Vocal Compression On The Way In
Since the vocal (despite what your guitar-playing pals might tell you) is the most important element of any popular music mix, let’s start here.
Getting a vocal to sit well in a mix is a combination of compression, EQ and often volume fader automation.
It’s a fairly common practice to compress a vocal a little on its way into your DAW. This shouldn’t be an aggressive type of compression but rather just enough to tame some of the loudest spots of a vocal so that your overall recording volume can be hotter.
An approach to the vocal chain in my studio runs as follows: microphone into hardware preamp/compressor and then directly into my DAW. To get into the nitty gritty, I generally set my hardware compressor’s attack settings at around 30 ms and release settings at about 1 second and my compression ratio to 3:1.
Then, I play with the threshold making sure that at the hottest parts of the vocal, the gain reduction is at a maximum of -3 dB. This leaves me room in the mix to compress further using a software compression plugin. The danger of compressing too aggressively on the way in is that you’ll end up stuck with the sound of the overly compressed vocal with no way of changing it later.
Vocal Compression In The Mix
Once the vocal is in the mix, I go to a plugin compressor to further help keep the vocal present in the mix without jumping out too much in the loud spots.
My recommendation would be to find a compressor that has a smooth, transparent sound that allows you to squeeze the vocal just a little more (approximately -3 dB of gain reduction at the loudest spots) so that the vocal maintains it’s presence.
I set my attack at 26 ms and my release at around 300 ms. For more detail, take a peek at my general vocal settings in the screen shots below.
If the mix is a particularly full one where the voice needs to cut through a bit more and show a little more sparkle, I’ll use a frequency-specific compressor (like the Waves C4 on its “pop vocal” setting) which is a little more specific in terms of which frequencies it chooses to compress. In this case, 40 Hz, 500 Hz, 6 kHz and 16 kHz.
To see exactly how the attack and release settings are set up for each frequency, take a look at the screen shot here below.