hyperbits vocal compression

Vocal Compression: The End All Guide for Music Producers & Vocalists

Vocal Compression: The End All Guide for Music Producers & Vocalists

Compression is a necessary evil. The artists I know want to sound competitive. You don’t want your track to sound quieter or wimpier by comparison. We’ve raised the bar and you can’t really step back.

Butch Vig

I always tell my students this: when I hear a vocal that sounds amateur, it’s almost always not compressed enough. In fact, I find that only rarely do producers and vocalists compress their vocals too much.

But, vocal compression is an art form. To create a professional vocal, you need to apply significant amounts of compression. However, it is absolutely necessary that you do so in a manner which allows the vocal to retain a natural, human feel.

This article is the only guide you’ll ever need for vocal compression. I’m diving into my favorite plugins, secret tips and tricks, and I’ll even show you exactly how to compress a vocal from scratch.

Let’s get started.




"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit





"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit

What is Compression?

In short, compression reduces the difference in volume between the loudest and quietest parts of a piece of audio. In other words, compression narrows the dynamic range of audio. When the volume of the audio exceeds a certain threshold, a compressor reduces the audio’s volume by a specified amount. 

Compression is one of the most important and detailed topics in music production. I’ve written about it extensively. If you want to learn about compression in general, check out our End All Guide on How to Use a Compressor and our Ultimate Guide to Multiband Compression.

Why is Compression so Important for Vocals?

The human voice has an enormous dynamic range, meaning there is a large difference between its quietest and loudest moments. As electronic music producers, we are most accustomed to VST synthesizers and samples, which tend to have extremely narrow dynamic ranges. 

Therefore, working with vocals presents a new set of challenges we simply don’t face in other areas of music production.

Have you ever heard of the loudness war? Even the New York Times is talking about it. The idea behind the loudness war is that over the years, music has become louder and louder, and if you don’t make loud music, you fall behind.

Guess what: they’re lying. Music is not louder than it used to be. Music is just more compressed than it used to be. 

By narrowing the dynamic range of a piece of audio, compression makes sure that on average, an audio file is as close to maximum volume as often as possible. This means there are fewer quiet moments in a song, and overall, the song sounds louder. 

In order for your vocal to compete against the compressed nature of other sounds in modern music, we need to compress it. A lot. Otherwise, your vocal will sound amateur and lack the professional feel you’re looking for.

Plugin Recommendations for Vocal Compression

When it comes to vocal compression, having a few key plugins in your toolkit will make your job much, much easier. Below is my list of essential plugins for vocal compression.

Classic Style Compressors

Many hardware compressors — primarily designed in the 1960s and 1970s — are regularly used for vocal compression today. They tend to give a timeless, elegant feel to a vocal. And fortunately for us, many are available in plugin form.
hyperbits vox comp 1176

1. 1176

The Universal Audio 1176 Peak Limiter — first designed in 1967 — is an essential vocal compression tool. Many plugin companies make 1176 style compressors, including Waves and UAD.

1176 compressors are fast and aggressive. They can perform significant amounts of compression while still allowing the vocal to remain natural and musical. For many producers (including me), this is their desert island compressor because of it's fast attack time. The 1176's attack time can be adjusted from 20 microseconds to 800 microseconds, allowing it to respond quickly to transients in the vocal performance, helping to control the dynamic range without sacrificing the clarity of the vocals.

Hyperbits vox comp la2a

2. LA-2A

The Teletronix LA-2A was originally designed in the early 1960s and has a slower, smoother character than the 1176. But make no mistake, you can get away with huge amounts of compression while still letting your vocal feel musical.

In fact, the LA-2A is renowned for its warm and musical character, which makes it a popular choice for vocal compression. Its analog circuitry provides a smooth and musical response, adding a touch of warmth and character to the sound of the vocals which can be difficult to achieve with other types of compression.

Plus, the LA-2A is known for its gentle and transparent compression, which is well-suited to vocal recordings. The LA-2A's optical gain reduction circuit responds quickly and smoothly to changes in the signal level, providing precise control over the dynamic range of the vocals without adding any pumping or breathing artifacts.

Modern Plugins

More recently, plugin companies have created new tools that stretch beyond hardware-emulation compressors to allow for further effective vocal compression.
Hyperbits vox comp rvox

1. Waves R-Vox

R-Vox is a one-stop-shop vocal compression plugin that provides compression, gating (reduction or removal of very quiet sounds), and limiting (a form of more extreme compression) all at once. And better yet, its “under the hood” approach means that as the producer, you only have to deal with a couple plugin parameters. That translates to easy, effective compression.

