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Music Production Specifics – Pre-Production – Don’t Self Compress!

By James Pew

There are two key components regarding the pathway out of self compressing (checkout yesterdays post for more details on self compressing). The first is breath control (this needs its own post). The second is enunciation.

At Euphonic Sound we use what is referred to as a “soft knee” hardware compressor when we record vocals. Its a custom made (Origin Audio Electronics) hi-fi Opto-tube compressor. Its called soft knee because it has a relatively slow attack time. Unlike most compressors it does not have attack and release controls. The attack and release curve is built in. Soft knee means it has a soft (slow) attack. This means that fast transients (the initial attack of any musical note, including sung notes from vocalists) are much less effected (distorted) than the remainder of the musical note (referred to as the on-set phase of the note, or everything past the transient phase).

What does self compression sound like?

When you emulate the sound of your favorite vocalists on recordings you emulate not only their vocal stylings but you may also be incorporating the sound of the audio processing that is included on the record. As mentioned in yesterdays post singers get the audio compression treatment in popular forms, pretty much without exception. Compression helps to keep the vocal on top of the mix by reducing dynamic range and increasing average loudness. But it also smears the detail of the sound, especially transients (the initial attack of a note). Self compression means you are incorporating the sound of audio effects (mostly compression) into the sound that comes out of your voice acoustically. This sounds much less tone-full and less articulate. Muddy is a good word that comes to mind.

Why do transients matter?
First of all transients are extremely fast. Its the onset phase of a note (the phase past the transient phase) that sticks around for a longer period of time in most cases. So doesn’t that mean the on-set phase is more important? Short answer is no. I read about a study where sound engineers recorded long notes played by both an oboe and a pipe organ. They sliced the transient phase of the oboe note and pasted it onto the on-set phase of the pipe organ note and vice versa. When the notes where played back to groups of musicians and producers, they identified the instrument by whatever the transient phase was. So even though the oboe transient was only a few milliseconds pasted onto the on-set phase of a pipe organ note that lasted several seconds, people with trained ears heard an oboe.

It is the transient that appears to hold most of the key sonic information that tells a listener what they are listening too. Even though I use a soft knee hardware compressor on vocalists (which effects transients less), it is still necessary for the singer to have solid vocal technique (no self compressing) in order to sound best.

Self Compressing in a nutshell.
When a singers voice is trapped or locked in their head, instead of open and resonant in the body (chest voice). Also, when a singer doesn’t open their mouth and enunciate the words clearly. These two issues regarding voice resonance and enunciation are the typical issues I see in vocalists who are emulating or mimicking the sound of other vocalists on recordings. This is self compressing. When you do it you sound more like a voice that has been processed by audio effects and less like a human singing un-effected in a room. You need to sound natural and un-effected, not only so that you sound your best, but so that the compressors and other effects used in the studio environment can best do what they are designed to do.

If you ever get the chance to watch/hear a pro vocalist in the studio you many be surprised at how they sound in the room, compared to how it plays back over the audio system after the voice has passed through a compressor or two. The first time I heard this phenomenon I actually thought the singer sounded ridiculous in the room. He sounded a little like a choir or theatre singer to me. He sounded like he over enunciated. But on playback after all the compression was added it sounded fantastic. I didn’t quite put it all together at that point (it actually took years of exposure to similar musical situations) before I had an epiphany that helped me better understand what self compression vs. proper vocal technique actually is.

Most of the artists I produce get ushered into vocal training as part of their package. Even singers with great technique and chops are not immune to self compression. Like I said in yesterdays post, the sound of the vocal is of extreme importance and I feel its totally worth it to spend the extra time and energy to do more than just a recording session to capture a vocal performance. Many times the singer goes through what looks a lot more like a process that includes work shopping, rehearsing, recording, analysis, more work shopping & rehearsing, then final recording. Singers always see the benefit of the process we put them through and we always have a laugh at early versions of their vocal performance before we had the chance to workshop it and iron out the issues.

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