Dressed To Compress: Your Vocal Compression Cheat Sheet
Before we dive into vocal compression settings and how to compress vocals, let’s first conduct a quick debriefing on how a compressor actually works. Trust me, it’ll help later on.
Compression limits the dynamic range of the instruments or tracks it is applied to (essentially it makes the louder parts quieter in order to create a better balance).
Compression limits the dynamic range of the instrument or track it is applied to (essentially it makes the louder parts quieter in order to create a better balance). Compressors will vary depending on their type and who they are made by but each will generally have the same controls.
We also have a plethora of useful guides that you can also check out while you’re here (opens in a new tab):
Before you’ve even touched any compressor settings, figure out exactly why are you reaching for the compressor.
By going in with a plan, you…
Get closer to your desired results, faster
Have a greater chance of success than failure
Don’t waste precious time
I’ve listed out 3 common scenarios whereby you might reach for a vocal compressor. We’ll also provide some good starting points for appropriate vocal compression settings for each of the listed scenarios.
1. Controlling Dynamic Range (Dynamic Compression)
Is the vocal take varying too wildly in dynamics? Some passages might be too quiet while others are too loud (or vice versa). A compressor is one way to achieve greater control over dynamics and catch those loud peaks, but it isn’t always the best solution (more on this later).
Attack Time: 5ms (medium-fast)
Release Time: 20ms (medium)
2. Taming Transients (Tonal Compression)
Overly pronounced plosive words can be distracting from the vibe of the song if not tamed. Tonal compression is a good way to control them. A faster attack will tell the compressor to latch onto these sharper transients, helping to control the ‘plosives’ or percussive nature of the vocal take.
Attack Time: 10ms (medium-fast)
Release Time: 40ms (medium)
3. Accentuating Transients (Tonal Compression)
Conversely, you may find that the vocal take could benefit from having a bit more “bite” and “pop” to it. Tonal compression can also help bring out the energy of a vocal take and draw it closer to the front of the mix.
Attack Time: 30ms (slow)
Release Time: 40ms (medium)
Quick Notes On Genre & Style
As we’ve iterated again and again, it’s important to understand the reason for slapping a compressor on to a vocal take.
More often than not, your reason for doing so will largely depend on the genre and style. For instance, “I need a vocal compressor for this metal track because it needs to be able to stand out in a loud, full-spectrum mix”.
So, it’s of critical importance to serve the song’s needs and not just aimlessly use a compressor.
Here are a few broad guidelines when dealing with certain genres:
Heavy compression to bring vocals upfront is commonplace in modern Pop. The vocal is the money shot, and it wouldn’t be out of place to opt for an over-processed sound.
Again, super commonplace to use heavy compression. Rap requires that you pay close attention to the transients of the vocals, ensuring that the ‘plosives’ sound natural, clear and defined. You can often spot a bad rap vocal take by how (overly) exaggerated the plosives have been treated.
Rock is super versatile and as a result, you can get away with moderate compression (unless you are aiming for an A1-radio rotation release, in which case, Pop rules apply). Rock vocals are often double (and even triple) tracked, so compression plays a large role in gelling these multi-takes together as one “larger than life” instrument.
High-gain distorted guitars, frantic double-kicks and overdriven 5-string basses require the vocals to often be heavily compressed in most cases. Heavy compression is used to add both aggression and help them cut through the density of the mix.
Other Talking Points
The Compressor Isn’t Always The Right Choice
As mentioned above, the compressor isn’t always the best solution to your problem.
What if its only 5 seconds out of an entire 3-minute vocal take that requires compression? Should that be the right instance to use a compressor? I would vote, no.
Slapping on a compressor to the entire take to just fix a couple of words may cause more harm than good.
In an instance like this, you could:
Automate the compressor to only activate for that part of the song.
Use dynamic compression to only activate once the threshold criteria is met.
Use volume automation to iron this small issue out, instead of affecting the entire take with your aggressive compressor settings.
Don’t Be Afraid To Stack Compressors
Instead of “brute forcing” your 5:1 compression onto a vocal, try using two compressors at 2.5:1 instead. Dial each of them in to taste. You may find that you’ll achieve better control over how the compressors are reacting. One compressor could be taming the peaks, while the other is helping to dial in the transient shape.
Use Compression In Conjunction With Other Tools
Heavy compression will bring up harsh unpleasantries in your mix, like harsh “S” sounds and sibilance. Using a de-esser or dynamic EQ can help with this.
Pairing techniques like volume automation (riding the faders) with dynamic compression is a good way to help ‘lighten the load’ of how hard your compressor is working. This is useful if you are aiming for a less obvious compressed sound.
Like most things in audio, compression is a game of ‘give and take’. While compromising on one element of the sound, you are taking away another natural property of the element.
On a macro level, it’s often a balancing act between going for a “larger than life” sound, while also retaining realism, i.e. the natural, organic properties of the sound. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide how to serve the song best.