The human voice like most acoustic instruments tends to be very dynamic when recorded. While this enables us to produce a wide variety of sounds from intimate whispers to barbaric shouts, that variety of dynamics can be difficult to fit into a song's mix. In fact there aren't many instruments the human voice included that are designed specifically to sit in the middle of a huge 100 track pop mix. So they often need a little help to reduce their dynamic range using a compressor. My strategy when it comes to compressing vocals in a mix is pretty simple.
Make the singer sound like a star. This means confident, larger than life vocals that sit in the mix like they were meant to be there, not strapped onto a background track like a bad night at the karaoke bar Now, I'm not going to lie. A great sounding vocal track comes from a great vocalist. There isn't any mix magic or super expensive compressor that's going to take a lifeless, half-baked vocal track and turn it into the performance of a lifetime. The singer needs to sell the performance during the recording stage. Compressing will only help take a great take and make it sound better.
Let's take a listen to an example from the song Say Yes by Iyeoka. Here's a sample of the lead vocal track without compression. Listen to how some words pop out while others can't be heard. Now listen to the vocal with compression and how the level is more consistent. Take a look at the muted track labelled vocal process for a visual representation of what the compressor is doing to the waveform. If you'd like, pause the session and zoom in to take a closer look. An uncompressed vocal often sounds a bit disconnected from the mix. Like it doesn't really belong with the rest of the instruments.
Regardless of the volume level I set the vocal at in the mix, there are bound to be certain words that stick out too far, and others that get buried behind the music bed. I like to think of compression on the vocal as serving two main functions. First, being simple dynamics control so I can hear what the lyric is saying. And the second being tonal shaping and firming. So the vocal takes on a larger than life quality and really connects with the listener. Again, listen to the mix and pay attention to the automate the settings to apply compression. And because compression doesn't like in a vacuum, after adjusting the compression, I'll add a bit of reverb and delay to sit the vocal into the mix.
Dynamics control of a vocal is a two stage process of tucking in the louder words and phrases and turning up the result, allowing the softer notes to sit at or near the level of the louder ones. This is achieved by pulling down the threshold until the latter word starts to trigger compression. About 60 b's on average of game reduction in this case. And then making up the lost in signal level using the output gain. Notice that I'm using a ratio of about 6 to 1, and attack of 10 milliseconds, and a release time that allows the compressor to recover between words.
I'm also using soft knee setting to help the compressor ease in to the ratio and sound more transparent. Once I have the vocal sitting in the mix using compression, I will then consider adding volume automation to perfect the balance over each section and fine tune any trouble spots that still stick out or fall below the mix. As I listen to and adjust other tracks, I may come back to the vocal and adjust some of the settings to increase or decrease the total amount of gain reduction. Or try a different compressor, depending on how the mix is shaping up. This same technique works for almost any instrument in your mix.
Once you determine that a track needs a bit of compression, start small and work your way into the sweet spot. Throughout this course, I'll tend to process audio examples a bit more aggressively for greater educational impact. But you generally want to avoid over compressing the signal unless that's the effect you are going for.
This course covers 26 techniques for improving your mixes with compressors, processors, EQ and filters, reverb, delay, and modulation. The first chapter covers compression and dynamics processing, including how to even out vocal performances and how to add punch to drum tracks. The second chapter goes into EQ and filtering techniques, such as creating complimentary EQ curves and EQ-ing FX returns. Next, the authors explore delay and modulation techniques, including using long delay on key lyrics and creating flanger and phaser effects. The last chapter explores reverb techniques including using gated reverb and supporting a track with regenerative reverb. .
Download the free exercise files and open them in Pro Tools to start training, or simply watch the videos here at lynda.com.
- Using compression to even out vocals and add punch to drums
- Maximizing mix loudness
- De-essing a vocal track
- Using EQ to fix problems and place elements
- Automating EQ
- Using long delay
- Creating slapback echo
- Creating a flange effect