compression Home Studio Mixing recording vocals

Taming Vocals: Compressors In Series

Taming vocals can be a very tough job. I have a few techniques that I use based on the song I’m mixing and the vocalist on record. A few ways to tame a vocalist are “riding” the fader, compressors, other dynamics processors, EQ, and even reverb. Sometimes you will use a combination of all of them to tame your vocals. This article is going to focus on one particular application of compressors to tame vocals. That is the use of multiple compressors in series.

It is rare for me to mix a project where I don’t use compression of some sort on the vocals. If you are mixing something very sparse, like an intimate singer/songwriter demo, then leaving off compression can be a good decision. I was recently mixing a fairly loud rock project and needed to tame the vocals to a very consistent level throughout the song. This song and vocal track needed to go a bit beyond the limits of typical compression. The sound of the spoken voice is probably more familiar to any human than any other sound. The sound of a singing voice is probably the second most familiar sound to us as humans. People know what a singer should sound like. It can be fairly easy for a listener to detect a heavily compressed vocal track because they can spot the unnatural character right away. Even worse is the tendency for carelessly applied compressors to pump and heave.

Using multiple compressors in series can really help to alleviate this problem. Chaining compressors together one after another will let you achieve higher reduction levels without crossing over too far into the land of pumps-ville. I was looking for 8dB of gain reduction on this vocal track. What I did was use two compressors in series, shooting for around 4dB of gain reduction in each.

Plugins used in this tutorial

  • Waves Renaissance Compressor
  • Waves Renaissance Vox
Waves Renaissance Maxx Native Bundle

Waves Renaissance Maxx Native Bundle

Powerhouse audio processing with incredible accuracy, fidelity, and flexibility is what Waves Renaissance Maxx is all about. It brings together Waves’ most acclaimed audio processors in one package that includes the Renaissance Channel, Renaissance Compressor, Renaissance Reverberator, Renaissance Equalizer, Renaissance Vox, Renaissance Bass, Renaissance DeEsser, and IR-L Convolution Reverb Light.

Step 1: The First Vocal Compressor

We will get the ball rolling by adding a general purpose compressor the vocal track. This first compressor will be the Waves Renaissance Compressor. I use the mono version since I’m mixing a mono vocal track. If you recorded your vocal stereo then you will use the standard stereo version. Figure 1 shows my initial settings for the compressor.

series vocal compression figure 1
Figure 1

The ARC (Auto Release Control) is turned on, the compressor is in Electro mode (vs. Opto) and it is set to Warm (instead of Smooth). I’m using a compression ration of 2.5 with attack at 5ms and release at 50ms. To set the threshold we need to do some playback. Start playback and adjust the Thresh slider (on the Input column) down until you are seeing about -4dB on the attenuation meter (see Figure 2).

series vocal compression figure 2
Figure 2

That’s it for the first compressor. It is important to listen through to your whole track. Try not to get sidetracked by academic advice and mixing with your eyes. Always let your ears guide you. That said, it is now time to add compressor two.

Step 2: The Second Vocal Compressor

We will use the Waves Renaissance Vox for the second compressor. Again I will use the mono version but you should use the version appropriate for your track. The Renaissance Vox plugin is a beautiful exercise in simplicity. It is a “one knob” compressor. Since we are looking for another 4dB of reduction, all we need to do is start playback and bring down the Comp control until you are getting around -4dB on the attenuation meter (see Figure 3).

series vocal compression figure 3
Figure 3

Again, always observe the three L’s of mixing: listen, listen, and listen…

Conclusion: Vocals Are Consistent!

With our two compressors in series (one after another) we are now using each of them to do half the work for our targeted 8dB of gain reduction in dynamic range. We’ve managed to make the loudest parts of our vocal track 8dB closer in volume to the quieter parts without introducing any unnatural pumping.

Waves Renaissance Maxx Native Bundle Waves Renaissance Maxx price check
This bundle includes the Renaissance Compressor, Renaissance Vox and Renaissance EQ. Those are three of my favorite vocal plugins.

This technique will definitely help your home studio vocals get the professional recording studio sound.

7 replies on “Taming Vocals: Compressors In Series”

Hey I just read your article about using two compressors, I agree! In fact, I am also using the renaissance compressor. Out of all the waves stuff I tried, its my favorite. For maximum flatness I actually used 4 compressors. First one was in my focusrite voicemaster rack preamp, from there the signal went into pro tools, then I added the renaissance channel to EQ and compress it, then I added two more renaissance comps after that. And let me tell you, it sounds KILLER! Keep in mind each compressor is only knocking the signal down no more then 3db. Sometimes 5db if I sing loud. And the ratios are light, about 2-3. I finally got rid of that “breathing” sound, or pump or whatever you call it when one compressor is working to hard. Anyways, just thought I would leave you a comment!

Four compressors! That’s hardcore man. Cool to hear your story. Yeah, there really is no technical limit to the number of compressors you could string in series. The only limit is the number of compressors you feel like tweaking on any given track.

Hey, I know this article was posted a while ago, but I’ve just read it again having bought a UAD-1 card with the 1176 and LA2A compressors. Would you recommend using these two for this this job? And if so, in what order? At the moment I’m playing around with a vocal chain of 1176 >LA2A > REQ/Q10 (for surgical eq) > Pultec

I haven’t used the UAD-1 versions of those plugins but I would also first try 1176 into LA2A just as you have done. No harm in trying it the other way though!

I love the two compressor approach, but try to do it with hardware as plugins kind of confuse me and make my computer work harder (and sometimes crash whatever I’m recording in).

Not to profess to know anything, but this is how I do it: First compressor is on a Zoom G2 guitar FX pedal. The second compressor is a a three-knob Soundtank. Compressor 1 doesn’t squash the signal enough because reverb or whatever other effect is on affects the volume level. Compressor 2 tames that. The disadvantage of this approach is that your output is mono, so you don’t get a vocal swimming in stereo reverb. The advantage, on the other hand, is that you don’t have sounds spread out through the stereo spectrum potentially canceling out the frequencies of other instruments. Again, whatever works for you- use. This is just what’s worked for me.

Don Carlson

Comments are closed.