Over all the years and mixes that I’ve done here at Long Island Studios and The Lexington School for Recording Arts, I have found that vocal compression is one of the hardest parts of your mix. It seems that many times it’s a chore to get vocal to sit on top of the mix all the time without getting covered up by the instruments. Today I'm going to tell you the way I like to set up vocal compression, as well as a few other ways that you may want to try.
Normally in rock music, you want the vocal to stay on top and out in front at all times, but a vocalist is a very dynamic part of your mix. So how do you do this? The answer is compression. I like to use either the Waves Renaissance compressor or the CLA 1176 simulation, but any decent compressor can get you the results that you need.
I set my compressor up so that when the vocalist gets loud they are getting around 10 to 15 dB gain reduction. I know that this may seem like a lot to some of you, but it will guarantee that the vocal is even as it can possibly be. Now, the attack and release of the compressor play a big role in getting this done correctly. I generally set my attack times to 1 or 2 ms. On the 1176 compressor, the attack times run from "1" to "7" with "1" being the slowest. With some research, I found out that the "1" setting is around 1 ms, so that works out well doesn't? On the Renaissance compressor, as well as other compressors, you generally have a sliding scale to tell you how many milliseconds your attack time is so that could be an easier path for you to go.
When it comes to release times, that part of compression is constantly changing from song to song. The two main options are to either have the release time set very quickly and be releasing for every single word, or holding for a longer period of time (say 600 ms or so) to capture the entire line of vocal before releasing in time to catch the next line. The problem sometimes with fast release times is that if it is too fast, then you can get some audible distortions on the track. The problem with longer release times is that you may get some kind of a "pumping" effect because the compressor is slowly releasing as the line gets quieter. What I like to do, is have a fairly fast release time, usually in the 150 to 300 ms range. On the CLA 1176, the release time is also a range of "1" to "7", just like the attack time. The "1" is 1 second and the "7" is 50 ms, so I tend to have mine set to around the "5" area. Then I just set the threshold to allow me around 10 dB of reduction, and use the output to gain to get the vocal back up to the volume that I need. Most of the time, this will get my vocal on top and "in your face" how I want it to be, so that every word is heard correctly and nothing is covered by the band.
For a more dynamic vocal, the same settings can be used, but just set the threshold so that instead of getting 10 dB of reduction on the loud parts, you're only getting around 3 to 6 dB of reduction. Then,set your output volume so that the loud parts are as loud as you want them to be, and the quieter parts will remain how they were recorded - without added compression.
Another way of getting somewhat "in your face" style compression (without the possible audibility of squashing the track), is to set up multiple compressors that are only compressing a few db each. Many times, this way of compressing a track allows you to compress in order to just control the peaks and then if anything breaks through, the second compressor will clamp down and keep everything even.
Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!
Head Engineer, LIRS