In most songs, the vocal is the main feature that captures the listener’s attention. With so many other elements of the mix happening in the background it’s important to make the vocal stand out, yet sit musically in the entire mix.
In this blog post, I’ll explain a few of my favourite techniques when working with vocals. Some are well known, and some aren’t. Hopefully, I can surprise you and add a new trick to your mixing toolbox.
A great vocal production is much easier to achieve with a great recording and performance.
Which Mic Should I Use to Record Vocals?
If you’re serious about recording a lot of vocals, then you should head down to a pro audio dealer and try the microphones yourself. Different microphones have different tones. Finding one that works well with your voice will have a positive effect on your vocal productions. Below are two microphones that I think are the best in their price range.
Beginner: sE 2200a II
Pro: Neumann U87
Simple Home Studio Vocal Booth
Think carefully about which room you record vocals in if you’re in a home studio. You probably don’t want to record in a room with a prominent echo, so choose a room with a flatter sound. A reflection shield is an inexpensive and effective way to tame reflections in your room. Placing some acoustic treatment or a duvet behind the standing point of the singer can also be very effective for getting a clean sound. Always use a pop shield to reduce the energy of the plosive syllables.
Capturing The Performance
When recording the vocal, focus on getting a captivating and emotional performance above all else. Great tuning is also important but pitchy vocals are fixable to some extent.
Step By Step Guide On How To Get A Pro Sounding Vocal
So you’re at your starting point, you’ve got a raw mono vocal recording to work with. Getting that pro sound takes time. As mentioned before the vocal is often the most important feature of a track so it deserves a proportionate amount of your attention. Your mix will suffer if you skip any fundamental steps.
Essential to-do list before using any plugins:
- Chose the best takes based on performance, tuning and timing (and prioritise the selection of the takes in that respective order… Performance first, then tuning, then timing).
- Clean up the audio. Remove clicks and unwanted noises.
- If needed, splice and move the audio to make sure the timing is on point.
At this point, the vocal should be sounding pleasant to listen to when soloed. If it doesn't sound good, ask yourself why and try to improve on that when you re-record.
The Vocal Chain
When you’re shaping the sound of your vocal, you want to be listening to the vocal in the context of the whole mix. It’s fine to do a few tweaks with the vocal channel soloed, but don’t spend too long making mixing decisions whilst the other instruments are muted.
Controlling the dynamics Part 1
Vocals are extremely dynamic. It’s important to control the dynamic range so the quiet parts of the performance are easily audible and the louder parts don’t shock the listener. Most people use a compressor for this job, and it can yield good results. But even when the vocal is moderately dynamic, the compressor ends up working too hard and it sounds unnatural. A better option is to insert a gain plugin as the first plugin in your vocal chain. If you take the time to automate the gain of your vocal you will get a much more natural sounding final result. Note, it’s important to use a gain plugin rather than automating the channel fader. This is because the channel fader can be used for the overall volume of the vocal and it will be difficult to tweak if you have already written the automation.
The sonics of a voice are most prominent around 300Hz to 7kHz. For that reason, you can and should use a low cut filter on a parametric EQ to remove any low frequencies that the microphone may have picked up during the recording. That low-end space should be kept free for the kick and bass elements in your mix. You may want to make other subtle changes to the balance of your vocal at this point. Listen to your vocals in the context of the whole mix to get a feel for the tonal balance. Is it too harsh, too bassy, too tinny?
If I’m using a pitch correction plugin, I would place it after my corrective EQ in my vocal chain. Make sure you’ve identified the major or minor key of your track and play with the settings of the plugin to suit your preferences.
Controlling the dynamics Part 2
We’ve balanced out the dynamic range of our vocal already, but light compression can be used to round off and even out the sound. Sometimes using two compressors with light settings in succession can have a better sound than using one compressor with heavier settings.
The esses can sound very sharp and oftentimes will need to be tamed. I like to use a de-esser with subtle settings to begin with as I know I’ll need to tweak it once I’ve added more character and attitude to my vocal. Be careful not to overuse the de-esser as this will make your vocal sound muffled. It’s always good to listen to your vocal in the context of the whole mix regularly to make sure you’re heading in the right direction and you don’t negatively process the sound.
We’ve set a great foundation so far and now we can start to have fun shaping the sound. There are a number of things you can do give your vocal some attitude…
Analogue emulation compressors can add some harmonic content and interesting character to your audio. You can play around with the attack and release settings to add some bite to the sound of your vocal. In this example, I’ve used a Fairchild 670 to add some harmonics to the upper frequencies giving it a little distortion which also adds clarity. The Fairchild also enhances the depth of the low frequencies giving the vocal more body.
You can use a sweeter sounding analogue emulation EQ plugin here to get your vocals to cut through the mix. Boosting tastefully in the 1kHz-5kHz region can really put your vocal at the front of the mix. You can also play around with some high-end air anywhere above 10kHz to add some sparkle. If you find this is making your esses too harsh then back off the boost or tweak the de-esser settings.
I like to keep the main vocal channel free of any spatial effects like reverb or delay. I prefer to create aux channels and send the vocal signal to them. This allows me to make clinically precise adjustments with ease.
Short Verb: I’ll insert a short slappy reverb here. I’ll set the wet/dry to 100% wet (as the vocal channel already has the dry signal perfectly balanced in the mix). If I want the vocal to be punchy and close I’ll have the short reverb slightly more prominent in the mix than the long reverb
Long Verb: I’ll insert a longer more ambient reverb here. Again, I’ll set the wet/dry to 100% wet and play with the settings until I’m happy with the sound. These long reverbs can make the vocal sound a bit washed out and flat, which is why I find the pre-delay setting to be very important here. The pre-delay is the amount of time before the reverb kicks in. The more you increase the pre-delay the more separated the main vocal and the reverb are. This can add clarity but too much separation won’t sound musical.
