Finding The Best Vocal Compressor For Your Mix
Regardless of genre, there is no overstating the importance of having well-mixed vocals in a song. For many listeners, a song’s lyrics are the element they most strongly identify with and listen for. For that reason, making sure your vocal tracks maintain their presence and clarity in the overall mix should always be one of your highest priorities.
Of all the tools at your disposal, having the proper vocal compression can mean the difference between a professional-sounding mix and something more… amateurish. But before you can apply a compressor, you first need to know which type of compression will best serve your mix.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common types of compression and how they are used to help give you a better understanding of when you might use them.
Types Of Vocal Compression
1. Dynamic Compression
Dynamic compression (as its name implies) is used to catch and tame the sharpest peaks in the vocal tracks you are working with.
With dynamic compression, you will want to maintain a fast attack and release time, as well as a higher ratio & threshold.
Contrary to tonal compression (more on that below), you’re not trying to compress and smooth out every single word. With dynamic compression, you are primarily focusing on catching the highest peaks.
2. Tonal Compression
Tonal compression is perhaps the most subtle way to implement your compressor. The idea is to smooth out the overall track while giving you more dynamic control to play with.
Here you will want to avoid crushing the transients, which would only result in your vocals being pushed back further into the mix. Instead, you are trying to lightly add a little more musical tone to the vocal performance.
Set slower attack/ release times while keeping your gain reduction down to about 2-3 dB to achieve this effect.
Most of the time, you will end up using a combination of both tonal and dynamic compression techniques to achieve the sound you want ultimately.
3. Parallel Compression
If your goal is to push the vocal track boldly to the front of the mix, using parallel compression is your best move. The result is a sound that is bigger and more aggressive, yet in a relatively natural-sounding way.
To achieve parallel compression, make a copy of your lead vocal track in your DAW and place a compressor on it. There’s no need for subtlety here, don’t be afraid to crank up the settings and compress the track (even if it doesn’t sound great on its own).
Set your main vocal track at the level you want it at and use your faders to tuck the compressed vocals beneath the main vocal track neatly. This will help you enhance the feeling of increased vocal control in the performance without completely flattening out the sound.
Parallel compression works wonders for both vocal and instrumental tracks, so you should get familiar with it!
Top Vocal Compressor Picks (& When To Use ‘Em)
UREI/Universal Audio 1176:
This is by far one of the most well-known and widely used FET limiting amps ever built. Whether you use the hardware compressor itself or use any of its many plugin emulations, this compressor is terrific for vocals.
The 1176s are great for vocals because they are high-speed compressors that can reel in even the sharpest transients in the source material. It contains a great deal of its unique sonic characteristics, which have made it one of the most desirable compressors in the world!
One of our favorites is the Waves CLA-76, and the UAD version is excellent as well.
Try It For:
Works excellent for dynamic compression. The 1176’s speed is its most significant attribute here, as it will catch and tame the most extreme vocal peaks.
LA-2A is an excellent choice if you are after a cool, retro tube-y sound. The controls couldn’t be more simple. There is a peak reduction knob for controlling gain reduction and a Gain Control Knob to add a bit of makeup gain.
The LA-2A adds a nice touch of analog warmth to vocals which can enhance performance.
Try It For:
The LA-2A is excellent for achieving tonal compression. It is effective at even overall leveling and adds some nice glue at the end of the vocal chain.
Empirical Labs Distressor:
Of all of the features that this compressor brings to the table, its ability to add 2nd- or 3rd-order harmonics to the signal to emulate vintage tape saturation is probably the coolest. It also has a vast range of settings that give you maximum tonal control over your vocals.
This Distressor is known as a “swiss army knife” compressor in that its potential applications are near limitless. This is another compressor that you can use handily on your instrumental tracks, as well as your vocals!
Try It For:
Parallel compression. This compressor really can do it all, but the ability mentioned above to add some extra saturation makes it perfect for implementing parallel compression to get a more stacked, full vocal sound.
This is another one of the most popular and frequently reached for compressors ever creating. It may look fairly basic, as it only has a threshold, ratio, and output controls, but that doesn’t change the results. Created in 1976, this compressor has continued to evolve and is used on more recordings than you could know.
Try It For:
This is good for getting aggressive and dynamic vocal compression. The 160A is an industry-standard choice for metal, rock, and rap vocals.
FabFilter Pro-C 2 (Plugin):
FabFilter offers eight different types of compression styles with its plugin, including some designed specifically for vocals. Of all modern software compressor plugins out there, the Pro C-2 is one of the best and easiest to use, making it a staple in home studios.
Try It For:
This one is a jack of all trades and can be applied in all kinds of ways! The Pro-C has a specific “vocal” mode that brings vocals to the front by combining dynamic and tonal compression elements. Of course, many features allow you to take this into any compression direction you want