Compressor Plugin 101: The Best Vocal Compression Settings

compression vocal production
Compressor Plugin 101: The Best Vocal Compression Settings

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As a home studio music producer or recording engineer, understanding how to effectively use a compressor plugin on vocal tracks is one of the most important skills you will need to learn to achieve the desired sound quality and clarity. In this article, we will look into the world of vocal compression settings, focusing on how you can optimize your compressor plugin to enhance the vocals in your mix. By mastering these essential tools and techniques, you can take your vocal production to the next level and create professional-sounding vocal recordings that stand out in any project. Get ready to learn everything you need to know about setting up the best vocal compression settings with this step-by-step guide.


Understanding Vocal Compression

  • What is vocal compression? 
    • Vocal compression is the process of reducing the dynamic range of a vocal track. It evens out the volume levels, making quiet parts louder and loud parts softer.
  • Why use vocal compression?
    • Compression helps control peaks in volume, allowing vocals to sit more consistently in a mix.
    • It also adds presence and clarity to vocals by bringing out nuances that may get lost without compression.
  • How to set up a vocal compressor:
    • Insert a stock compressor from your DAW or a your favourite VST plugin directly onto the vocal track.
    • If you have any EQ, the compressor will typically follow it in the vocal processing chain.


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Initial Compressor Settings

  • Threshold: Set the threshold to a level where the compressor starts working when the vocals exceed this point. Look at the gain reduction meter to see how much compression is happening.
  • Ratio: Begin with a ratio of 4:1 for vocal compression. This means that for every 4dB over the threshold, only 1dB will pass through, effectively reducing dynamic range.
  • Attack: A medium attack time is recommended for vocals to maintain dynamics. faster attack time will tame transients and maintain clarity in the performance.
  • Release: Start with a fast release time to allow the compressor to smoothly let go of gain reduction after peaks.

Pro Tip: If you start with a slow or medium release time it's going to be very difficult to understand what is happening. Always start with a FAST release time. 


Adjusting the Threshold and Ratio

  • Threshold: The threshold determines when the compressor kicks in. Set it just above the quietest parts of your vocal performance to catch any sudden peaks without affecting the overall sound too much.
  • Ratio: The ratio controls how much gain reduction is applied once the signal crosses the threshold. For vocals, a ratio between 2:1 and 4:1 is commonly used. Start with a lower ratio for a more subtle effect, then increase as needed for greater compression.

When setting these 2 key parameters, listen carefully to how they affect your vocal track. Make small adjustments until you find a balance that evens out dynamics without sounding overly compressed or unnatural. These settings can vary depending on the style of music and individual voice recording, so trust your ears to guide you towards achieving optimal vocal compression settings.



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Adjusting Attack and Release Times

  • Attack Time: The attack time determines how quickly the compressor starts to work after the vocal signal exceeds the threshold. A shorter attack time will react faster to sudden peaks in volume, while a longer attack time can allow some transients to pass through unaffected.
  • Release Time: The release time controls how long it takes for the compressor to stop compressing once the vocal signal falls back below the threshold. A shorter release time can result in a more aggressive sound by quickly reducing gain reduction, while a longer release time can create a smoother, more natural sound by allowing the gain reduction to taper off gradually.

By experimenting with different attack and release times on your compressor plugin, you can customize the dynamics of your vocal track to suit your desired outcome. Keep in mind that these settings are subjective and may vary depending on the genre of music or specific effects you're trying to achieve.


Adjusting the Output or Makeup Gain

  1. Output Level/Makeup Gain: After applying compression to your vocals, it's essential to adjust the output level to unity gain so the level of the vocal is the same with in engaged or bypassed.
  2. Auto Makeup Gain: This feature automatically boosts the overall gain of your vocal track after compression. Some people prefer to do this manually as the auto version is often too loud.


A/B with the Bypass Button

  • A/B Testing:
    • Before settling on your final vocal compression settings, it's key to A/B test.
    • This means comparing how your vocals sound with and without compression applied.
    • Use the bypass button on your compressor plugin to toggle between the two states quickly.
  • Fine-Tuning:
    • While A/B testing, pay attention to how compression affects the dynamics and overall feel of the vocals.
    • Listen for any artifacts like pumping or excessive sibilance that may be introduced by the compressor.
  • Iterate and Repeat: 
    • Make adjustments based on what you hear in each comparison until you find a setting that enhances the vocals without sacrificing their natural dynamics.
    • If the vocal sounds better without the compression, try adjusting the settings again until you like the sound.


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Also read: 

The Best Equalizer Settings: The 5 Step Magic EQ Settings that work on everything!

Best Equalizer Settings for Vocals, Instruments & Mixes

The Ultimate Guide to DAW Vocal Production for Beginners



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