Dynamic Music Compression Settings for Vocals - dummies

Dynamic Music Compression Settings for Vocals

By Jeff Strong

Because music compressors are used and abused so frequently in home recording, it might be helpful for you to have some basic settings for vocals to get you started. This will hopefully save you the headache of ruining a few tracks before you get the hang of this powerful tool.

Lead vocals

Some recording engineers think compression is a must for vocals. It evens out the often-erratic levels that a singer can produce and tames transients that can cause digital distortion. You can use compression on vocals to just even out the performance and to create an effect.

If you use a compressor to even out a vocal performance, you don’t want to hear the compressor working. Instead, you just want to catch the occasional extremely loud transient that would cause clipping.

A good compression setting has a fast attack to catch the stray transient, a quick release so that the compression doesn’t color the sound of the singer, and a low ratio so that when the compressor does go on, it smoothes out the vocals without squashing them. Typical settings may look like this:

  • Threshold: –8dB

  • Ratio: 1.5:1–2:1

  • Attack: <1 ms

  • Release: About 40 ms

  • Gain: Adjust so that the output level matches the input level. You don’t need much added gain.

If you want to use a compressor that pumps and breathes — that is, one that you can really hear working — or if you want to bring the vocals way up front in the mix, try using the following settings. These settings put the vocals “in your face,” as recording engineers say:

  • Threshold: –2dB

  • Ratio: 4:1–6:1

  • Attack: <1 ms

  • Release: About 40 ms

  • Gain: Adjust so that the output level matches the input level. You need to add a fair amount of gain at this setting.

As you can see, the two parameters that you adjust the most are the threshold and ratio. Experiment with these settings and check the effects of them by toggling between the affected and unaffected sound (use the Bypass switch on your compressor).

Backup vocals

What about compressor settings for backup vocals, you may ask? Try a setting that’s midway between the invisible compressions and the pumping and breathing compressions. Such a setting brings your background vocals forward slightly. Your settings may look like this:

  • Threshold: –4dB

  • Ratio: 2:1–3:1

  • Attack: <1 ms

  • Release: About 40 ms

  • Gain: Adjust so that the output level matches the input level. You don’t need to add too much gain.