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Compressing a Dynamic Lead Vocal

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Controlling Lead Vocal Dynamics with Compression [Excerpt]
Controlling Lead Vocal Dynamics with Compression [Excerpt] - youtube Video
Alright, cool, so now that we’ve got that going, let’s start bringing in these vocals and see what happens.


So what’s going on with this voice is sort of an interesting thing, and this is a challenge that I think comes up — you know, reasonably often.

So this vocal is bright and dark at the same time. When you listen to anything that isn’t an “s” or a “t…”


It sounds like it’s run off. But when we hear the esses and t’s come in…


Like, you can hear how much that “s” spikes.

So what we want to do is we want to control this vocal in a number of ways.

First of all, we want to control the dynamics in general. Then we really specifically want to control the high end content alone using some kind of a multi-band, and then we want to brighten the vocal overall.

So this is how we’re going to make this vocal pop without becoming harsh, and it’s going to take a little bit of work. As you can see, it’s a pretty dynamic vocal, we have some pretty harsh spikes that are happening throughout. It has been compressed, there’s clearly some compression going on, but it’s going to take a little finagling.

So, there’s a lot of tone — like, a lot of harmonic things going on in the voice.


Like, there’s a lot of already saturated quality to the sound. So I want to be a little bit cognizant of over saturating the vocal. So to begin with, I’m actually going to use a very utilitarian compressor, and my choice for that is pretty much always the FabFilter C2, or the Sony Oxford Dynamic thing. Both of those are really cool.

So for a vocal, I usually like a combination of the attack of the compressor to work between the attack and the knee, and I’m going to try and explain this as clearly and succinctly as possible.

So the knee, when you set the threshold of your compressor, that’s what’s saying, “Okay, this level of amplitude is going to start my compressor working.” What the knee does is it actually begins the compression at a lower level of amplitude, so if I set the knee to 10dB, we’re going to start getting compression action 10dB below the threshold, so it’s going to trigger a lot earlier, but it’s not going to trigger with as much of a ratio. The ratio is going to get — it’s going to increase toward our target ratio as it approaches the threshold, if that makes sense.

What this means is two things. First of all, we get a more transparent sound, because the compression is working over a wider part of the signal. The other thing is that it changes the attack constant, because remember that the quieter parts of the signal are happening at the earlier parts of the signal.

So when we use a wider knee, like 10dB, we’re effectively speeding up how fast the compression is going to act, so if we want to have the feel of slow attack compression, we can set our attack to like, 15 milliseconds, and we can turn our knee up, and that’s going to create a faster action, but the sound of a slower compressor, if that makes sense.

This is pretty important for vocals. Particularly like, Pop vocals in this style, because if we want a transparent compression feel, then we want to not have it — the compressor going “huh,” and jumping in really quickly.

So I’m going to use those things to sort of — you know, go between those two ideas to get a knee setting and attack setting that works.


When I’m doing this, I’m going to turn the ratio up pretty high.

[mix, adjusting vocal compression]

I think I — for learning purposes, this sort of sucks actually, but I think I kind of got it right right off the bat, but I think I’m going to turn the attack fast just so you can hear the difference.

[mix, faster compressor attack on vocals]

You hear how it feels like it’s being choked right now? Like, the attack and the knee are making it work so fast, that it almost feels like the singer is being strangled.

So now, I’m going to start slowing the attack down and keep the knee where it is.


And now it still feels like the vocal is breathing. It’s not as dynamic.

[mix, before vocal compression]

But you can feel how that feels too dynamic. It feels too up and down.

[mix, after vocal compression]

Then I’m going to speed up the release, and basically, with a Pop vocal, I almost always want the release to be basically as fast as I can get away with, with very little exception. This is almost like a front-to-back control. The faster the release is, the more forward the vocal is going to feel.

[mix, adjusting release]

Cool. Turn the oversampling on.

[mix, compressor with oversampling]

And I’m going to back off the ratio. I think a pretty high ratio is going to work, because this vocal is pretty dynamic, but you know, obviously, thirty to one is pretty hard.

[mix, adjusting ratio]

Now we’ve got a nice controlled vocal.

Now, I might do further compression down the line, depending on how dense the record is getting, depending on — you know, maybe I want the compression to create an effect or something like that.

But right now, we’re sort of doing the repair work. Mya has a very difficult voice, because of the way she sings. She sings in a very breathy, airy kind of way. She sings very close to the mic, and it’s a stylistic thing, but it is challenging to work with, so the next step here is going to be using some split band processing to just sort of keep the high end in check.


Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch:

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