Mix Tip: Lead Vocal Compression/Limiting  


Happy singers = happy mix engineers!
Do you ever wish you could make a lead vocal sound “urgent” and heavily compressed in the mix, without all the nasty pumping artifacts? We’ve all hyper-spanked a vocal to create a glorious larger-than-life character because it sounds uber cool to do so, only to find that the sparkle disappears and the breaths become almost louder than the words. 

Despair not, for I have a technique for you to try!

Instead of driving a single compressor/limiter into super heavy gain reduction, try using two separate compressors in series. Keep the gain reduction small, and the ratios low. 

A classic sound is Teletronix LA-2 or Urei LA-3A into a Urei 1176. Opto into FET. I guess the theory is that the opto compressor smoothes the dynamics and shapes the tone, then the FET further limits the dynamic range and adds groovy harmonic distortion. 

Generally (but not always) I prefer going the opposite direction. I use the 1176LN to precondition the signal before it gets to the the opto. This is a cool sound. Preconditioning the signal ensures that rogue peaks do not cause the opto to go so deeply into GR (gain reduction) that the recovery (release) becomes too slow for the rhythmic cadence of the melody. We don’t want the recovery so slow that it steps on the beginning of the next vocal phrase. 

By putting the fast FET limiter first, and setting it to get in and out quickly, we can keep the opto in its sweet spot. If you’re not sure where to begin with your 1176LN settings, start here: input 10 o’clock; output 2 o’clock; attack 10 o’clock; release 2 o’clock; ratio 4:1. These input and output settings, of course, are based on the assumption that the source signal was recorded at a proper level for a “+4” analog world, where pro audio equipment is designed to work in its sweet spot. 

If your taste is anything like mine, you will quickly find that the 10 o’clock attack setting is too fast and the 2 o’clock release is too slow for modern rock and pop vocals. More often than not, I crank the attack all the way counterclockwise (the slowest setting)  to allow sparkly transients to pass through, and I slam the release fully clockwise (fastest) before carefully twisting the knob back the other way to make it incrementally slower until the pumping disappears. 

Faster release times make the signal seem to be louder, more urgent, and more aggressive, but not as smooth and polished. Experiment with this by closing your eyes and listening to what happens as you turn the release knob. Superfast release times will sound almost brittle if they are too fast.  It’s an artistic choice, not a matter of right or wrong.

Circling back to the input and output settings, in this series configuration I like the sound of the 1176 when the VU meter is bouncing around from zero dB to minus 3-4 dB GR. The occasional -7 on a rogue peak might sound OK, but you better use your ears to confirm this. Adjust the input knob to get in this zone. Then set the output control so that the output meter reads approximately zero dB. You will definitely hear a strong “1176 character” if you set it up this way. It may be too much for your taste, or not enough, depending on what sonic texture you’re going for.

The next item in the signal path, the LA-3A opto compressor, is easier to set up.  With only two knobs, you’d think that everybody would get it right, but this is not always the case. As stated earlier, you have to be careful about driving it too far into gain reduction because the recovery becomes slower—too slow for this series application if the VU meter shows more than one and a half dB of GR. 

On a tangential note, an LA-3A can sound mind-blowingly cool if you slam it with 10 to 20 dB of GR! Of course you will need to crank up the output to make up for lost volume. You’ve heard this sound on hundreds of beloved classic records. It sounds like the guitars on Bryan Adams’ song “Cuts Like a Knife” may have been recorded or mixed with this technique. I may be totally wrong about this being the case, but at least the example gives you an idea of how an LA-3A  can sound larger than life when pushed. 

That, however, is not the way that we are using it in this particular application, in series with an 1176 on a lead vocal. By keeping the LA-3A’s gain reduction at about 1 to 2 dB, we ensure a more organic—yet highly energetic—vocal tone that is the undisputed ruler of the mix. The vocal will still have the illusion of being dynamic, and it won’t require much EQ to make up for the darkness that compression can add.

