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Once recording and editing are finished, audio engineers can take advantage of the training in Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools to punch up the final output. Digidesign Certified Expert Brian Lee White covers all the basic mixing tools that every producer and engineer should know, from using EQ to add clarity and focus to using compression and limiting to maximize track levels within a mix. Brian stresses the importance of setting up a solid mixing plan prior to any work in Pro Tools, and gives advice on the best plug-ins for each stage of the process. Exercise files accompany the course.
So, did you ever wonder how the lead vocal in your favorite song just sounds larger than life, upfront, full, present, sometimes in your face, but always in control? Let me let you in on a little secret. The proper use of compression is going to be the main component in giving your vocalist the celebrity treatment. So, why does a vocal need compression? Effectively compressing the vocals is generally the difference between something that sounds like a record and something that sounds like a bad night at a karaoke bar.
So, you see the voices are wildly dynamic instrument. Some singers are better at controlling it than others, but most all can benefit from the additional support provided by a good compressor. So, if we think about a vocal's place in the mix, we have to understand that in most songs, it's the most important element. Every word needs to be audible and it needs to communicate the lyric and the message of the song effectively. But at the same time, words popping out too far from the rest of the mix can make a vocal sound weird and unpolished, unless that's the sound you are going for.
So, if we take a look at Joshua's vocal and specifically the compression here, let me just play you a before and after example, before compression and after compression. (Music playing) (Male singing: Trouble bound.) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) (Music playing) So, I think you could hear some of those phrases died out, like "we hit the town," barely peaked through the middle of the mix.
And the next phrase got way too loud. It kind of, like I said, sounded like a bad night at the karaoke bar. But when we kick in the compressor, everything just evens out and the vocal comes to the front of the mix and he really sounds like a star. (Music playing) (Male singing: Trouble bound.) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) (Music playing) So, in this context, what the compressor is doing is it's taming those peaks so when he gets too loud and notes sort of pop out from the rest of the mix.
But the make up gain on the compressor is also pulling out any of those words that are too low. So, it's making sure that every word is audible but it's also in a sense filling out his vocal, making him sound larger and more present. Now, in this case, I chose to use the BF76 compressor and the BF76 is a compressor that comes with Pro Tools and it's an emulation of the 1176 outboard analog compressor. This is a very, very famous compressor and a lot of engineers really like using it because it retains a lot of the presence of the original track.
It doesn't suck away a lot of the high end. And it's also got a really unique character to its Attack and Release components. Now, it is a little bit different than other compressors in that it doesn't have a threshold control and you don't see a makeup gain. However, we do have the Attack and Release, but we are going to talk about those as those are a little bit different. So, whenever you come across a compressor that doesn't have a threshold, that generally means it's working with a fixed threshold. That means the threshold is set some point in the circuitry of the compressor and it's fixed.
And the way you get gain reduction is by driving the input into that fixed threshold. So, here if we are going to pull this down and I'll play this back, I'm going to make sure this is set to gain reduction on the metering, and I'm going to drive the input until I see the gain reduction that I want to get out his vocal. (Male singing: Trouble bound.) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) Now, once I have driven the threshold with the input, I'll use the output to match the volumes.
So, generally, what we try to do is match the uncompressed with the compressed sound. What that allows us to do is evaluate the quality of the compression as opposed to just turning it up in the mix. I think a lot of times, people use compressors and they take the makeup gain or the output and they kick them up really hot, and when they punch the compressor on, they are like oh, it instantly sounds better and a lot of times, it's just louder. So, a lot of people associate louder with better. So, what I would like to do with my compressor is make sure that roughly what's going in is coming out level wise.
Now, you are going to hear this signal fill out more. So, it's going to seem louder but keep that in mind when you evaluating the compressor. You want to evaluate what the compressor is doing, not just the fact that it's turning the signal up. Another unique feature of the BF76 are the Attack and Release controls. You can see that they are not measured milliseconds, and this is really confusing for people, as they would imagine that generally, in terms of milliseconds, 1 would be faster than 7. But in fact, this is reversed.
7 or clockwise is faster than 1 or counter- clockwise, and the same is true with the Release. 7 is the fastest setting, 1 is the slowest setting. Now, the 1176 has really unique Attack and Release characteristics, and so it kind of doesn't behave the same way that the DigiRack Dyn 3 compressor behaves. So, you want to play around with this but generally, if you do the 10 and 2, 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock or in this case, it would be 3 and 5.
You are going to be able to get some really great sounds out of it. And if you play around with the Attack and the Release, specifically the Release, you can get some really awesome sustained sounds. So, let's listen if I push this all the way up to 7. (Male singing: Trouble bound.) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) And so, I tried pushing this release to 7 on something like a snare drum or something that you really want to bring the sustain out of the tail of the envelop.
That's really, really cool. Now the Release control on the 1176 is much more sensitive than the Attack control. In terms of Attack range, we are talking about a very narrow range in milliseconds but Release is a much wider range. You can go from really fast to really slow, whereas Attack is kind of like, fast to insanely fast. Now, the ratio here is set by buttons, so you have 4:1, 8:1, 12:1, 20:1. There's even this mode what's called All Buttons In that you can engage by Shift-clicking.
And what it is, it's not 20+12+8+4. It's still 20:1, but it's sort of changed the characteristics of the transfer curve or the knee sort of how the compressor reacts to really loud signals over the threshold point. And so you can get some unique sounds with that All Buttons In control. So, back to the idea of using compression on vocals. Using compression on vocals is generally a good example of blending compression. We are trying to blend something to sit better in the mix.
So, each word sits nice relative to the other words in the phrase and then sits great against the rest of the mix. So, in terms of how much gain reduction do you need to achieve that, how much compression and what ratio, well it really varies from vocalist to vocalist and especially from genre to genre. So, if it's a jazz singer and you are really trying to retain a lot of the dynamics, you don't want to crush it with 20 dBs of gain reduction. But if it's a rock song, sometimes that hyper-compressed sound really works well.
I find that I have a better time setting up the compression on the vocal, if I do it in the context of the mix. So, what might sound like too much compression in isolation or soloed, usually works okay when it's sitting in the context of the mix. You will be surprised how much compression is happening on some pop or rock songs where there is literally no drift or dynamic in the vocal. And like I said, it varies from genre to genre. So, you want to kind of work towards reference material, listen and see if you can identify if the vocal in one of your favorite mixes has a lot of compression, a little compression, whether they are using a fast Release and getting a lot of sustain and a lot pumping from the compressor or they are using a slower Release, so it sounds like more natural dynamics control.
One thing you do want to be careful of on vocals is setting the Attack to slow so that a lot of the word gets through. It can miss the word and it can cause the compressor to kind of spit and overdrive a little bit, especially if you drive it really hard. You don't want to have the Attack set to fast either because what that can do is rob presence from the vocal. And typically, when I compress a vocal a lot, I'll EQ it after I compress it to regain some of the body and the high end that's robbed by the compressor.
And this depends on what kind of compressor you are using and how much compressing you are using. So, again, the proper use of compression in addition to EQ can really make the vocalist sound like a rock star. The amount you use in the style will vary based on the genre of music. But I would say that I use compression on vocals probably 99% of the time in my mixes. Sometimes it's only a tiny little bit, a few dBs of gain reduction, and sometimes I'm squashing it beyond recognition. Again, use reference material, listen to your favorite music and see if you can identify how much compression they are using on the vocal.
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