Sound Advice: “Vocals & Compression”
“Sound Advice” is a recurring feature in which SAE Institute instructors offer helpful production techniques. Today, we get pointers on tracking vocals and compression from SAE Atlanta’s Course Coordinator, Scott Kieklak.
Tracking vocals properly can be a little tricky: a great deal depends on the vocalist and their performance chops. A vocalist who has not had much experience in the recording studio can create a lot of work for the engineer on the back end. Some engineers feel that heavy compression while recording is the answer. However, I personally don’t subscribe to this approach. The process below will assume a lead vocal.
When tracking vocals I tend to be a bit light with compression (ratio = 2:1, gain reduction = 2 to 4 dB at the peaks) because I cannot remove the compression from the audio file once it has been recorded. If heavy compression is used while recording, you are stuck with that compression. If compression is used lightly when recording, you will capture the artists’ performance more naturally. Although it may be more work when it comes to mixing, your hands are not tied with an over-compressed audio file that may eventually sound small and lifeless.
Instead of using one compressor heavily to level the vocals, I use steps of compression and volume automation… let me explain. When I am tracking a vocalist, I will compress lightly (step #1). I will then compress the audio file itself utilizing AudioSuite in Pro-Tools, which applies the processing directly to the audio file (step #2).
Again, this is light compression at a 2:1 ratio and about 3dB of gain reduction at the peaks. I like to use the Renaissance Compressor (R-Compressor) plug-in for this step, as it is very transparent. Once I have compressed the audio file itself, I will then start doing manual volume automation. This entails critically listening to the vocals as they move through the song. If a word or phrase gets too loud or too soft, I will automate the volume of that word or phrase until it sounds even in the song. The vocals should not be soloed while you are doing the automation because the instrumentation could bury a vocal or leave it too exposed at different parts of the song.
Once I have gone through the whole song thoroughly and the vocals sound very consistent, I will then put another compressor on that track in real-time (step #3). This is either a plug-in inserted on the vocal track or a hardware outboard compressor inserted across the vocal track.
Depending on how the vocal is sitting in the track at this point, I may use another compressor at the end of the chain with a medium attack to just catch the stuff that slips by the compressor on the insert (step #4).
The bottom line is that vocals must be clear and consistent throughout a song. If that means extra work on the part of the engineer to make it the best it can be, then so be it. There are no shortcuts to a great vocal sound.
Scott Kieklak is the Course Coordinator for SAE Atlanta. He has mixed and engineered hit records for such artists as Beyonce, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, Lil’ Kim and Ginuwine.