After experimenting with this technique and tweaking it to your taste, try a variation of it: route LA-3A in parallel instead of series. You can get away with more than twice the amount of gain reduction because you will be blending it to taste (on a separate fader) with the 1176 sound. That means that you can create an aggressive and urgent sound with the 1176, and supplement it with the added sustain and warmth of the LA-3A. Because it’s not in series, you don’t need to worry about it swallowing transients or recovering too slowly.  Just blend it in until you dig the sound, and you’re good to go! 

Another variation on this multi compressor theme is to put an opto compressor first, then an 1176 in series and a second opto in parallel. I’ve had a lot of success with this technique when feeding a Manley ELOP into an 1176 to get a compelling punchy sound, and then blending in a “pushed” LA-3A in parallel to harmonically fatten up the tone. 

Try these techniques and become inspired to create some new ones of your own. Make sure that you experiment with different routings and settings. Remember that my suggested starting settings are just that: suggested, not required. They will be dependent on the program that you intend to process and the mood you want to create, so adjust accordingly and appropriately.

If I were to add just one philosophical thought about compression and limiting in general, it would be that my personal taste is to see the gain reduction meters always “dancing” near zero on the VU meter rather than constantly being driven into deep compression. If you haven’t already done so, experiment with this concept and let me know what you think. 

Whatever you do, in life or in the studio, make sure that you follow your own muse, not somebody else’s. 

These cookie fortunes seem to be strangely related to vocal compression aesthetics.

The Summer of #1

It’s not every day that I get to wake up and find out that one of my mixes has gone to number one on the pop charts. Even more rare is when it stays there for seven consecutive weeks to become the biggest pop radio hit of the summer of 2015 in Mexico.

I would like to have number ones more frequently. Who wouldn’t? A hit is good not only for the artist, but also for me and everyone else involved. Instead of clients asking me for a discount, they are simply asking for me.

I began contemplating some questions that might unlock the secret. Why did this stroke of good fortune happen to me? What did I do differently? How does this affect my daily life? What tips or advice can I give to my friends and fans so that they can get their own number ones?

I wish that this blog post could turn out to be a magic wand, life changing, master class in hit making, but ultimately it’s going to be one of my briefest, and perhaps most profound, posts so far.

The inside story is that I did absolutely nothing differently than I do for every other one of my mixes and artists. I simply asked the artist (Kalimba) and the producer (Stefano Vieni) what they wanted, then I wrapped my head and my heart around the song (“Estrellas Rotas“), and did my best to give the listener obvious focal points that would lead to an emotional connection to the song. If you’re really craving some technical details and mixing tips, SonicScoop featured me as their cover story this week: Making The Mix Room – Michael James  It’s worth the read.

I think that the reason that I got hired to do this job—and therefore had the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time—is because I treat every song as if it were truly important to the artist. Further, I try to mix every song in such a way that will make me actually feel something from it, even if it means that I will not necessarily impress my engineer friends. Nothing about the mix of “Estrellas Rotas” is over-the-top. It’s more about removing distractions that interfere with emotional resonance. (It doesn’t hurt that the artist is brilliant and the production is excellent!)

So, has this recent number one changed my life? In the short run, yes. There was a windfall of good press, and as mentioned earlier, new clients were more interested in working with me than negotiating with me. My equipment sponsors were happy that they got another “victory story” to exploit, that was genuine, honest and organic. My friends any family were happy that my work was being recognized internationally. My independent artist clients were happy that their mix engineer’s “buzz” could give them more credibility and some news for their social media feeds. Everybody was benefiting from the rising tide— all boats were floating higher.

In the long run, however, I am confident that things will settle down into the usual routine. It happens every time I’m involved with a hit: there’s a rush of excitement, then life returns to business as usual. That’s fine—I enjoy the high times, especially when they can be shared with my friends and family, but there is always plenty of work to be done and precious little time to rest on one’s laurels.

If you’re looking for some good advice, mine is is simple: Make the record that you want to make, not the one that you think somebody else wants to buy. Your fans will love you because you are you, not an emulator of somebody else.

Gratuitous picture of Rosie, with whom I mix many records.