Last updated on March 22, 2019 by

Today you’re going to learn a simple vocal compression trick for making your vocals sound more like the tracks you hear on the radio.

It’s just a small change to your workflow that will make your vocals sit right on top of the mix, so watch now if you want to learn how to compress vocals like a pro.

Today you're going to learn a simple vocal compression trick for making your vocals sound more like the tracks you hear on the radio. It's just a small change to your workflow that will make your vocals sit right on top of the mix, so watch now if you want to learn how to compress vocals like a pro.


Today you are going to learn a simple vocal automation trick for making your vocals sound more like the tracks you hear on the radio. It’s just a small change to your workflow that will make your vocals sit right on top of the mix. So keep watching if you want to learn how to automate and compress vocals like a pro.

Rob here from Musician on a Mission. Hope you are having a great week.

So, what is this simple trick? Automate the vocal before you add compression. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

And to clarify, this means that the automation should come before compression in your signal flow, so the level going into the compressor is already consistent and this minor shift in workflow means that the compressor is easier to apply, it’s easier to tweak the settings and the end result is better because the compressor is not working as hard. The vocal is going to end up sounding more consistent and more natural.

So, first let me show you what this will actually look like in your door. This is the way that I prefer to do it. I apply heavy automation to the vocal channel itself. So, this is the lead vocal channel and what you will see is there’s very little processing going on here. We’ve just got a bit of EQ, we are moving some room resonances.

And that’s it. Everything else is done on the second channel, the lead vocal bus. So our output here is bus 4. This is going to a new, so bus 4, this is coming over here, input to bus 4 on the lead vocal [inaudible 00:01:23] and then I am applying compression here.

So what that means is this automation is happening on this fader…

[Music Being Played 00:01:36]

Then it’s going out into this channel and then it’s being compressed. So the automation is happening before compression.

Now, there are a few ways to do this. And I also want to show you in this video how to compress vocals once you’ve added that automation, because a lot of people get vocal compression wrong.

So, keep watching if you want a step by step breakdown of this trick and vocal compression in general.

I am going to start with a quick demonstration. Let’s look at the level going into one of our compressors. So here I’ve just got some light compression on this slot here.

[Music Being Played 00:02:16]

So, there’s still quite a lot of variation but it’s sitting between 1 and 3 mostly.

Now, let’s remove this automation. So I can just go in here, delete visible automation. And then we are going to check it’s about the same volume.

[Music Being Played 00:02:36]

So you can already see that this needle is a bit more erratic already.

[Music Being Played 00:02:45]

So a couple of times we get up narrative 5 and even closer to 0; whereas when I bring that automation back in – let’s compare that again.

[Music Being Played 00:02:58]

So it’s still dancing around but it doesn’t get quite as far and it doesn’t go quite as close to 0. So we can see visually the level going into the compressor isn’t as erratic.

So now when we set in the input or the threshold [inaudible 00:03:10] the control is to apply the amount of gain reduction that you want, it’s going to be much easier. But when you get a vocal that’s going from a whisper one second to maybe a shout and it’s really dramatically changing, you are going to struggle to set up because you set for one verse and then suddenly the next verse or the next word even we are applying too much or too little compression, because it varies so much; whereas with this, it’s quite easy just to adjust that input until we are getting the desired amount of gain reduction.

Okay, so how do you actually do this?

Well, in any case, the first step is going to be automation. Now, what you can see I’ve done here is used volume automation. In Pro tools, you can use clip gain automation if you want to keep all on one channel. So then you can automate the gain of the actual audio region and then you could add compression here because you are playing with the gain. But the easiest way is just to use volume automation and then you can just send it to an [inaudible 00:03:59] like this where you add your compression and other processing.

So there are two ways to apply automation. There’s the manual way which is what I’ve done here and then there’s the shortcut which is using a plug-in like Waves Vocal Rider that will do this for you.

So, I am going to start by removing this automation and just show you my process for adding manual automation. We’ve got a verse here and we can use the wave forms to an extent. So I can already see here that these notes are probably going to be quieter than these and need bringing up. Same here, this note here is quite loud, I am probably going to have to bring that down.

But the other thing to consider is that pitch is going to play a role here. If it’s a lower pitch note, maybe it gets lost in the mix. If it’s a really important verse that we want to stick out a bit more, we might want to tone up a bit. And this is why manual pitch correction is great, because we can start to consider musical elements of automation, not just trying to make every note sound the same volume but also factoring different words, different pitches. And something else that’s quite nice to do is just bring up the end of a tail of a word. So, here, normally right at the end of the word, you have quite a lot of emotion going on. And have a listen to this, so this is without any automation…

[Music Being Played 00:05:07]

Hear that “right away” as the voice kind of breaks up. Let’s [inaudible 00:05:11] that.

