How do you know how much compression to use on a vocal?

There are a lot of opinions when it comes to vocal compression. I was taught in recording school to never get more than 3 db of gain reduction. Although that may work sometimes, its definitely not always the case! Odds are, a singer will belt a high note 15db louder than the previous note and the threshold setting will not tame that note enough at all. So this may sound cliche but with compression you have to use your ears. If you are compressing the vocal and getting 8 to 10 db of gain reduction how does it sound? Here are some red flags….does the voice sound extra harsh when compressed harder? Did the breaths the singer takes in between words get really loud? Is the sibilance very loud and cutting? If yes, then it’s a bit over compressed. So what do you do when one setting isn’t compressing the vocal enough and the other setting has those side effects? Good question. There are a few options. Here’s what I suggest. If you are mixing something upbeat with a full production like pop, hiphop, or rock….you can compress it pretty hard to get the vocal nicely leveled and when the side effects creep in, use a dynamic eq like I talked about in a previous post to make the vocal less harsh in the areas that are a problem. As for the breaths, use volume automation or clip gain to manually bring down the level of each breath. However for other genres like acoustic, soft pop, or anything that’s more dynamic you would compress the vocals less to where the side effects aren’t happening.At this point he vocal may not be leveled enough, so after the vocal is lightly compressed, you can now listen through the song and automate the vocal volume on certain words. The best way would be to set the vocals to where the quieter notes are at a good level and then just automate the louder words or sections down. Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comment section!

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