SHOULD YOU COMPRESS OR AUTOMATE YOUR VOCALS?
This is a great question and one that we are going to take a closer look at with this article.
You have the perfect track for your artist and now it comes the time that you are ready to record. Your artist comes in to the studio and after a few takes you feel that you have an awesome recording here. You shake hands with your artist as they are leaving and say, "I will send you the mix over just as soon as I am done." You pull up the vocal along with your track only to find that the takes weren't as great as you thought. In many parts the vocals just seem to get lost in the mix. Oh no.....what do you do? Do you reach for the compressor or do you go back in and automate the levels? Well the time in which you need to have it done is important but there are many other factors to consider so let's take a closer look at this question.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
So is there a difference between compression and automation? Despite what some may tell you there is not really a difference between the two. Compression reduces the dynamic range of audio; the difference between the quiet parts and peaks. See a compressor will do the same thing as fader riding or drawing in your own automation as it concerns volume. So this means that if you had a very dynamic sound, let's say a lead vocal that you either ride the fader going in, or drawn in your own volume automation or compress it. One method does not have a lot of benefit over another as the end result will be the same. Now you will also add the flavor of the compressor you are using to the sound you are working with and in this case there is a difference between compression and automation. Sometimes this is a good thing. The reason engineers have been using the LA-2A on vocals since 1965 is partly because of it's sonic character.
COMPRESSION vs AUTOMATION
When it comes to working with vocals it is important for them to sound as natural as impossible (unless you are going for some sort of effect). This is because for most of us we hear the human voice each and every day. This means that we have certain expectations when we hear it. For this reason and many, many others it is very important that it doesn't sound over compressed or weird sounding. So when it comes to compression vs automation it really depends on your skill set as to which one is better for your project.
SHOULD I COMPRESS MY VOCALS?
There really isn't a yes or no answer to this question. It is impossible to say yes you should compress your vocals every time or no you should not. Again, this is something that comes down to skill set, material and overall goals with the vocal. But I will give you my guidelines for when I do and when I don't compress.
First off it is important to learn to be able to fader ride or draw in automation as part of your engineering skills when it comes to vocals. Compression may always appear to be the quick answer when you hear volume issues in a vocal but it is not always the best answer. If you only know how to use a compressor proficiently then you have limited options.
When it comes to compression on a vocal I use one just about every time, but almost NEVER for volume. If it is something I did not record myself then I usually go in and automate the volume at points where it needs to poke through the mix or it may be poking too far out in the mix so my automation will correct this without effecting the sound. Once I get the volume the way it should have been recorded then I run it though a compressor for it's sonic character. It does require a little more work but by using this method my vocals are never over compressed due to volume.
Now this is just one way to do it. Of course there are tons of others. You could compress on the way in if you record your own vocals. You could manually adjust the fader as you are recording. You could use more than one compressor at the mix stage so the compression is not so drastic. And that really is the goal here which is for your vocals to NOT sound so drastically different then how the average listener expects it to sound (unless you are going for some type of effect).
WHEN SHOULD YOU COMPRESS OR AUTOMATE?
Great question! But it does not have a great answer. This is because there is not a blanket answer that will cover all situations. Like I said earlier I actually do both to most vocals so sometimes the answer is compress, sometimes it's automate and sometimes the answer is both. It all depends on the skills of the mixer, the material and what you are trying to do. IMHO I would reach for the automation before reaching for the compressor when it comes to lead vocal just so that I am not squashing it. When it comes to other sounds in the mix and I am trying to get proper level I just adjust the volume for that. Because I mix through sub busses (meaning I mix all my tracks down to sub channels and then those sub channels go to the master fader; for example all the drums are mixed into a drum buss) I am apply an effect to a group of sounds and not to just one instrument.
Compression vs automation and when to use which one is truly a matter of person taste. So that means one is not better than the other when it comes to your next mix. Where the dividing lines start to form is when it comes to skill set. A mixer should be able to listen to a track, address it's issues and decide that compression is best here or that automation is best here or neither. At the end of the day it is up to the person working on the track and that is you. The key here is to be able to have more than one option to you when it comes to controlling volume and dynamics. Learning more than one way to handle a problem will always give you less stress in the studio and isn't mixing tough enough? Happy mixing!
Article written by Alex Butler
Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.