[Music Being Played 00:05:13]

We can just bring that out, and there’s a lot of emotion there. Just boosting that by a couple of dBs [Music Being Played] will help it to stick out in the mix a lot more.

[Music Being Played 00:05:27]

So that’s one thing you need to do when you are manually automating, and now let’s look at these words. Now, the degree that you are going to do this is going to depend on the genre. If it’s a pop track, something like this that want to sound quite polished, anything mainstream, then it’s worth automating by the phrase like this or even going deeper and automating by the word. However, if you are working with a rock track, something you want to sound a bit more raw, then maybe you can just turn up or turn down whole sections.

So this phrase here is a bit too loud so we will just turn that down a bit. This whole section looks a bit quieter, so we can bring that up. And we can do it by bigger chunks.

What I am going to show you here is how we can do it on a really fine level.

[Music Being Played 00:06:06]

So already here it’s kind of getting a bit lost, so we can start to bring up just – that phrase needs to come up a little bit and I feel like this phrase needs to come up even more. And in Logic I am just holding command to get the marquee tool which I’ve got selected as my secondary tool, so I am just quickly drag that and turn this up.

[Music Being Played 00:06:28]

And this here as well can come up.

[Music Being Played 00:06:36]

And that can come up. So you can really see the level of detail we are going into here.

[Music Being Played 00:06:44]

I think that bit was a little bit too loud, so let’s try bringing that down. Even it looks quieter.

[Music Being Played 00:06:55]

Okay, so I like how that sounds. We are coming in with a bit of a bang here, dropping it there and it sounds a bit more consistent. So you can see the level of detail we are going into here.

The upside is that your automation is going to be much more musical. However, this is going to take a lot of time. Even if you just do it by the phrase, so if I just took whole phrases like so and turn that up, there’s a lot of phrases in this song. When I go through and automate by the word like this, that alone could take about an hour just automating the vocal.

So if you are pushed for time, the second approach is to use a plug-in like Waves Vocal Rider to do the automation for you, because you know how as you get home from work, the kids are screaming, maybe you need to make dinner, but all you want to do is make music. But maybe you only have an hour today to spend on music and the clock is ticking. And that’s why this plug-in can be really useful if you are stuck for time.

So let’s start by loading it on the vocal. And there are a few steps here just to get this going and make sure we are using this plug-in to the best of its abilities. So, we are going to use the Vocal Rider. So you can set up the sidechain on the instrument bar. I find it works pretty well without that. We just want to adjust the target to be around the peak of where the vocal is hitting on this meter, and then we can play around the sensitivity a bit.

[Music Being Played 00:08:21]

So you can already see what it’s doing, it’s pretty good, it tends to just work out of the box. You can play around these settings a little bit to really adjust this, but I am just going to move forward with this now. And we are going to put this on right mode and we are going to put this also on right mode. And then…

[Music Being Played 00:08:45]

Pretty cool, right? So you can just hit play through the whole track and now we can forget about this plug-in. We can put this onto read, and we can put this onto read as well. And now…

[Music Being Played 00:08:57]

What we can actually do is start to play around with this. So you just start off with this automatic automation and then if we want to play around with it and boost the end of this word and that kind of stuff, we can just do it.

[Music Being Played 00:09:15]

So that doesn’t sound great but just to show you that how this is kind of the best of both worlds. You start with Waves Vocal Rider, that will do the bulk of the work for you. And then you just go through, change any bits that sound off, boost any words or phrases that you want to be louder, play around with boosting the ends of words like this and you kind of get the best of both worlds, fast and musical.

So that’s the automation part done. Now, we need to move onto compression. And I am just going to turn this off, and we are just going to trust the plug-in now for the meantime, and we are going to move now to our lead vocal bus.

So now, I’ve removed all the compression. All we’ve got going on is some EQ here and here. Then we’ve also got some saturation, some DSing and finally just a bit of a gain trim at the end there to get it back down to a similar level.

So let’s start by loading a compressor. We are just going to use the stock Logic compressor here. Now, when it comes to vocal compression, one of the key things you want to remember is that the compressor is going to change the sound of the vocal quite a lot. Now, in some genres that might be desirable. If you are working with heavy rock music for example, maybe you don’t want to add any automation at all, you just want to apply really heavy compression to get consistent levels but also to get that quality of really aggressive compression. But in a track like this, mainstream pop, anything that you want to sound a bit more polished, combining automation with compression is the only way to get that level of dynamic consistency that we are used to hearing on the radio.

