how to compress vocals

How to Compress Vocals? A Step-by-Step Guide to Perfectly Compressed Vocals

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

As an experienced audio engineer, I know how crucial vocal compression is for achieving a professional-sounding vocal track. Whether you’re recording a lead vocal, background vocals, or vocal harmonies, proper compression is key to shaping the overall vocal tone and dynamics. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll walk you through the fundamentals of vocal compression, share techniques for achieving the perfect vocal sound, and provide tips to avoid common mistakes.

Introduction to Vocal Compression

Vocal compression is an essential audio processing technique that helps control the dynamic range of a vocal performance. By reducing the volume of the loudest peaks and boosting the quieter sections, compression helps create a more consistent and polished vocal sound. This is particularly important in music production, where vocals often need to sit perfectly within the mix.

Understanding the Importance of Vocal Compression

Vocal compression serves several crucial purposes:

  1. Dynamic Control: It tames the uneven volume levels in a vocal performance, ensuring that the loudest parts don’t overpower the mix and the quieter sections are brought up to an appropriate level.
  2. Vocal Clarity: Compression helps to maintain the clarity and intelligibility of the vocals, making them easier to understand and more prominent in the mix.
  3. Vocal Tone Shaping: Compression can be used to shape the overall tone and character of the vocal, from a smooth, polished sound to a more aggressive, punchy delivery.
  4. Consistency: By reducing the dynamic range, compression creates a more consistent and cohesive vocal performance, which is especially important for lead vocals and background harmonies.

What is Vocal Compression?

Vocal compression is the process of using a dynamic range compressor to reduce the volume of the loudest peaks in a vocal performance. This is done by setting a specific threshold, above which the compressor will start to reduce the signal’s volume. The amount of reduction is determined by the compressor’s ratio, which controls how much the volume is decreased for every decibel (dB) the signal exceeds the threshold.

Vocal CompressionUsing a compressor to control the dynamic range of vocals by reducing loud peaks and boosting quiet parts.
dB of Gain ReductionAmount of volume reduction applied by the compressor, measured in decibels (dB).
Dynamic RangeDifference between the loudest and quietest parts of the audio signal, measured in dB.
Makeup GainGain added to the compressed signal to restore its overall volume.
Release TimeTime it takes for the compressor to stop reducing volume after the signal falls below the threshold.
Attack TimeTime it takes for the compressor to start reducing volume after the signal exceeds the threshold.

Key Terms in Vocal Compression

To fully understand vocal compression, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the following key terms:

  1. dB of Gain Reduction: This refers to the amount of volume reduction applied to the signal by the compressor, as measured in decibels (dB).
  2. Dynamic Range: The difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the audio signal, typically measured in dB.
  3. Makeup Gain: The amount of gain applied to the compressed signal to restore its overall volume and maintain a consistent level.
  4. Release Time: The time it takes for the compressor to stop reducing the volume after the signal drops below the threshold.
  5. Attack Time: The time it takes for the compressor to start reducing the volume after the signal exceeds the threshold.
a vocalist recording vocals in a music studio

Different Approaches to Vocal Compression

There are several different approaches to vocal compression, each with its own advantages and use cases:

  1. Single Compressor: Using a single compressor on the entire vocal track to control the overall dynamics.
  2. Parallel Compression: Blending the compressed and uncompressed vocal signals to achieve a more natural, dynamic sound.
  3. Multiband Compression: Dividing the vocal signal into multiple frequency bands and compressing them independently, allowing for more precise control over the vocal tone.

Techniques for Achieving the Perfect Vocal Compression

Here are some key techniques for getting the perfect vocal compression:

  1. Faster Attack Time: Using a faster attack time can help catch and reduce the loudest transients, creating a more controlled and punchy vocal sound.
  2. Slow Attack Time: A slower attack time can help preserve the natural attack of the vocal, resulting in a more organic and dynamic sound.
  3. Clip Gain: Adjusting the clip gain (the overall volume) of the vocal track before compression can help optimize the compressor’s performance.
  4. Soft Knee: Using a soft knee compression curve can help create a more natural and smooth compression effect, especially for lead vocals.

Factors to Consider When Compressing Vocals

When compressing vocals, there are several important factors to consider:

  1. Genre of Music: The desired vocal sound can vary greatly depending on the genre, so it’s important to tailor your compression approach accordingly.
  2. Desired Vocal Sound: Are you going for a smooth, polished vocal or a more aggressive, punchy delivery? This will inform your compression settings.
  3. Reference Track: Comparing your compressed vocal to a professional reference track can help you dial in the perfect settings.
female vocalist recording vocals

Tips for Maintaining a Natural Sound While Compressing Vocals

While compression is essential for shaping the vocal tone, it’s important to avoid over-compressing, which can result in an unnatural, pumping sound. Here are some tips to help maintain a natural vocal sound:

