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Welcome to Blue’s Podcasting Basics. A series of articles that give you helpful tips on how to edit and mix your podcasts to sound their absolute best.
If you’re just starting to record your own podcasts, you may be wondering how to improve your vocal sound. And if you’ve been recording podcasts for a while, you may be familiar with using plug-ins to change—or “process”—the vocal sound in your podcast. In this article, we’ll focus on compression: basic processing that’s essential for almost any podcaster.
Compression is an awesome way to give your vocal track a rich, consistent sound. By raising the overall volume of your track while controlling the louder moments in your performance, compression can give your vocal that steady “radio” sound.
Adding compression to your tracks gives your vocal a more controlled dynamic range, giving your podcast a more professional sound.
When you’re getting started, it can be intimidating to use some of these tools on your own. But compressors are easier to work with than they may appear. And even though there are many, many ways to use compression on your vocal, here are some helpful and easy settings to get started.
If you’ve read our article, Understanding Compressors, you’ll be familiar with many of the knobs and labels on most compressors. So let’s talk about how you can quickly get your vocal sounding rich and consistent. We’ll get your compressor ready in three steps so that you only need to worry about two easy settings.
Logic’s on-board compressor.
1) First you’ll want to set your Ratio to 3:1.
Logic’s compressor with the Ratio (center dial) set to 3:1.
2) Next, set a relatively low Attack and Release. I’d recommend 5ms for both.
Logic’s compressor with a “soft” knee, and Attack and Release set at very low, or “fast” settings
3) If you can control the “knee”—adjust for a soft, sloping knee.
These settings are just a starting point. Now you’re ready to adjust for your performance. Play your track while you have your compressor open. As the track plays, reduce the threshold until the Gain Reduction meter reads between -3dB and -10dB at your loudest moments.
A vocal track through Logic’s compressor. The Threshold has been reduced to -27.5 dB. Notice the white gain reduction meter hovering between 0 dB and -10 dB on the right hand side of the graph.
Once you have the threshold set, watch the gain reduction meter for 20-30 seconds, and get a sense of the average amount it’s compressing your voice. This may be around 3dB, or it may be 4-6dB. The gain reduction meter will jump around, but you’re looking for the average amount. Just eyeball it. Once you have this in mind, set the Gain knob to that number.
Logic’s compressor with the Makeup Gain dial at 3.5 dB. This setting closely matches the amount of gain being reduced.
So if the compressor is reducing your track by around -4dB, set your Gain output to 4dB. I like to keep my average gain reduction and makeup gain below 6dB because that generally sounds the most natural.
One more time:
Get the majority of your settings dialed in. Play your track. Adjust the Threshold for moderate vocal compression. And add about the same amount of gain as is being reduced from your track. Boom. You’re done.
This approach will improve most vocal tracks and help you to get your vocal sounding much more rich and consistent.
Sometimes you’ll come across simplified, all-in-one compressors that give you less control. This is exactly what you’ll find in Garage Band. With Garage Band, we’ll take similar steps to the recommendations above. First, get the volume of your track set to a comfortable spot, and then hit play. As it’s playing:
1) Select the “Smart Controls” for your track in the upper left hand corner of the window
The “Smart Controls” menu can be found in the upper left hand corner of Garage Band’s main window. The button looks like a round dial.
2) Make sure “Track” is selected on the control panel that pops up
Smart Controls will pop up in the bottom of your window. Make sure “Track” is selected in the upper left hand corner of this control panel.
3) Turn on the compressor using the digital switch in the compressor section
To turn on the compressor, simply flip the switch!
4) Move the “Amount” dial to the right until you start seeing the blue LEDs to the right light up
5) Adjust the amount until you’re consistently achieving 2-4 of the LED bulbs lighting up when you’re loud
While your track is playing, increase the “Amount” dial until you see the LED lights blinking. A good rule of thumb is to set the “Amount” so that when you are your loudest, three to four LEDs light up.
6) Use your ears, and decide if you would like more or less of this effect and adjust accordingly
While you can’t make specific changes, Garage Band does a good job of making you sound great with a few easy controls.
Like most things, compression isn’t always a good thing. If you overdo it, it can make your tracks sound downright ugly. Too much compression will be immediately recognizable to the ear. If the Threshold is set too low, the audio reduction will squash your voice and sound really dramatic. If there’s a lot of background noise in your recording, compression will raise the volume of that information, too, and your track can become really noisy. If the Knee is too hard, it can feel like your vocal hits a brick wall when you get louder. The Attack and Release settings can make your track sound wonky.
Here the Threshold is maxed at -50 dB. Notice the white bar on the right hand side of the graph—it’s showing over 20 dB of gain reduction! That’s one squashed vocal.
So make sure to listen to how changing these settings affect your audio. The biggest rule of thumb is to just use compression in moderation.
As with any artistic expression, the most important thing is to have fun, experiment, and use your taste to make decisions. There’s no “right” way to compress a vocal. There are no settings that will work perfectly every time. The recommendations above are a safe starting place. But use your ears! Start listening for how compression affects your vocal. WAY over-compress your vocal and listen to how it sounds. Use your ear and bring your settings back to a place that sounds comfortable to you.