast release time is going to tell the compressor as soon as that sound goes back below the threshold again, we want you to let go of that sound right away. We want you to stop compressing, and bring the sound back to its natural volume. A slow release on the other hand is going to tell the compressor, you know, we want you to wait a little bit. We want you to release the sound right away. We want you to slowly come back to no compression.

Now this control can have a dramatic effect on the sound of tracks. And when it comes to vocals, I like to think of this control as a low-level detail knob. So what I consider to be low-level details are the quieter parts of a vocal performance – the tail ends of the words and phrases, the breaths, the low-level stuff, the little mouth noises – all the things that often get lost in a performance. And the release time control basically allows us to determine how much of that stuff we want to hear. So a fast release time is going to bring up a lot of those low-level details, it’s going to make them sound louder. Whereas a slower release time is not going to bring up those low-level details as much.

So whenever I’m setting the release time, this is what I’m thinking about. How much of those lower-level details do I want to hear in the vocal performance. So now that you know what release time is, I want to play for you a few examples of different release times on a vocal track so you can start to get a sense for what this actually sounds like. So I have a vocal here from a track called “Mourn” by Dylan Owen, and this is either Chanele McGuinness or Regina Zaremba. I’m not quite sure, but both of them have been credited on this track.

So the first thing I want to play for you is the dry version of this vocal. So this is without any compression at all.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

Let’s take a listen to the fast release time now. So I’ve set this compressor up with the fastest release time possible. Now one little quirk on the 1176 – and if you’re using an emulation of the 1176, chances are it works the same way – the knobs actually work backwards from the way that most compressors do. So the fastest release time on the 1176 is actually all the way at 7, so all the way to the right. Whereas chances are if you’re using your stock compressor or something like that, the fastest release time is probably all the way to the left.

Now it’s not important which specific value you use when you’re setting this control, and a lot of people get distracted by trying to figure out how many milliseconds they should use on their release time trying to figure out exact numbers. I want you to ignore that for now, because the truth is every compressor reacts differently. And one millisecond on one compressor might sound like five milliseconds or ten milliseconds on another compressor. So for now, I want you to just ignore specific numbers, and just think in terms of fast and slow.

So let’s take a listen to the fast release time. And I’m going to flip back and forth between the fast and dry, and I want you to listen out for the low-level details in the performance – so the tail ends of the words, and the breaths, and the quieter parts of the performance itself. So we’ll start with the fast release, and then I’ll flip back and forth between that and the dry.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I just get over it ♪

♪ And follow the bread crumbs home again ♪

♪ I know that they might leave me off ♪

♪ Somewhere different this time around ♪

♪ It’s all I’ve got ♪

♪ Just a little bit of light left for the unlit road ♪

So one of the main things that I noticed in the fast release version of this vocal track is I’m hearing a lot more of the breaths, a lot more of those quieter breaths are being brought up. There’s a couple of other things I just want to point out here. So the tail ends of the words where she kind of trails off a little bit, the compressor is actually bringing up a lot of that low-level detail. So let’s see if we can find a specific part of this and take a closer look.

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

Okay, so let’s take a listen here, and I want to flip back and forth between this snippet on the dry and the fast release. And again, just listen to the low-level detail at the end of this vocal phrase, so the tail end of that final word and then the breath.

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

♪ – can hardly talk ♪

Now the fast release is a bit louder, but also we’re hearing a lot more of the quieter parts of the performance – right – the breath at the end of this phrase. And when she trails off that talk at the end of her phrase, we hear a lot more of that trail. So this is what fast release time does, it brings up a lot of those low-level details.

Now on the other hand, let’s take a look at the other approach to release time, which would be what I call a timed release. So in this case, we have a bit of a slower release time. And the way that I’ve set this up is I’ve basically set it up so that it is timed to the ebb and flow of the vocal performance itself. And a really easy way to do this is if you have a compressor that has a gain reduction meter like this one – you can see this is the meter right here – basically what I do is I play the vocal track through the compressor, and I set the compressor up so the needle kind of bounces in time with the performance. So I want to see it kind of ebb and flow with the performance itself. So let’s press play here, and I want you to just look at this meter here, and notice how it kind of moves and grooves in conjunction with the natural ebb and flow of the dynamics of the vocal performance.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

So see how it’s kind of pulling back at the end of the phrases and kind of bouncing in time with the performance? That’s the second approach here. So just to go back to this fast release time here, I’ve set the fastest release time possible. And in this second approach, I’ve used a timed release where I’ve basically slowed it down so it ebbs and flows with the vocal itself. And these are really pretty much your two options when it comes to setting release time. There’s not much more else when it comes to release time, and this really applies beyond vocals, pretty much to every track that you’re working on.

So let’s take a listen here, and I’m going to flip back and forth between the timed release and the fast release. And again, I want you to listen out for those low-level details.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I just get over it ♪

♪ And follow the bread crumbs home again ♪

♪ I know that they might leave me off ♪

♪ Somewhere different this time around ♪

♪ It’s all I’ve got ♪

♪ Just a little bit of light left for the unlit road ♪

So a couple things I’m hearing. I feel like the fast release time is much more aggressive and urgent. And this is something very interesting when you start to think about compression in terms of not only manipulating dynamics, but also manipulating the emotion of the performance.

So by bringing up a lot of those lower-level details, we’re actually making her sound like she’s singing a bit more passionately and urgently because those breaths come up, and those tail ends of the vocal phrases come up. It seems like there’s just an aggressiveness to the performance that we don’t get with this timed release. The timed release sounds much more natural, much more like the original performance itself. So this is when we start to get into the domain of emotion when it comes to compression. And we start to understand that these decisions that we’re making are not just technical decisions, they can actually manipulate the feeling that we get when we listen to a vocal.

So which should you choose? Which of these two approaches works right for you and the specific vocal that you’re working on? Well it really depends. Both of these are actually right approaches, it’s not like one is wrong and one is right, but it depends on the context. It depends on the track that you’re working on. Certain genres for example will favor maybe fast release. Like if you really want a vocal to sound super urgent and aggressive, you might go for a fast release time if you’re working with rock or metal or harder genres. If you’re working with something like jazz or acoustic music where you really want the vocals to sound more natural, then maybe a timed release is a bit more appropriate.

But the important thing here is that you understand the differences between these two approaches. And next time you’re compressing your vocal and you’re trying to figure out the right release time, ask yourself how much of that low-level detail do I actually want to hear. And if you want to hear more of it, and if you want the vocal to sound more urgent and aggressive, use a fast release time. But if you want the vocal to sound more natural and you don’t want to bring up a lot of that low-level stuff, then choose the timed release approach.

So hopefully you found this useful. And if you want to dive deeper, I recommend that you download my free vocal compression cheatsheet, which goes into a lot more detail on some of the other controls on your vocal compressor so you can get a handle on all the different parameters you’re going to run into on your vocal compressor, and learn how to approach compression with a lot more clarity and confidence so you can make vocals that sound professional and radio-ready and really stand out in your tracks. So if you want to grab this cheatsheet, again it’s completely free, just click the link above or in the description below.

And before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – do you feel more confident setting the release time on your vocal compressor now? I’d love to hear your reply, so leave your answer in the comments section below.

And for more mixing tips and videos like these, check out my YouTube channel right here or go to BehindTheSpeakers.com.

Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.