  1. Use a Gentle Ratio: Start with a compression ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 and gradually increase it if needed.
  2. Avoid Heavy Compression: Aim for no more than 3-6 dB of gain reduction, as excessive compression can make the vocals sound squashed and unnatural.
  3. Adjust the Attack and Release Times: Experiment with different attack and release times to find the sweet spot that preserves the vocal’s natural transients and dynamics.
  4. Utilize Parallel Compression: Blending the compressed and uncompressed vocal signals can help retain the natural character of the performance.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Compressing Vocal Tracks

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when compressing vocal tracks:

  1. Over-Compression: Applying too much compression can result in an unnatural, pumping sound and a loss of vocal dynamics.
  2. Incorrect Threshold Setting: Setting the threshold too high or too low can lead to either not enough or too much compression.
  3. Inappropriate Ratio: Using an overly high compression ratio can make the vocals sound squashed and unnatural.
  4. Poorly Adjusted Attack and Release Times: Incorrect attack and release settings can cause unwanted artifacts or a loss of vocal clarity.

While there are many excellent compressors on the market, here are some that are particularly well-suited for vocal compression:

  1. Waves CLA-2A: A classic optical compressor that provides a smooth, analog-like compression.
  2. Teletronix LA-2A: Another iconic optical compressor known for its gentle, musical compression.
  3. Empirical Labs Distressor: A versatile FET compressor that can deliver both subtle and aggressive compression.
  4. Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B: A solid-state compressor that emulates the sound of classic tube-based designs.

Exploring the Benefits of Serial Compression for Vocals

In addition to the techniques mentioned earlier, serial compression can be a powerful tool for shaping the perfect vocal sound. By using multiple compressors in series, you can achieve a more intricate and controlled compression effect, allowing you to fine-tune the vocal’s dynamics and tone.

Enhanced ControlAllows for more precise adjustment of vocal dynamics.
Detailed ShapingEnables fine-tuning of the vocal tone and character.
Balanced DynamicsProvides a smoother and more consistent vocal performance by using multiple stages of compression.
VersatilityCombines the characteristics of different compressors for a unique sound.
Polished SoundResults in a more professional and refined vocal track.

Vocal Compression Techniques for Background Vocals

While the principles of vocal compression apply to both lead and background vocals, there are some specific techniques to consider when compressing background vocals:

  1. Use Multiband Compression: Dividing the background vocal signal into multiple frequency bands can help you control the overall balance and clarity of the harmonies.
  2. Employ Parallel Compression: Blending the compressed and uncompressed background vocals can help maintain the natural character of the performances.
  3. Adjust Attack and Release Times: Experiment with faster attack times to better control the transients and slower release times to smooth out the overall sound.

Finalizing the Vocal Compression Process

Once you’ve dialed in your vocal compression settings, it’s important to take a step back and listen to the overall mix. Make any necessary adjustments to ensure that the compressed vocals sit perfectly within the context of the full production.

Listen to the Full MixEnsure the compressed vocals fit well within the overall mix.
Make AdjustmentsFine-tune compression settings as needed to balance the vocals with other instruments.
Check for ClarityVerify that the vocal clarity and intelligibility are maintained after compression.
Adjust LevelsEnsure the vocal levels are consistent and sit properly in the mix.
Reference TrackCompare your mix with a professional reference track to ensure your vocals are at a competitive standard.

How To Compress Vocals (The Step-By-Step Guide!) – Video

Explore More Vocal Tips and Tools

Want to dive deeper into vocal production? Check out some of my other blog articles. Learn the ins and outs of perfecting your vocals with my guide on How to EQ Vocals. If you’re looking for the right tools, don’t miss my rundown on the Best DAW to Record Vocals.

Interested in high-quality vocal samples? Explore our Acapella Vocals product category for some fantastic options to elevate your tracks. And if you’re serious about mastering vocal production, enroll in our vocal production course with Kevin Energy & Jasmine Knight.

Keep pushing your music to new heights!


Vocal compression is a crucial tool in any audio engineer’s arsenal, and mastering the techniques for achieving the perfect compressed vocal sound can take your music to the next level. By understanding the fundamentals of compression, experimenting with different approaches, and avoiding common mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to creating professional-sounding vocal recordings.


How much compression should I use on my vocals?

The amount of compression will depend on the specific vocal performance, the genre of music, and the desired sound. As a general guideline, aim for no more than 3-6 dB of gain reduction.

What’s the difference between single compressor, parallel compression, and multiband compression?

Single compressor uses one compressor on the entire vocal track, parallel compression blends the compressed and uncompressed signals, and multiband compression divides the vocal into multiple frequency bands for independent compression.

How do I choose the right compressor for my vocals?

Consider the sonic character of the compressor, as well as its specific features and controls. Iconic compressors like the Teletronix LA-2A and Waves CLA-2A are excellent choices for vocal compression.

How do I avoid over-compressing my vocals?

Start with a gentle compression ratio, avoid excessive gain reduction, and experiment with different attack and release times to maintain a natural vocal sound.

What are the benefits of using serial compression on vocals?

Serial compression allows you to apply multiple stages of compression, giving you more control over the vocal’s dynamics and tone. This can result in a more polished and professional-sounding vocal.