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.
 

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Multi-Buss Mixing Philosophy 

The question, “What’s on your mix buss?” has been all the rage for several years now. Mix engineers have been pre-mastering their work for a long time, to ensure that the mastering engineer has a clear artistic vision before manipulating the audio.

Digital audio sound quality and mixing “inside the box” (summing in the digital domain) may have caused the latest renewed interest in mix buss processors. Digital sound has often been characterized as harsh and clinical. Character pieces like a vacuum tube compressors and limiters can do a great job of warming up the sound, making it more euphonic. Insert a Manley Labs Variable Mu stereo compressor across the mix buss, and a good mix magically transforms into a juicy record.

That said, stereo mix buss processing has inherent limitations. As an example, let’s pretend that you have set the compressor’s attack and release parameters to make the song have an exciting pumping effect, in time with the music. Think EDM (electronic dance music) as an obvious point of reference. Everything sounds good… until the producer asks you to beef up the low and and add more brightness to the overall mix. All of a sudden your once warm lead vocal starts to sizzle, and the entire mix starts gasping for air every time the kick drum happens. When you are that deeply into a dense mix, adding one more straw can break the camel’s back.

The solution to this problem is actually quite simple. Instead of processing one stereo mix buss, break the mix down into several submixes consisting of components that symbiotically work together. In the video link above, I discuss the workflow of breaking the mix into three stereo buses instead of one. Buss A is for all the vocals. Buss B contains the bass and drums. Buss C includes all the harmonic instruments that are typically panned out to the sides, leaving the center of the soundstage open for maximum vocal, bass, kick and snare punch and clarity.

Each of those three busses is independently processed. They can benefit from using different attack and release settings and thresholds, as well as different EQ curves. 

Perhaps the simplest example of how to deploy this technique would be a scenario in which you want the bass & drums to have an obvious rhythmic “pump” without having the compression affecting the vocals. Further, imagine you want to brighten all the harmonic instruments a lot, without adding sibilance to the vocals. No problem with submix processing!

(Video courtesy of Dangerous Music, Inc.)