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5 Compressor Plugins for Mixing Vocals (+ Mix Tips)

The human voice is one of the most dynamic musical instruments, and therefore presents unique challenges when recording and mixing. Here are the plugin compressors that I find myself using most frequently when I mix vocals.

1. The 1176/LA2A Combo

Plugin emulations of these two classic compressors are a dime a dozen. While I have my own preferences, most on the market are pretty great and are mostly faithful to their hardware counterparts, and at a fraction of the cost. Individually, they’re wonderful tools for mixing vocals, but when used in series (and in a specific way) they’re on a whole new level (pun intended).

Mix Tip:

Start with the 1176, and set it so that only the loudest passages of the vocal performance are being compressed. A medium-to-fast attack/release should do the trick, and tweak the input/ratio so you see the desired amount of Gain Reduction. Next, insert an instance of the LA2A after the 1176, and set the Peak Reduction knob so that you’re getting a couple of dB of compression at any given moment.

The idea is that the faster or “grabbier” 1176 handles and tames the loudest peaks so that the LA2A is never pushed too hard and can focus on general, consistent compression duties. The resulting sound is smooth, warm and natural. If you’ve never done this — try it now. If you’re more of a visual learner, below is a video of the technique being applied.

2. FabFilter Pro-C 2

FabFilter has a different approach than most plugin companies. While most are creating tools that faithfully mimic the sonics and controls of tried-and-true hardware units, FabFilter has always been more interested in developing state-of-the-art plugins, complete with highly scientific visual interfaces and endlessly tweakable parameters.

For surgical work, which I find myself doing often when mixing vocals, they’re indispensable tools. If you’re interested in learning what compression actually does, the Pro-C 2 is a fantastic learning tool. The eight distinct compression “styles” built into the Pro- C 2 (including one especially for vocals) really place it head-and-shoulders above the competition when it comes to versatility.

Mix Tip:

In Pro Tools, I route all of my audio tracks through one of several sub-aux tracks. Generally, these auxes consist of Drums, other instruments, vocals and effects. I insert the Pro- C 2 on the instrument buss and using the vocal signal to trigger sidechain compression, subtly duck everything around the vocals. I’m not talking intense, EDM-style pumping, I’m talking one to two dB of gain reduction at most. This technique helps establish a defined space for the vocals, as instruments like guitars and synthesizers sometimes occupy the same frequency range as singers. I also use the kick and snare to trigger compression if they need to be a bit more prominent.

3. UAD Distressor

The Distressor is one of the most flexible hardware compressors, offering a lot of dynamic and tonal control over whatever you run through it. It’s one of those units that can be used transparently, but has a very distinct sound when it’s pushed.

I commonly apply well over 10 dB of Gain Reduction on vocals with this thing, and it still sounds awesome. Very few compressors can handle this kind of abuse while still sounding natural. The UAD version meticulously emulates all of the features of this wonderful unit, and in addition, incorporates the all-important Dry/Wet blend knob.

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Mix Tip:

Use the “band emphasis function” of the detector for taming harshness. What this does is make the unit more sensitive to nasty, mid-range frequencies. For singers that have a build-up in the mids, this feature really takes the edge off.

4. Softube/UAD Tube-Tech CL 1B

Another sought-after hardware unit that has been faithfully reproduced, available as a Softube Native plugin, and also for those of us that have UAD Hardware. When I want to achieve a smooth, warm sound, quickly, I reach for the CL 1B. If I’m in a pinch and don’t feel like going through the 1176/LA-2A gain-staging process, this is my go-to.

Mix Tip:

The Softube Native version has a sidechain option, so I use it similarly to the FabFilter Pro-C 2 method mentioned earlier. The CL 1B is not as precise — but is a great option when you’d like to add a bit of color to your signal.

5. Waves V-Comp

Modeled after a vintage Neve 2254 Unit, but updated with some more modern features, I find myself using the V-Comp for pretty particular applications. It doesn’t work on every singer, but when it does work, it’s a special sound. It’s not as precise and variable timing-wise as the other compressors here, but sometimes it’s just what a vocal needs. The De-esser makes it even more vocal-friendly.

Mix Tip:

The V-Comp is great for achieving an upfront sound. If you want your vocal to pop and sit closer to the listener than other elements, the V-Comp is my go-to. That said, it takes some tweaking to achieve what you want, but when you hit the sweet-spot with the V-Comp, you’ll know.

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Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in his new Mastering in the Box course.

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