The Best Vocal Chains For 5 Different Genres
Have you ever heard of synesthesia? It’s a rare condition where some people see colors when they hear sound.
I’ve always thought that people with synesthesia would make great audio engineers because each piece of audio gear that you use to record or mix an instrument colors the sound in some way—especially with vocal chains.
Some EQs are deep and dark, others are bright and shiny. Some compressors are punchy and aggressive, others are gentle and smooth.
In this blog, we’ll break down some of our favorite EQ and compressor pairings for vocal chains in five different genres to help you find the perfect color for your tracks.
Classic rock is all about fat analog tones with thick, rich distortion. One of the most popular preamps of the 70s and 80s—and even still to this day—is the Neve 1073. Known for its warm, beefy sound, the Neve 1073 preamp is perfect for adding authentic analog grit to vocals. With three bands of EQ and a dedicated high-pass filter, you can tweak your tone until you get it right.
For classic rock, I usually start by rolling off the low end below 60 or 80 Hz. Then I’ll use the low shelf to boost the bottom-end at 110 Hz—I find that the 220 Hz setting tends to sound a little muddy with most microphones. I use the mid-band to cut any harsh frequencies and make room for the guitars, then add plenty of sparkle with the high-shelf, which is fixed at 12 kHz.
Most 1073 plug-ins feature authentic analog clipping emulation as well, which lets you add extra distortion by cranking up the input gain and clipping the preamp. This can be a cool effect but make sure you don’t over-do it or the vocal becomes difficult to hear.
Another classic analog piece of gear that’s still frequently used today is the UA 1176 peak limiter. This FET compressor is known for its aggressive, punchy sound with subtle distortion that’s perfect for classic rock—especially when paired with the 1073 preamp.
For classic rock, I like to use the 4:1 ratio with the slowest attack and fastest release speeds. Depending on the tempo of the track you may need to increase the release time a bit. And depending on the singer, you may need to apply anywhere from 2-20 dB of gain reduction.
Modern rock has a cleaner, tighter sound than classic rock. When I say clean, I don’t mean less distortion—I just mean less saturation from tubes, tapes, and transistors. One of my favorite EQs for modern rock is the API 550A. Known for its bright, open sound, the API 550A features three bands of EQ and a fixed high-pass filter at 50 Hz.
With modern rock, I typically use the bottom band to roll off any addition low-end in the vocal, as I’m not looking to boost anything below 400 Hz. The mid-band varies depending on the vocalist and can be used to cut or boost as needed. But I almost always add a little bit of gain at 15 kHz—there’s just something magical about the high end of an API 550.
As for compressors, the dbx 160 is one of the punchiest, most aggressive compressors known to humankind. That’s why it’s one of my go-to’s for modern rock. I typically leave the ratio at 4:1 and slam the needle with at least 10 dB of gain reduction. With super-fast fixed attack and release times, the dbx 160 makes it easy to dial in tight, punchy vocals.
Trap & Hip Hop
Trap music and modern hip hop are known for their low-end. It can be tough to dial in a powerful-sounding vocal around a massive 808, a booming kick drum, and fat bass guitar Short for Voice of God, the Little Labs VOG is actually just a low-shelf / high-pass filter combo with some analog vibe thrown in for good measure. While it may be simple, VOG makes vocals sound like… well, the Voice of God.
VOG is super easy to use. Choose between a center frequency of 40, 100 or 200 Hz using the selector buttons then dial in the amount of bass boost with the amplitude knob. You can also fine-tune the specific frequency you want to boost. I usually stick with a hearty boost at 100 Hz.
Unfortunately, VOG is rather limited and can’t be used for subtractive EQ, which means it needs to be paired with another plug-in. Personally, I like to use BASSROOM, which lets me fine-tune frequencies using pristinely clean filters from 20 Hz up to 320 Hz and really lock in my low-end.
When it comes to hip hop, you need a compressor that reacts well to low-end. That’s why I love the Tube-Tech CL 1B—it combines the fat sound of optical compression and the warmth and richness of tubes. I like to hit hip hop vocals a little harder than most with ratios of 6:1 or even 8:1, with gain reduction up to 10 dB.
One of my favorite parts of the CL 1B is the versatility of the attack and release times. When it comes to hip hop, I like the fixed/manual setting, which uses an attack time of 1ms and a program dependent release time that varies depending on the vocal performance.
We’re going for sheen and polish here, with lots of depth and clarity. We’ll need a super-clean EQ with a subtle yet powerful compressor. Although they may look a little intimidating, Manley signal processors are some of my favorites for this genre.
The Manley Massive Passive EQ is used in some of the most famous studios around the world and is renowned for it’s rich, smooth sound. It takes a little while to get used to the controls, but once you master them you can use the Massive Passive to sculpt sound like no other. All four bands can be used as bells or shelves and feature overlapping frequency ranges for creating complex shapes.
I usually like to keep it simple though. I’ll start by rolling off the lows with the high-pass filter and taming any additional muddiness with the low band. For pop music, it’s important to record with a high-quality microphone, so you shouldn’t have to do much work in the midrange. Hopefully just some subtle cuts in the boxy range around 300-400 Hz and the harsh range around 3-4 kHz. It’s important that pop records have an assertive, but not overpowering vocal, so I usually use the high band for a subtle shelf boost around 5 kHz.
When it comes to compressors, the Manley Vari-Mu is a favorite among mastering engineers for its super-smooth and dynamic sound. The attack and release speeds often depend on the tempo of the track. For a down-tempo bedroom pop slow-jam, I’ll probably use relatively slow speeds. But for an up-tempo dance track, my attack and release times would be faster to catch all of the transients.
For most other genres (and pretty much any time I can’t think of what to use), I would reach for something highly flexible, like the SSL Channel Strip. With four bands of EQ and a variable high-pass filter, the SSL channel strip offers unparalleled tone-shaping capabilities. It even has a built-in dynamics section with a compressor and a noise gate!
One of my favourite compressors to use on any vocal is the Empirical Labs Distressor. Often called ‘the Swiss Army compressor’, this versatile signal processor can be programmed to sound like an array of classic compressors. With a little practice, you can recreate the compression characteristics of 1176, LA-2A, dbx 160 and vari-mu designs. It also features a built-in distortion generator (you know, like ANIMATE!), which is perfect for fattening up your tone and helping vocals cut through the mix.