Dynamics in vocals are natural. When a singer delivers a vocal melody, certain words or phrases will be louder than others either for emphasis or out of the necessity of belting out higher pitched, more difficult to sing notes. What about OVERLY dynamic vocals, to the point when it becomes difficult to mix?
Compression alone typically can’t get it done because there’s not a one size fits all setting. We’re either overcompressing everything to the point that we remove the dynamics completely, or we’ll be left with a disparity where some parts still sound weak. Either way we’ll hear the compressor working.
Let’s talk about the best way to mix extremely dynamic vocals.
How to Process Dynamic Vocals
There are a few techniques to get overly dynamic vocals in order. I’m talking a difference of well over 10 decibels between the quieter and louder parts.
I’ve got a clip displayed below where level bounces back and forth between -20dB on the quieter bits (sometimes lower) and -6dB peaks. There are things we can do to get these 14 decibels (if not more) down to a more manageable and better sounding dynamic difference.
You can actually use these techniques as steps in this order to get control over even the most dynamic vocals.
The first thing to think about is separating the vocal into more precise sections. Many engineers simply record a vocal take all the way through on a single track.
Oftentimes there’s a large difference in the level of a vocal from the verse to the chorus.
By virtue of song structure, the most memorable melodies are typically saved for the chorus. Part of that typically involves the highest notes in the entire vocal of the song.
Between belting out the chorus melody for emphasis or necessity to reach those higher notes, the amplitudes of the waveform are much higher and louder in the chorus vs the verse.
By separating the verse and chorus (and even the prechorus and bridge) melodies for vocals all onto different tracks, you suddenly have a lot less dynamic range relative to that specific track.
A difference of a few decibels between the quietest and loudest points makes compression easier and yields more natural results.
More than that, this allows you to do additional processing differently for each section to further contrast each section with the others.
You may even want to separate your vocal into more drilled down tracks if your verse or chorus melodies themselves are overly dynamic.
Even after breaking up your vocal by sections of the song, you might still have a lot of dynamics that you want to tame.
Vocal automation can be used after the rest of our vocal processing to keep your vocal on top of the instrumental as the music rises at particular moments in the mix.
Additionally, we can automate our vocal at the front of our vocal chain in order to manually control overly dynamic vocals. Specifically, we can pull down the highest peaks with gain staging in mind to get the dynamics into a more manageable range.
Aim for -18dB on average via a gain plugin, then pull down the peaks so that you’re peaking at -12dB to -10dB at most.
This helps to feed a more consistent signal into our compressor so that it doesn’t have to work quite as hard.
A plugin like Vocal Rider can also be used to automatically pull the level up and down relative to a target volume.
That said, I find these plugins usually work better and sound more natural with more conservative settings. I prefer an automatic rider plugin more at the end of the vocal chain to add a little liveliness to the vocal than using it to control a dynamic vocal.
Typically if you’re working with an overly dynamic vocal, you likely want to manually perform the automation yourself for more natural and generally better results so you can hit those targets.
Lastly, we have compression for controlling overly dynamic vocals.
Assuming you did the last two steps, the dynamics should be a lot more manageable at this point.
You can use my recommended compressor settings for vocals:
… and also note that you should use more than one compressor to split the workload between two or more compressors (see how many compressors on vocals).
The first compressor can be used to tame those remaining peaks for 3-6dB of gain reduction followed by another to smooth out the remaining signal 1-3dB.
All of these steps together should take what might have initially been 10-20 decibels of dynamic range and turned it into a more manageable difference which sounds naturally controlled while maintaining some dynamics at the same time.
If you want to try compression first or without separating sections or automating your vocal, you’ll have to dial up some aggressive compression settings.
Set your compressor threshold to catch even the lowest audible musical parts of your vocal with a ratio of 4:1 or 8:1 for especially dynamic vocals, and an attack of 1-3ms.
Grabbing your entire vocal via the aggressive threshold is key for keeping your vocal controlled and consistent. Just bear in mind that you may need to attenuate breaths and other ambient sounds you likely don’t mean to catch, so it’s something to listen for.
Dynamic Vocals Tips
- Overly dynamic vocals are typically described as those with at least 10 decibels or more of dynamic range, making it difficult to control via compression alone.
- It’s best to manage an overly dynamic vocal BEFORE compression to get a more natural result.
- Try breaking your dynamic vocals into separate sections of verse, prechorus, and chorus (if not more granular) to reduce the relative dynamics of each section of the vocal (and further process each one differently).
- Manually automate each section if necessary with gain staging in mind to average -18dB and pull down the peaks to max out at -10dB at most.
- Use multiple compressors as the last step; one to tame the remaining peaks then one more to smooth out the new output signal to have a well controlled vocal with some natural dynamics intact.