Despite its ease of use, Waves RVox is a powerful tool for vocal compression, thanks to its advanced compression algorithms. These algorithms are specifically designed to provide smooth and transparent compression, helping to preserve the natural character of the voice while still providing the necessary control over the dynamic range.

hyperbits vox comp soothe

2. Soothe2

Soothe2 is a dynamic compressor, and it’s the only one of that variety I’ll recommend to you here. Dynamic compressors apply different amounts of compression to different frequencies. This is a unique style of compression that allows for a very smooth and natural final product. For vocals, it’s particularly useful in taming boomy low mid-frequencies and harsh high frequencies.

Believe it or not, Soothe 2 is specifically designed for vocal compression, and its algorithms are optimized for this task. This means that Soothe 2 is able to deliver highly precise vocal compression, with minimal artifacts or coloration, helping to preserve the natural character of the voice.

It even pulls off an incredible dynamic reshaping algorithm to tackle problematic resonances in vocal recordings, which can cause harshness or sibilance. This allows it to achieve smooth and balanced compression results that are ideal for vocals, making it easier to achieve a polished and professional-sounding vocal performance.

hyperbits vox comp jjp

3. JJP Vocals

Joseph Jack Puig is a Grammy Award winning mixing engineer that partnered with Waves to create a suite of mixing plugins. His JJP Vocals plugin is a great one stop shop tool for mixing vocals, but in particular I like single knob compression you can apply from the default preset. It’s simple, but it just sounds good.

Beyond that, it's extremely easy to use making it a great choice for engineers and producers who want to achieve professional-quality vocal processing quickly and easily. With simple controls and a straightforward interface, it's easy to dial in the perfect sound for your vocals. It even offers a wide range of processing options for vocal tracks, including EQ, compression, de-essing, and more. Plus, the variety of presets are great for all different types of vocals, from lead vocals to backing vocals, and more.

blog vocal compression melodyne

4. Melodyne

Melodyne grants you unrivaled access to all the musical details in your vocal audio – note by note. While to is known for its advanced pitch correction capabilities, which can be particularly useful for correcting off-key notes in vocal recordings, arguably one of the biggest benefits has nothing to do with pitch correction.

This is because Melodyne includes automatic volume adjustments to a vocal performance just like with compression, but more transparent, with simple-to-use parameters to control dynamics.

This feature inside Melodyne is arguably THE most transparent compression tool that exists in the music production world. If you aren't using Melodyne for vocal compression, it's time to jump on this incredible tool.

Note: You need at least Melodyne Assitant to access the amplitude/leveling macro feature.

Other Plugins to Know About

Hyperbits vox comp decapitator

1. Soundtoys Decapitator

Decapitator is a saturation plugin (What is Saturation?? Click HERE). However, while adding saturation, Decapitator also applies compression to the audio signal. For vocals, I like the T setting, which emulates the Thermionic Culture Vulture — this setting provides a warm soothness to a vocal’s dynamic range. 

If you want a thinner vocal to sound warm, thick, and full, Decapitator can be a great solution to provide both saturation and compression.

Hyperbits vox comp cla

2. CLA Vocals

Similar to JJP Vocals, CLA Vocals (made in partnership between Waves and Chris Lord-Alge), is another one-stop-shop vocal mixing plugin. Many people prefer this plugin to JJP Vocals, so I’d recommend trying out both to see which you prefer.

It provides users with access to the same warm and musical character that has made LA-2A and 1176 compressors popular for decades. This makes the Waves CLA-Vocals a great choice for those looking to achieve vintage-style vocal compression.

Like the others I mentioned in this article, the Waves CLA-Vocals plugin provides precise and transparent compression, thanks to its advanced algorithms and modeling technology. The plugin's controls are intuitive and straightforward, allowing users to quickly and easily adjust the compression to suit their needs while preserving the natural character of the voice.




"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit





"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit

4 Keys to Compressing a Vocal

Once you have a good collection of essential vocal compression plugins, you can get down to business and compress some vocals. There are four important concepts I want you to keep in mind when you approach vocal compression.

1. Spread Compression over Multiple Compressors

Many producers miss this. In general, I usually end up with 20-30dBs gain reduction in total on a vocal. But, only rarely am I doing more than 10dBs gain reduction with a single compressor.

