Compression on vocals is a necessity 99% of the time. Even that last 1% can benefit from a little glue.
Compression on vocals can be used in a number of different ways, depending on your needs. You can use it to provide a bit of said glue, or you can use it to clamp and keep the vocal up front in your face so not a single syllable is missed.
Admittedly the latter isn’t the most natural sounding on its own, but in the context of the pop genre, this is typically what you want.
Let’s talk about how to use compression on vocals to get any result.
Compression on Vocals
When you’re working in a genre like pop which revolves heavily around the vocal, you generally want to keep it in the front of the mix at all times. This means lots of energy and little to no drop off on any phrases or syllables.
To do this, we’ll be using more aggressive settings for the compression on vocals in the ratio, attack, and especially the threshold as we grab more of the vocal than we normally would.
Specifically we’re aiming for a ratio 8:1 combined with a threshold to average 10+dB of gain reduction, attack time of 1-3ms, and release of 50ms.
We’re sacrificing more of the dynamics of the vocal to achieve this which admittedly doesn’t sound as natural, but it works well in genres or songs when we want that vocal front and center.
Note that while not pictured, we want to go with an average to hard compressor knee to relatively strictly enforce our threshold. We can get away with this because we’re compressing the majority of the vocal.
This technique also works well on excessive vocal dynamics when you’ve got a difference of 10dB, 15dB, or even more between the quietest and loudest points in a vocal.
This upfront compression on vocals is perfect for pop or any genre where you’ve got a lot of things going on and want to keep the vocal visible. Even in a genre like rock when you’ve got the guitars up front, you still want a constant vocal presence.
Transparent Vocal Compression
If you’re working with a vocal in a more “organic” genre, with less digital features and more organic/tangible instruments, you likely want a more transparent vocal compression. Even if you’re not, you just want a more natural sounding vocal, meaning more dynamics, try these settings for transparent vocal compression:
Here you want to use a more average ratio of 4:1 so we’re not hitting those peaks as hard. Coupled with threshold set to the average level of the vocal, we’re leaving the quieter parts of the vocal untouched, averaging 5-10dB of gain reduction with 10 on the greatest peaks. Turn the attack up to 3ms as a starting spot to keep a bit more of the transient punch, and go for a softer knee to apply some lighter compression leading up to that threshold.
These are good starting settings to go with for a more transparent compression on your vocal, giving you control while keeping those natural dynamics relatively intact.
Parallel Compressed Vocal
I love parallel compression on vocals for filling in gaps. If I need a vocal MORE up front in your face, I’ll blend in some more parallel compression.
If my more subtle and natural compression isn’t quite keeping that vocal present enough, I’ll blend in a little parallel compression.
With parallel vocal compression we want to use aggressive settings particularly on the threshold and ratio, catching the entire vocal at a 20:1 or higher ratio. The attack is 1ms is less as we aren’t as concerned with the transients with parallel compression because we’re blending it in alongside the dry vocal.
This gives it a bit of thickness which can help our vocal sit right in the mix regardless of whatever we’re trying to keep it upfront or go with the aforementioned more transparent settings.
There you have it, three different approaches to compression on vocals to cover all bases.
Whether you want your vocal constantly upfront, a more transparent and natural approach, or parallel compressed vocals to blend in, use these compression settings to get your vocal exactly where you need it in the context of your mix.