As I recently covered, there are essentially four types of audio compressors. They all vary in both how they operate and essentially what they do in how they compress. Some compressors like VCA or Vari Mu style compressors are ideal for applying to a bus in your mix. They work okay on vocals, as well, but they’re not what I or most mixing engineers reach for first when they want to compress vocals. Let’s talk about the best compressor for vocals.
The Best Compressor for Vocals
When I compress a vocal, I generally use at least two compressors (see how many compressors to use on vocals for more information).
When you have a relatively dynamic vocal, meaning one which alternates between being very soft and very loud, it’s asking too much of one compressor to do the job on its own. To get the compression you need on an especially dynamic vocal, you generally need to run the ratio higher and threshold lower.
At worst you can hear the compressor working, at best you’ll have an unnatural sounding, squashed vocal.
This is why the answer to what is the best compressor for vocals is twofold: one to control the peaks, another to smooth it out after that.
This really is the technique for getting the best results, so let’s talk about each one individually and the best vocal compressor for each role.
Controlling the Peaks
The best compressor for vocals in specifically taming those peaks is typically a FET compressor modeled after the famous 1967 Universal Audio 1176.
After some tuning and an EQ, this is the first compressor in my vocal chain. Pictured above is the Arturia Comp FET-76 plugin which is modeled after the UA 1176.
Set the attack and release on the faster side (on an 1176 modeled unit this means a higher number to the right) to catch those peaks. The lowest ratio (see compressor ratio explained), a set 4:1 works just fine for our purposes for a transparent compression.
After that all you need to adjust is your input level. Again, we want to move this higher to the right until we’re getting 3-5dB of gain reduction.
It bears worth mentioning to be sure to reference the loudest section of your vocal on that track to get that 3-5dB. If you just listen to a random section of your vocal and get that reduction, that means it will jump higher on the loudest part when it happens. Too much gain reduction and we start to hear the compressor working no matter which plugin we’re using, so keep that in mind.
Subtlety is the key, even when we’re aiming to tame the highest spikes in our vocal.
Adjust your output as necessary in order to achieve a similar level as the input.
Smoothing Out the Vocal
The other half of the best compressor for vocals “coin” is to smooth out the your already compressed signal.
I typically drop another compressor immediately after the FET on my vocal chain, and I usually go for an optical compressor.
Whereas the FET compressor leaves a small footprint in the form of some warm coloring on your audio, optical compressors are known for being transparent.
They’re also not meant for heavy lifting, meaning you generally don’t want to set too low a threshold and overload them with a lot of signal.
The Waves CLA-2A is far and away their most popular opto compressor and vocal compressor for good reason.
It’s a simple interface and it sounds excellent. Despite being an optical compressor it does impart a bit of saturation via its tube emulation. They offer the CLA-3A as an alternative without the sound, but I use the 2A on virtually every mix I do today.
Here the only thing you really need to adjust as the peak reduction. I set it to where I’m averaging 1dB of gain reduction, and 2-3dB only at the loudest remaining peaks.
This smooths out your vocal, gives it a bit of warmth, and should give you the tight sound you want while preserving some natural dynamics in the vocal.
At this point, the vocal should be sitting in a good place.
I still recommend some vocal automation to give the vocal more life and to ensure no syllables or words are lost.
Occasionally I’ll add one last compressor to the vocal chain after any additional processing like saturation, chorus, etc.
One last optical compressor can provide a bit of glue at the end of the chain. If the vocal still sounds a bit too loose, this will tighten things up.
Best Compressor for Vocals Tips
- Generally the two best “styles” of compressors for vocals are FET and Optical.
- Try an 1176 style compressor with a 4:1 ratio and fast attack and release first to catch and control peaks.
- Aim for 3-5dB of gain reduction from this first compressor at the loudest parts.
- Follow this up with an optical compressor to smooth out your signal.
- Aim for 1dB of gain reduction on average, and 2-3dB of at the loudest parts.
- Drop one more optical compressor at the end of your vocal chain to shore it up.
- Remember that compression is no substitute for automating your vocal.