Use multiple compressors in a row to compress your vocal, and only perform moderate compression with each. This creates a more smooth and natural sounding final product. If one compressor is overworked, your vocal will sound jumpy and unnatural.

2. Compress Vocals on Both the Individual Tracks and the Vocal Bus

When producing a vocal, you’ll often be working with many layers: doubles, harmonies, adlibs, etc. I recommend compressing these individual vocal layers first. Then, place them all in a bus or group, and apply additional compression on the bus.

The individual track compression enables you to control the unique dynamic range of each individual layer. The bus compression glues these layers together. The result is a vocal group that sounds both consistent and cohesive.

3. De-essing is Essential

De-essing reduces the harshness of high frequency sibilance in a vocal. De-essers are simply just another form of compression, where they only compress the frequency band where you find S’s (usually around 5-6kHz). I like to de-ess about 6-10dBs, which usually is sufficient for taming the hard S’s and T’s in a vocal.

4. Add a Limiter to Your Vocal Bus

This last bit is often overlooked by most beginner and intermediate producers alike. The final compressor on your vocal bus should be a limiter. When adding a lot of compression, sometimes the transients of your vocal can become loud relative to the rest of the vocal. To address this, add a limiter. 

Limiters provide a high level of compression and can reduce the dynamic range of transients that other compressors might miss. 

Pro Tip: When adding gain using the Pro-L2, simply hold 'option' on a mac as you slide the gain up so the vocal doesn't get any louder. This way, you are only reducing a few transient peaks, not adjusting volume in any way.  

Vocal Compression in Action

There are many processing chains you can apply to compress a vocal. Below, I’m going to demonstrate one example. Curious about other processing chains? I talk all about those and many strategies for vocal compression in the Hyperbits Masterclass (in fact, we spend a whole week only talking about vocals).

Step 1: Record Your Vocal

Here is the raw vocal we’re starting with. This recording is straight from the microphone.
Raw Vocal

Step 2: De-Ess

First, I’m applying de-essing to the vocal. This tames the singer’s harsh sibilance.
Vocal After De-essing

Step 3: 1176

The 1176 is the workhorse compressor in this chain. I’m applying heavy compression — 10-12dBs gain reduction — and making the compressor work fast with a medium attack and a quick release.
Vocal With Heavy Compression

Step 4: Decapitator

Next, I’m using Decapitator to add saturation and more compression. I don’t want any extensive distortion here — the goal is to add subtle warmth and moderately reduce the dynamic range.
Vocal With Decapitator

Step 5: Soothe2

We go to Soothe2 next. Using the Vox I preset, I’m compressing this vocal through the low mids (250hz) and high mids (4kHz) to reduce boominess and provide a smoother presence to the vocal. I love cycling through Soothe2’s high quality presets to find one that works great for my vocal.
Vocal With Soothe2

Step 6: Limiter

Finally, I apply a limiter to catch any extra peaks that might be poking through the other compressors. Subtlety is key here: I usually go for a maximum of 2-3dBs gain reduction.
Vocal After Limiter Applied

Final Thoughts

Vocal performances can have a wide dynamic range, making it difficult to achieve consistent and transparent compression. If the compression is too aggressive, it can lead to a loss of clarity and character in the vocals, while if it's too gentle, the dynamic range may still be too wide, making it difficult to balance the vocals in the mix.

Since vocal performances can vary greatly from take to take, achieving consistent results with vocal compression can be very difficult. In addition, different vocalists will have different ranges and tonalities, which can make it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all compression setting that works for all vocal recordings.

In addition, there are a number of technical challenges that can make vocal compression difficult, such as managing the interplay between the compressor and the microphone preamp, or dealing with the impact of background noise or room acoustics on the compression settings.

That said, vocal compression is an essential skill to master for modern music production. Remember, music today is loud and compressed — if you want your vocal to stand up against the best productions around, you need to make sure you’re compressing it properly.

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A bit about me in case you're new here: my music has been streamed over 52+ million times.

I've done official remixes for artists like Beyonce, Tove Lo, and Nick Jonas, signed record deals with Universal, Island, and Sony, and worked with brands like Target, Samsung, and Equinox. I've even DJed some of the world's biggest stages, like Electric Daisy Carnival, Terminal 5, Fonda Theater, and Echostage.

If you have questions about music production or the Hyperbits Masterclass get in touch. I'm here to help.




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"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit