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Recording vocals - with or without a compressor

Recording vocals or speech is certainly one of the supreme disciplines in audio production. Above all, I would like to focus on the vocal recording.

A lot of factors during the recording determine the technical and musical quality of what is afterwards on the “record”. On the technical side, these are the quality of the entire signal chain, from the room to the microphone to the cable, preamp and converter, as well as the listening situation of the producer or sound engineer. On the content side, the experience of the singer and the “social skills”, the empathy of the producer or technician and also the overall spatial situation during the recording determine the subsequent quality.

As you can see, the specific technical question “record vocals - with or without a compressor” is already very detailed and just a tiny component in the very large framework of vocal recordings.


QUESTION

In addition to the well-known "audio production truths" from the rich fund of the Internet, there is also the following sentence:

"When recording, you should generally do without a compressor so that nothing is built in during post-processing and you still have all the options!"

Yes, what now? So should you use a compressor during the recording and record it with it, or should you refrain from it and do without it? Or maybe there are gradations and is that again not so general?

I would like to shed light on this question from all sides and put together the individual points for a pro and a con and perhaps also give you some advice or suggestion as "best practice" on the way.


PRO

There are of course historical reasons for using a compressor or limiter during recording, namely to limit the dynamics, since a tape or a converter should not be approached too "hot". This is of course no longer relevant today, with high-quality AD converters and DAWs.

But sound is of course a very important point, because a compressor determines the sound of a recording just like a preamp or an EQ in the signal chain, even in zero position and when it may not really "do" anything!

If you don't think so technically, but musically, you will find that singers who have dynamic jumps in their voice, perhaps due to a lack of control or for style reasons, are outside the correct stress lines and therefore tend to be irregular and lead bumpy vocals, and even if the singer is on the road "in time", using a compressor during the recording would produce completely different results.

So the work of the compressor gives direct feedback on the vocals and will result in better timing, expression and sound.

There is of course the question of whether the compressor would only be used for monitoring, but I would refrain from doing so and record it directly as the singer and I heard it during the recording.


CON

You could say that the freedom of choice “depends” on everything up to the mix. But there are other reasons that speak against using a compressor.

For example, if you don't know exactly where you want to go or if you have little or no experience, you shouldn't do it, because otherwise you might just “ruin” your recording and have no chance of repairing it later.

With the dynamics available today for converters with 24-bit and more, from a technical point of view there is no longer any need to restrict the dynamics and tape machines with perhaps a lower signal-to-noise ratio are a thing of the past and only occupy a niche with the "vintage" stamp!


RECOMMENDATION

So I would recommend anyone who knows exactly where they want to go sound-technically and aesthetically and has enough experience to record a compressor (or several) during tracking.

Especially in times of the attitude "You can do that and decide later!" I am, however, a big fan of making decisions while recording, because today's possibilities are, in my opinion, more of a curse than a blessing. Who doesn't know hundreds of takes from a vocal tracking without a clear recognizable direction? If I have learned one thing from years of recording experience, then it is “to throw away” recordings!

I do it like this, a little, or even more, compression, depending on the style, when recording and also a little bit when mixing. Because I think it makes sense musically, far from technical discussions about headroom or level peaks.

Of course, there is also the famous “middle way”, you can also choose to only insert the compressor into the listening path, so that it helps the singer but does not record. But I don't find that useful.

So this is my plea for a compressor in the vocal recording chain!

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