Vocal Compression: How To Compress Vocals

Talkin Music

When it comes to vocal compression then you need to be armed with the best dynamic processing tools. Meaning you need a good compressor with a good character, sound-wise (I would recommend the same for EQ). Not all compressors are built the same and they have different tonal color, so you need to find one that will work well with the vocal performance you’re currently working on.

A good vocal compressor is the CLA-2A by Waves Audio, it adds a nice color to a vocal and makes it rich. It uses a slow attack and smooth release, but wont be a good example for this tutorial as it only has a few knobs so it’s an advanced dynamic processor.

As an alternative I’ll use the cubase stock compressor as an example. Yes I’m a cubase user 🙂

Feel free to use any compressor.

Vocal Compression Settings

Unfortunately there’s no one size fits all setting when it comes to vocal compression or compression as a whole. You just need to be hands on and practice till you get it right.

The music I make is Jazz and more African influenced so I always keep things as organic as possible but for some hardcore stuff then feel free to use as much compression as needed. But too much compression will kill all the dynamics and make the vocal performance sound unnatural. It will also bring up the background noise, the plosive and sibilance will be exaggerated as  well.

The key is to tame out the loud peaks and leave some parts uncompressed. Below I have an image of a vocal performance before and after compression. I also added the compressor settings in case you want to see them visually and a before & after waveform.

Step by Step Vocal Compression Process

Here’s a process I use to find the right compressor settings for a vocal. Although I always start by testing a lot of different compressors, for this tutorial we’ll just skip to the settings.

The 1st thing I do is make sure there’s no compression taking place by taking the threshold to zero. Then find the softest part of the vocal performance and play it to check how loud it’s peaking. Do the same thing for the loudest peak as well.

For our example the softest part on is peaking at -15dB and the loudest part at -9.2dB. Right then I know I need a gain reduction of about -5.8dB to make the loud and soft part to be equal.

But that’s not the effect I’m after so bringing the loud parts down by maybe –4dB might do the trick. At the moment I’m just assuming and trying to picture the final results in my mind. The material will tell me how much gain reduction will work.

Soft Peak Example

Loud Peak Example

If you look in one of those images you’ll see how I setup my settings before compressing. I make the attack as fast as possible with a long release and high ratio so that when the compression kicks in it becomes obvious and easy to control.

All I do from here is to increase the threshold till compressor starts squashing the signal then bring it back up again to find a sweet spot. Then after that’s when I start shaping up the envelope (attack and release). The final step is finding the right ratio.

When using the Cubase stock compressor, a gain reduction of -9dB was messing up the dynamics and was sounding obvious that the vocal is getting squashed. A gain reduction of -6.8dB was working perfect.

A fast attack on the vocal was sounding dull and was starting to distort so I used a slow attack. The slow attack also kept the vocals punchy and more clearer. A fast to medium release time was working well to smooth out the compression.

I kept the hold parameter at zero because I didn’t like the effect it was creating on the vocal performance. A ratio of 4:2 worked really well and wasn’t squashing the dynamics too much.

A Make-Up Gain of 4.2dB didn’t have much difference when compared to the uncompressed signal but the compressed signal was more punchy and clearer.

Here’s an image of the final compression settings:

After Compression

Those are the settings after compression. You can compare this image with the ones above to see the major difference.

Right below I have the difference of the waveform before and after compression.

Wavform - Compression Difference

As you can see the difference is obvious because I exaggerated the make-up gain a bit. But it’s still sounding natural with those settings.

Compression is bringing down the volume of the loudest parts and bringing up the softest parts of the vocal or any other sound. These settings will work well for the lead vocal part. The compression settings for the lead and backing vocals wont be the same.

The settings will be a bit exaggerated so that the harmony vocals don’t overpower the lead or jump-up in other parts of the mix.

Getting a good sound is all about experimenting. But I hope you find some good info on this tutorial and if you have some questions then leave them below I’ll respond.

5 thoughts on “Vocal Compression: How To Compress Vocals”

  1. Hi Michael !

    Nice article on compression here. I think you did well to take a sort of ‘case study’ approach instead of giving a general “use these values” approach.. As that never works any better than selecting a preset (which.. Yes… Doesn’t work :-))

    Looking forward to more articles!

    • Hey Kevin,

      I think case studies always work best to help people understand and put the knowledge in practice. I’m really glad you like the tutorial. Thnx for reaching out. I like your site as well, keep up the good work 😉

  2. Wow…am a cubase user…this read is great…i enjoy using the studio eq in cubase and c1 compressor in wave….thanks for this great article
    FB- Hwere Noble icon Francis
    I.G – nobleicon26
    Lets hook up. Thanks

  3. Hey kavin, I’m very happy to get this lesson because I’m cubase user and i didn’t know the difference between compresed vocals and uncompressed one, but now I’m clad because you make me boooommm.
    So keep it up my man. i like you , may God bless you and your family.

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