Lead Vocal Compression
Let’s face it folks, the lead vocal is the most important part of a live performance, at least as far a pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop or any show with a lead vocalist show goes. Granted if you’re mixing Yo Yo Ma then obviously the cello becomes your lead instrument but for now let’s assume you’re in the world of mixing a live concert with a lead vocalist. To paraphrase a popular saying, “No one goes home humming the bassline.” Actually, as a bass player I often do go home humming basslines but that’s another blog! Ok, moving on…
Successfully mixing a show with a lead singer means knowing the music, the singer and their habits. Having toured with Cee Lo Green for nearly 4 years, I obviously got to know him and his little quirks quite well. He’s an amazing singer with a powerful voice though in all honesty he’s got pretty bad mic technique. Coming from the hip-hop world he’s an infamous “mic cupper” and would rarely adhere to even the most basic mic handling protocols. Despite our attempts to get him to observe better mic technique he never really did so we (my MON eng and myself) had to adapt… and adapt we did. My typical solution for an artist like that would be to use pretty copious amounts of compression to smooth things out. Well, that didn’t work well with Cee Lo at all. He was so dynamic and soulful that any more than very slight compression just didn’t work. I found that the only real way to get his voice to stay out front and “lead the way” so to speak was to ride his fader manually. It became easy once I knew all the songs by heart but in the beginning it was pretty tough to try and anticipate where he might go with things. Working with him so much I fondly recalled my days in the studio and riding vocals with automation throughout a song. This was back in the day when folks actually welcomed and accentuated dynamics, rather than compressing the snot out of everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of compression and use lots of it. But I do miss hearing mixes (both live and recorded) with some ups and downs. Working my way through the studios of NYC gave me plenty of time to observe and learn from engineers using what we now refer to as “Parallel Compression” or in some cases, “NY Compression.” Compression on the instrument tracks, compression on the groups and finally, compression on all the available buses. It is interesting to have seen the genesis of those techniques (at least from my point of view) and to now see them employed almost everywhere.
Now working with Wiz Khalifa I find myself mixing for an artist who also cups the mic but does so in a way that works well for him. He’s remarkably consistent so I find that I can use compression almost as an effect rather than a corrective tool. With Wiz specifically I first use the SMACK compressor set on “warm”, with a 4:1 ratio, slow attack and fast release. In/Out settings are usually 7/3. I then have his channel going into McDSP’s Channel G Compact plug-in which I am a HUGE fan of. I have it set again with a 4:1 ratio, though this time with a relatively fast attack and fast release. I chain the compressors so that anything that slips past the threshold of the SMACK comp will likely get grabbed by the Channel G comp and keep things in check. This allows me to set his fader so he’s nice and loud just in front of the band. I can then concentrate a bit less on riding Wiz’s fader and instead work on all the FX that recreates the recordings.
As with anything you need to experiment to find the “sweet spot” that works for a particular artist and/or instrument. The best way to find out what something might need is to listen carefully with nothing on the channel in question… no EQ, no compression… nothing. Only when you encounter something that can’t be fixed by a better mic, better mic placement, a different instrument, etc. should you reach for EQ or dynamics to correct it. KISS is my mantra, Keep It Simple Stupid!