Back to blog
November 18, 2020

Rich Keller's vocal distressor settings




Invented in 1995, the Empirical Labs EL-8 Distressor is not old enough to be considered a “vintage” compressor. That said, there’s no doubt it’s a classic. Go into any commercial studio or high-end personal studio, and you’re most likely going to see at least one if not more Distressors in the rack.

In this excerpt from “Rich Keller - Mixing Hip Hop Vocals,” Rich, who’s been using a Distressor as his primary vocal compressor for years, shows his favorite setting. Although Rich owns a hardware Distressor, he’s using the UAD plug-in version (the UAD Empirical Labs EL-8 Distressor) here, which provides an accurate emulation. Learn more about the UAD Distressor here.

Going on the Attack

Rich begins by explaining how he sets the Distressor for vocals. He starts by switching the Ratio to its Opto setting. That has a high 10:1 ratio and configures the Distressor to emulate the response of an optical compressor.

This is Rich’s typical vocal setting for the Distressor.

He sets the Attack time to be relatively slow. That makes the compressor react more slowly to the incoming signal, letting most transients pass through without being attenuated. He set it that way because he’s going for an overall reduction in the dynamic range—to keep louder lines from popping out too much—but he’s not looking for a super-squashed sound.

Setting a fast attack time when processing a vocal will clamp down on the transients and sound more obviously compressed. You may want that effect in some situations, but that’s not what Rich is going for here.

Inspector Detector

Next, Rich moves to the Detector section of the Distressor. It offers eight different options, consisting of various combinations of three sidechain functions: High Pass (filter), Band Emphasis and Stereo Link. Each setting causes the Detector to react to incoming signal differently and affects how the Distressor attenuates it.

A description of the Detector modes from the UAD Empirical Labs EL-8 Distressor manual.

For his vocal setting, Rich activates the Detector’s High Pass feature, which has a cutoff of 100Hz. He says he doesn’t want any low-frequency pops or foot stomps that may have gotten recorded on the vocal track to trigger the compressor. The logic for that is pretty straightforward: If you’re compressing a vocal (or any source for that matter), you only want its signal to activate the gain reduction.

Rich also turns on the Band Emphasis setting, which puts a boost in the sidechain at 6kHz. It’s designed to trigger compression of harsh midrange frequencies. Compressing in that range makes sense for a vocal. You want it to cut through but not in a harsh-sounding way.

More Choices

Next, he explains his settings for the Audio section of the Distressor, which offers six different options that include high-pass filtering of the audio (as opposed to the High-Pass Filter in the Detector, which filters only the sidechain signal) and two different types of distortion.

Rich chose the setting that engages the High Pass Filter and Distortion 2 option. The latter adds saturation that’s similar to what you get from overdriving a tube. Rich says it will provide some grit but is more subtle than Distortion 3, which he thinks would be excessive on this vocal.

Where you set the Input knob on a Distressor (or in this case, a Distressor emulation plug-in) is critical because it changes the threshold, which doesn’t have a separate control. The higher the Input signal, the lower the threshold and the more compression you get.

Rich sets the Input at just under 6, which is relatively high. He likes vocals to peak in the gain-reduction meter’s yellow range (-7db to -10dB) with occasional spikes into the red at around -12db to -14dB.

Rich likes the gain reduction on the vocal to mainly be in the yellow range, with occasional peaks into the lower part of the red.

Distressing without Stress

He sets up a loop of a short section of the vocal track and compares it with the Distressor bypassed and activated. With the compression off, the word “hero” is quite a bit louder than the rest of the line and sticks out too much. When the Distressor is on, it attenuates that word and smooths out the line.

However, Rich decides that because “hero” is triggering heavy gain reduction (-14dB), which itself can sound distorted, it would probably be better to turn off the Distressor’s distortion. He points out that even though he usually uses the distortion on vocals, it was too much this time. “You have to deal with what you have in front of you, not what you did last week,” he says, which is sage advice in the studio.

Vocal in Distress

The Distressor is exceptionally versatile and capable of a wide range of compression effects. Because its Input control affects the compression threshold, you can use that knob as one of the ways to vary the compression amount. You can also use the Mix (Dry/Wet) knob to reduce the amount of compression by blending in some dry signal. By doing so, you’re creating parallel compression.

In the upcoming example. You’ll hear the same four-bar vocal phrase play three times. The first time, there’s no compression on it, and the dynamics are pretty uneven.

The second time the Distressor plug-in is on, with a setting based on what Rich used in the excerpt, but the Input is about 6.5 instead of 5.5. Also, the Attack is faster: 5.4 instead of 8.1. The Distressor is controlling the dynamics but compressing too heavily in the context of this song.

The third time through, the Mix knob is set just below half, which reduces the compression and controls the dynamics without being too heavy handed.

The final Distressor setting on the vocal example.

So Variable

Like most compressors, you can change the behavior of the Distressor pretty significantly by adjusting Input (which controls the threshold), Attack and Release. In the following example, you’ll hear a Distressor on a drum bus. The Ratio is set at 6:1 for the entire example. For the first four measures, the Attack is at 8, the Release at 2 and the Input at 4.5.

On measure 5, the Attack is reduced to 1.4. The faster attack means the Distressor is catching more of the transients. With that additional energy coming into the Detector, the amount of gain reduction increases from -1dB to -5dB. With the Release set low, you can hear pumping, as well.

On measure 9, the Release is set to 6, quite a bit slower, which means the attenuation is holding longer. The amount of Gain reduction stays the same, but the pumping stops, and the sound cleans up.

Finally, on measure 13, the Input is increased to 6.5. On the Distressor, the more you turn up the Input, the harder you hit the compressor, so going to 6.5 brings the Gain Reduction up to a peak of -14dB. Focus on the snare drum as you listen to the example and you’ll hear the differences most clearly.

The setting for the third time through of the drum example.