I’m going to start writing about mixing and production tips on this blog from time to time. There’s a lot of great information out there online and also a lot of completely wrong ways to do things. The best way I learned when I started out was from just being in the same room with mix engineers and watching them. Probably the most valuable part of me watching and studying mix engineers was taking notes. Because if you’re anything like me, I would usually forget whatever I had learned the next day unless I wrote it down. I ended up always carrying around with me this giant notepad full of tips at all times. It pretty much became my music reference bible. I recommend you doing the same. Try keeping some form of notation of all the music tips you get from people that you think are worth trying. It’s easy to forget things with so much information being thrown at us everyday.
Below are just some general rules I go by when compressing vocals in a mix. Hope you get something out of these.
1. When compressing vocals, I usually hit them relatively hard with the compressor. This is especially true for a big pop mix as the vocal is usually competing with a ton of tracks. My go to compressor when mixing vocals “in the box” is the MasseyL2007. If you can’t afford that plug-in, the wavs R-vox is always a solid choice.
2. Be careful using presets on compressor plugins as they can’t tell you how much gain reduction is going to work for your specific signal. This is where it’s best to just use your ears.
3. I usually use fast attack and release times for vocal compression. Generally though, it’s always good to set attack and release times by ear as well. Most compressors are very signal dependent.
4. When I record vocals with hardware compressors, it’s mainly to get the warmth, depth, and character of that particular compressor. My favorite hardware unit is the Thermionic Culture Phoenix-SB tube compressor. That thing is smooth as silk.
5. Whenever you use a compressor in conjunction with an EQ, play around with putting the compressor either before or after the EQ as both places might produce a different musical feel…. especially if it’s a full-band type compressor. For instance, let’s say you’re boosting low frequencies on your EQ, when you put a compressor after the EQ, the compressor will respond to the loudest signal peaks. In this case, it will most likely be the low frequencies that you just boosted. This might give you a completely different desired musical result then if you put the compressor before the EQ.
6. Good rule of thumb to go by when compressing vocals and in general is that over processing is almost always worse then under processing whatever audio file you’re working with.
7. Great way to learn about vocal compression is just listening to the radio. Pick out some of your favorite mixes, and A/B the mixes with yours.
8. Pay attention to breaths coming from the vocal after you compress. They will be brought out a lot more. Make sure you gain stage these down as they can become distracting from the vocal. Some people like to get rid of the breaths completely. I don’t recommend that as it doesn’t sound natural to my ears.