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Home Recording Academy: Properly Using Vocal Effects

We've come to the final installment in the Sage Audio mastering blog series on tips on recording vocals in a home studio, and today I want to focus on vocal effects. We've already covered vocal EQ and vocal compression, which are used on most vocal tracks, and I specifically want to look at two of the next most common effects: reverb and delay.

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Both of these effects will serve to add depth to your mix, but both can easily derail a mix, as well. Unless you are working to achieve a very specific sound, adding too much reverb and/or delay will quickly “wash out” the vocal, making it sound extremely unnatural and often burying it in the mix when typically we want the vocal to stand out in a mix.

For Every Vocal Effect There Is a Time and a Season

Looking back, the 1980s can be called the decade of reverb. One of my favorite, if underrated, Bob Dylan tracks is an 11-minute long song from 1986 called “Brownsville Girl” (once accurately described as the most ridiculous and most epic of all of Dylan's ridiculous epics). I've argued (only somewhat jokingly) before that, the reverb tail from the snare shot that opens the songs lingers the entire long song.

However, we've seen a steady decline on the amount of reverb used, on both vocal tracks and all audio tracks in general. Take a listen to your favorite track produced in nearly any genre in 2012, and you'll likely notice that the vocal is very dry and “in your face.” Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, and bands like My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes (among many others) use a large amount of vocal reverb that has helpeddefine their respective signature sounds.

Less is (Typically) More When It Comes to Vocal Reverb and Vocal Delay

With the current trends being what they are, then, it stands to reason that if you want your mix to take on a modern sound, you'll probably want to add just enough reverb or delay to give a little bit of depth to your vocal. When writing about vocal compression, I stated that you typically want to have just enough compression for the effect to do its job without sounding like there is a compressor on the vocal. The same goes for delay and reverb.

Along these same lines, it's fairly rare that reverb and delay will be used on the same vocal unless you are going for a particularly ‘wet’ sound. Since the two effects are typically trying to achieve the same end result (depth) you probably don't want to use both. With that said, don't be afraid to try out any combination of effects to see what kind of sounds you can get.

Send that Effect to an Aux Track

Often times, those just getting started with mixing their own tracks put all of vocal effects on the main track instead of auxiliary tracks. While this can still be fine for some uses of the effect, many times you will want to bus the effect to an auxiliary track.

There are a few reasons this works better, including that it gives you more control over the effect you are adding to the track. You have more control over how the effect sits in the mix, and you can even add some EQ and Compression to the reverb or delay to make it sound cleaner. Additionally, you can save precious processing power by bussing multiple tracks to the same reverb channel (if you want the same effect sound on multiple tracks). Reverb is one of the biggest drains on processing power in your mix.

I'm not going to get into how to bus tracks here, as it will be slightly different depending on which DAW you are using, but there are multiple resources online that you can find instructions specific to your program.

Happy vocal recording!