With longer reverbs, I might use an EQ after to further shape the sound. Especially if I feel the reverb is picking up the esses too much and sounds harsh.
Delay/Echo: I might use a few delay and echo aux channels when producing a vocal. It will depend on the rhythmic nature of the track. If a track has a fairly simple rhyme part, I might create something of a feature using a ping pong delay (jumping from the left speaker to the right speaker) and automate the settings to add suspense and release in the mix.
SLAM: On this aux channel, I’ll insert a limiter or a compressor and make the vocal sound like it’s really pumping aggressively. Fast attack, fast release, the threshold set to make the compressor kick in heavily with every syllable. I’ll then blend this into the mix very subtly until I feel the vocals are sitting in front of the other elements in the mix.
GRIT: Sometimes a vocal needs that extra squeeze of something to give it more flavour. I might use an exciter, distortion or some tape saturation to add some grit to the sound. Again, I’ll create an aggressive setting and just add a touch of it into the mix to add energy without overdoing it.
AIR: On this aux channel, I’ll insert an EQ plugin with a super sweet top end. I love the UAD Pultec EQP-1A for this job. I find this EQ really comes to life when you fully boost the 8, 10, 12 or 16 on the KCS knob. However, if this setting was used on the main vocal channel, it would be way too much high-end presence and would ruin the balance. By using an aux channel I can dial in just the amount I want and blend it with the more natural sound of the vocal channel.
Detuned Width: I like to open two aux channels with the vocal send and panned hard left and the other hard right. I’ll then add a pitch shifter to each of the two aux channels and change the pitch very slightly (less than a semitone). If I increase the pitch of the left channel, I’ll decrease the pitch of the right. I’ll have these quite low in the mix but they will add some subtle width to the vocal whilst adding a bit of ear candy.
There are a few simple rules to follow when producing backing vocals.
- Perfect tuning isn’t important. Actually, if all the BVs had perfect tuning (using heavy pitch correction) there would be a good chance of overlapping frequencies and therefore phase cancellation.
- Timing is very important. Unison BVs should be perfectly in time with each other and the lead vocal. Especially the esses as they will stick out if they’re not in time.
- Breaths can be totally removed to get a cleaner sound.
- They should compliment the lead vocals, they need to be more ambient and less ‘in your face’ than the lead.
- Use the stereo field. The lead vocal should be in mono and central in the mix but the BVs can have as much width as you like. Keep it balanced, pan as many left as you do right.
How Loud Should The Vocal Be In The Mix?
This question is subjective to a certain degree, however, most tracks have the vocal in a ballpark area that just works. A quick way to get a great level is to use a reference track. Listen to the reference track in mono through one speaker and focus on how loud the vocal is in the mix. Flick back to the track you’re working on and adjust the level of your vocal to sit in your mix in a similar way. Why mono? I find it makes it easier to assess how the mix is balanced.
When setting the level of the vocal (and working on the vocal in general) I highly recommend spending some time using headphones. It gets you really close to the intricacies of the sound and allows you pick up on things you might miss when listening through monitors. Listening to your mix in both mono and stereo is great. When using headphones you don’t have to listen in mono through one headphone, this is only advised for monitors.
How Should I Mix Vocals For A Club Sound System?
I get this question a lot. Firstly let me clear up why it is notoriously tricky to get your vocals sounding great on both your studio monitors and on a club sound system. The club sound system outputs audio in mono whereas your monitors output the audio in stereo. When the stereo signal is summed to mono, overlapping frequencies and phase issues can cause some elements in your mix to sound like they've gotten quieter.
So how to avoid this issue? Simple, check your mix regularly in mono through one speaker. You’ll be able to hear your track as it will be heard in the club. If there is an obvious change in the loudness of your vocal then you probably have phase issues. These phase issues are most often caused by the spatial effects such as the reverbs and delays. Luckily you created aux channels for these effects so you can mute each aux channel until you find the one cause the problems. Once you’ve found the problematic channel (or channels) you could try tweaking the settings whilst listening in mono through one speaker. You could also try slightly panning the channel or even using a sample delay plugin to push the audio on the channel back a few seconds.
Lead Vocal Still Isn't Cutting Through The Mix?
Sometimes the other instruments can compete for the same frequency range as the vocals. This can mask the vocals and make them hard to hear. This is particularly common with pianos, synths and guitars around 1kHz to 5kHz. There is a simple fix for this issue; using a multi-band compressor and side-chaining the vocal. This will make the problematic frequencies ‘duck’ out of the way of the vocal, giving it more space to be heard in the mix.
- Open a multi-band compressor on the problematic channel. In this example, it’s a Synth.
- Sidechain the vocal to see what frequencies are clashing.
- Create a band in that frequency range and set the compressor to duck just the right amount to let the vocal cut through.
Nailing the vocals isn’t easy. These techniques will get you on your way but it takes practice to consistently get professional results. Even engineers who have been mixing vocals for years are constantly looking for ways to improve their sound. The best way to improve is to hear your mixes on many different playback systems (your car, the kitchen radio, the TV etc). Use reference tracks on these playback systems too and listen for ways you can improve the sound of your vocal. Then get back in the studio and make those tweaks. This the best way to improve your music.