Compression is a tricky thing. We all know that big studios and famous engineers do it a lot and the results sound amazing. This rule also applies to live acts; a well-compressed vocal with a quality compressor is one of the definitions of beauty in my dictionary. The right unit might get you a step closer to achieving that sound. As I have been through so many of them in my life I decided to put together this post and review some of the most important ones out there. There were some surprises and, of course, a winner. In the end, you will find the answer to some questions I get a lot too.
The best vocal compressor on this batch is, without the shadow of a doubt, the Universal Audio 1176LN. If you can afford to have one of these in your studio, your productions will reach the next sonic level you were looking for.
Recommended Vocal Compression Processors
TC Helicon VoiceTone T1
What’s good: Cleans up almost any vocals, Easy to use
Not so good: De-Essing and compressing share the same knob, 24v on phantom power
What if I told you there is this cool pedal that can solve all the muddiness you have in your live vocals? Well, it is no wonder that it comes from a company like TC Helicon. This small, very compact, affordable, and rugged pedal is a one-stop solution for singers who need to compress and de-es their vocals live.
Although it sounds great when engaged, let me say that the fact that de-esser and compression share the same knob is a mistake. The second and third complaints I have with this pedal are phantom power with 24v and the lack of 9v operation. I understand the space issue on a Ditto Looper but not on a pedal this size.
On the other hand, this pedal is a definite plus to do that classic vocal compression that propels your mids forward and lets you cut through the mix. The difference is very noticeable when engaged; it will also remove the excess of lows or highs you might go through with your voice in live situations. It is a great live-oriented pedal for singers of all genres.
What’s good: Ease of use, Clear, big screen
Not so good: Vocal compression sounds nasal, Effects sound unnatural
Boss range of vocal processors is always on top of the game. In fact, that is short; as pioneers and cutting edge researchers, regardless of the instrument you play, they are on top of the game. That being said, it was about time Boss implemented the mic-stand multi-FX processor for vocalists.
For this unit (available in white or red), the ease of use and the big screen are huge allies during live performances. The triple “favorite sound” switches make it very easy to go from one sound you love in the verses to a full-on exploding one on the chorus touching just one button.
All of the above sounds amazing when read on paper, but the actual sound of the unit is a little disappointing. Boss will have to continue to work especially on the FX side to make it more realistic. The vocal compression available makes you sound a tad nasal and bypassing the unit sometimes feels like a relief. The Boss VE-5 is a great idea badly applied to a mediocre product.
Universal Audio 1176LN
What’s good: Sounds like the legend it is: amazing, Musical, fast and perfect
Not so good: Costs over $2000, It is big, heavy and takes up a lot of space
Let´s begin by saying that if you are currently using one of these in your studio you can say that “you made it”. It is hard to find a more straight-forward, great-sounding, utterly reliable voice compressor than this. The legend was born way back in 1967 with the first 1176 units.
They have been in records by names like Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and more. All you get to do the magic is four knobs and some buttons with a VU meter to show you where you´re at.
The Universal Audio 1176LN sounds crystal clear while being musical and articulate. The components are top-notch and you get a very characteristic fast-attack that makes vocals jump right out at the listener.
To most audio engineers in the world, it is the quintessential vocal compressor by which all the rest is judged. On the other hand is very big, heavy and will cost you over $2000 to have one.
What’s good: Sounds really well on most case scenarios, Two presets from the world-famous 160 unit, Sturdy construction
Not so good: It is not easy to use for beginners
dbx is a company that can be called the quintessential gear on any given studio. The VCA series was so famous back in the day it must have been present in all the records you heard growing up. This unit represents the 160 series in a smaller, more affordable package that can very well solve all your vocal compression needs in a home studio. It is not a live-situation compressor but it makes every penny of its price worth it when recording.
That being said, what I think is the only difficulty with it is that it needs to be used by someone who knows what he or she is doing. There are a couple of shortcuts like the OverEasy and Hard Knee but other than that it is a little hard to dial in if you don´t have some knowledge about analog compressors. It is a mighty studio tool that sounds professional in the hands of those who have the knowledge to operate it properly.
What’s good: Sounds very good in mid, low-mid and high-mid registers, The OverEasy function is very useful
Not so good: Power switch is on the back, Hiss and noises, especially in the high frequencies
Arguably, rack-mounted gear tends to disappear with time. Back in the 80s we would all go to the venues with our big rack-mounted processors and played loud and proud through them, but that is fading away to make room for the new: floor-based units.
The dbx 266xs is a product made by a company that has a longer-than-life heritage in making top-notch, studio-quality products. In this case, the affordability of this unit does have an impact on the resulting sound.
While most of the products of the line sound refined and crystal-clear, the 266xs tends to add a little hiss and noise especially to the higher frequencies. This, depending of the tone of your voice, can be a serious issue. Remember, the more you compress and crank an instrument, the more the flaws will pop to the surface. The presets are very welcome since they come from the utterly famous 160A units.
Finally, I can´t even begin to think about why you would make a rack-mounted unit (which was designed to live inside a rack) and install the on/off switch in the back where it is very difficult to reach. It is a fine vocal compressor for the price tag.
What is vocal compression?
Compression can be described as cutting off the peaks and leveling up the valleys while making a vocal line sound louder. Unlike most instruments, human voices are highly fluctuating, and hence, you might end up with a part that sounds too quiet and another that sounds too loud. If you just push it all evenly up with a volume knob, you´ll get clipping on the louder parts.
Applying a good compressor to such a vocal line will allow you to increase the volume of the valleys setting a threshold so it will never sound below that volume and level-off the peaks making sure they never go beyond a set volume. This way you can achieve a more consistent, louder sound throughout the song.
How many compressors do you need for vocals?
The answer to this question can be given in a million different ways. After so many years behind a mixing console I can tell you what works for me:
Compress coming in – If you have a truly good compressor like the Universal Audio above, you can compress the sound coming in from the singer. This will allow you to get a better take. On the other hand, it can´t be undone later on the mix, so you have to really know and love that compressor.
After major moves – If I do a major move on a vocal-like a hard EQ or a De-Esser, then I compress again so the vocal won´t lose its snap and attack. Also, when adding effects such as reverb and delay, compression is very important to maintain volume and punch.
As the last thing in the chain – If I have many things in the effects chain of a vocal take I always put a compressor at the end to keep it snappy and punchy.
In the end, it is a trial-and-error thing as long as you have the right tools to work with. Try these scenarios out and you might start the journey on your right foot.