How to Compress Vocals – Part 2 of 2

By | December 17, 2014

Continued from Part 1.

Getting the dynamics spot-on

Very often the vocals I receive are too dynamic, which means the loud parts can have sudden peaks that are too much, and the softer parts are just too quiet to hear in context of a song. This is the case especially if no compression was used in the recording stage, which is usually a good thing because compression can always be added afterwards. In this section I’ll show you how to compress vocals as a whole, and tailor its dynamic range to fit into a mix.

A dynamic vocal

A dynamic vocal. Spot the difference between the largest peak and the quiet parts.

The main goals I have for vocal dynamics are:

  1. Hear every single word
  2. Get a professional sounding feel to the vocal

Songs would be pointless if one could not hear what the singer is singing. If some words are being drowned in the mix, the compressor comes to the rescue. My favorite method for bringing out quiet words and details in a vocal is fast attack, fast release compression, with a capable compressor such as Waves CLA-76.
Try it if you have problems not hearing every word properly, or want to bring forward low-level details.

Set the ratio to 3:1 or 4:1, attack and release to as fast as possible, then adjust the threshold to get a healthy -3 to -6 dB of gain reduction. Adjust the make-up gain accordingly to level match the loudest parts, and you’ll hear the difference. Tweak the attack to let some transients through if needed, for a less “squashed” sound. Tweak the release for a less in-your-face, and a more gentle sound. The attack and release knobs are great tools to adjust the vocal to your personal taste.

When done, you should have a nice, rounded vocal which sits nicely in the mix. You can try stacking more than one compressor to flatten it out even more, if you didn’t achieve desired results.

Waves CLA-76 - one of my favorite compressors for the job. Fastest attack and release, 6dB of gain reduction.

Waves CLA-76 – one of my favorite compressors for the job. Fastest attack and release, 6dB of gain reduction.

Original and compressed vocal

The original vocal on top, and the CLA-76 processed version on the bottom. Notice how the quiet parts gained more level, while the peaks were flattened a bit.

Hiss, you shall not pass

A very critical and often overlooked part of a vocal is the high end, especially the annoying, ear-abusing “ess” –sounds. Just like working with the low midrange, you can use the same tools but focus on the highs. Usually, the annoying frequencies lie above 3000hz, all the way up to the frequency spectrum.

My method of highlighting the problem frequencies is, set up a single-band compressor like we did tackling the low mids (or use the EQ into compressor trick), crank your monitors so you hear the annoying frequencies and where they “hurt” your ears, create a narrow filter area and sweep it around until you find a spot where the compressor starts attenuating the bad frequencies and the vocal actually turns out sounding pleasant. Set a large ratio so the compressor can act more like a limiter.

Custom de-esser

Custom de-esser. Notice the sidechain filter is calibrated to 3-18kHz, as that is where the “ess” lies in this vocal, which is highlighted and played as a loop on the right. Fastest attack and release to quickly tame the bad frequencies, 10:1 ratio and 6dB of gain reduction was enough to do the job.

You have just created a custom de-esser. Well, you could’ve just used a simple de-esser plugin in the first place, though I believe when you do things the hard way, you’ll actually learn more and find applications you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

When you get the “esses” under control, the music can be played louder and the cold sounding frequencies won’t be bothering the listener anymore.

I hope these techniques have helped you in your vocal mixes, as they sure have made my life easier. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below as usual.


 Listen to these song examples, to hear compression in action

Drake – Furthest Thing (Extremely compressed vocal but doesn’t sound squashed. Suits the dirty vibe of the track and low mids are perfectly under control. Love it.)

Coldplay – Always In My Head (Huge vocal sound. Great, radio-style vocal compression. Listen to the “esses” in this one, de-essing is done beautifully.)

Dido – My Lover’s Gone (Very dynamic and natural vocal, not too compressed at all. Every word is heard though, and shows that it can be done without excessive amounts of compression.)

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