So with all of that in mind, I do have some recommended starting settings that I am going to talk you through now. And I also recommend you download the free cheat sheet, there’s a link in the description below. And then you can come back to these starting settings next time you are doing a mix.

Okay, let’s start by turning off auto gain because we want to adjust that manually. We are going to leave the release on auto. We are going to change the attack time to about 10 milliseconds. We are going to leave the ratio around 2 to 1. And we are going to leave the knee somewhere around halfway. And now what we are going to do is just adjust the threshold until we have the desired amount of gain reduction.

So, in a genre like this, where we want it to sound a bit more polished and not too aggressive, probably, 2, 3, 4 dB is going to be enough. If it’s a genre like rock or hard core where you want that aggressive punchy vocal sound, then you can go more aggressive, 5 to 10 dB of compression.

But all we need to do now is adjust the threshold until we are happy with the amount of compression. And you can even do this with your eye shot. Try not to rely on this gain meter too much. Just keep going until it sounds too aggressive. And when it sounds too aggressive, you know you’ve gone too far and then you can just back it off a bit. And we might have to make small adjustments to this make-up gain as we go to make sure it’s about the same volume.

[Music Being Played 00:12:10]

So that sounds about right to me, ended up going a bit heavier than I thought, but again I had my eye shot, it’s just kind of what sounded good. So don’t rely on this too much, but you can use it as a guide if you are struggling to hear, then you know above minus 5 is probably going to be pop, mainstream, that kind of stuff. And below minus 5 is going to be more like rock and hard core music.

And now, we can just play around with the attack and the release time. Really important point here with the vocals, try to avoid fast attack times, because as soon as you use fast attack times, especially on the lead vocal, it’s going to dull the [inaudible 00:12:40] because the compressor is going to clamp down really fast and that has the effect of putting the source further away from the listener. So this is a good way to create depth in the mix. If you want to put something further away, use a faster attack time.

But the lead vocal, we want that to be front and center. So let’s just stick to 10 and we can play around with this a bit, even try going higher until we are happy with the sound. If you are struggling to actually hear what the attack time is doing, you can try dropping that threshold really low so you can really hear it and we will do that now. So we know to come back to around 22 and we are done. But now let’s drop this down to adjust the attack time.

[Music Being Played 00:13:23]

So you can hear that, with a slow attack, it’s quite aggressive; whereas with a fast attack time, it sounds a bit think and a bit dulled. So we want to go somewhere in the middle .

[Music Being Played 00:13:37]

That sounds good to me. Now we can go back to that threshold that we had.

[Music Being Played 00:13:45]

Match the volume.

[Music Being Played 00:14:04]

And that sounds pretty good to me. Again, avoid really fast release times. I tend to just use auto in Logic. And if there’s a particular reason why I want to use a slow or faster release time, I will turn off auto, but in this case it works well. And then you can also play around with the knee size. If you want it to sound more aggressive, use no knee at all or a hard knee, that would be cool; or if you want it to sound more musical, more subtle, then use a really soft knee, turn it up. That was pretty much it.

Because you went through the effort of applying automation before compression, it really shouldn’t take that long to apply compression. And if you want to get at even more consistent levels, try using two compressors instead of one and that will really help with that. But that first step of adding automation before compression makes this really fast and easy.

So now let’s compare before and after. So, let’s start by just bypassing the compressor and the automation to listen to the vocal with no dynamic control.

[Music Being Played 00:15:00]

So I guess lost in the mix quite a bit. There are one or two words there that really stuck out but it’s really inconsistent. And then when we bring those in…

[Music Being Played 00:15:13]

So much better. The peak that doesn’t actually sound much louder is just that the overall volume is so much more consistent, and that’s what gives it that radio-ready sound. It still needs a bit of work.

There was a word there that really stuck out and we would need to play around with this automation there and that’s where you are going to spend more of your time is on the automation than the compression. But just make sure this comes first in your signal chain.

So there you go. A simple vocal compression trick that will make it so much easier to apply compression and the end result is going to be way more professional. But of course, there’s so much more that goes into mixing the vocal than just compression. And even compression itself, we could go a lot deeper into using multiple compressors, different settings, that kind of stuff.

So I’ve put together a free cheat sheet, and that’s going to help you to make sure the vocals sound great every single time. And you can use that as a reference point when you are mixing to get those go-to settings and loads of other tips and tricks. It’s completely free, there’s a link in the description below or a link on screen now.

Once you’ve done that, leave a comment below and let me know. Do you use vocal automation or do you rely solely on compression? Let me know which one you tend to lean towards and share your experience with everyone else. Do you have any tips for using automation? Or have you tried this trick before in the past?

Okay, that’s all for me, I will see you same place, same time next week, and as ever, Create Regardless.


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