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How to Chain Vocal Effects

When chaining vocal effects, consider how the signal will be affected as it transfers from one processor to the other. For example, I could place an EQ before a compressor and amplify a band - this will cause the compressor to work harder on those frequencies.

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EQ or Compression First?

For this video, I’m going to discuss some common and not-so-common back-to-back combinations of plugins. The chapters are in no particular order.

A common question when processing vocals is whether to place equalization or compression first - both orders have their benefits and drawbacks. If I place an EQ before compression, I can attenuate unwanted frequencies, causing the compressor to work less - or amplify frequencies, causing the compressor to work harder.

When a compressor works harder, we can often get more of the compressor’s tone and character.

If I compress first and then EQ, the EQ curves will be affecting more dynamically controlled frequency ranges - meaning it may be easier to pull something forward. If the compressor uses makeup gain though, it may be harder to attenuate unwanted frequencies.

Let’s listen to Eq before compression, used to amplify wanted frequencies,and notice how the compressor has to work harder.

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Creating Saturation with 2 Effects

Saturation is a combination of soft-knee compression and harmonic distortion - which we can recreate using these 2 effects separately. Typically, the compression aspect will occur first so let’s introduce that along with make-up gain, and then distort the signal in turn introducing harmonics.

If we want, we can introduce an EQ after the distortion to mimic the frequency response of tape or tube saturation, but let’s take a listen to just the first 2 processors we discussed.

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Saturation Followed by Upward Compression

One of my favorite processor combos on vocals is saturation - which introduces downward compression and harmonic distortion, followed by upward compression. Upward compression will compress quieter parts of the signal and then amplify them - meaning the harmonics we generated with saturation, become more apparent and detailed.

Let’s take a listen to upward compression after saturation and notice how full the vocal becomes.

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Emphasis, De-emphasis Technique

As we discussed in chapter 1, an EQ can be placed before a processor to emphasize frequencies prior to subsequent processing. For example, if we want a saturator to add more presence to a vocal, we could emphasize 2.5kHz with the EQ before the saturator.

Then, to balance the signal, we would de-emphasize that range with another EQ, after the saturator. Let’s take a listen to the technique.

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Short Reverb, then Long Reverb

When we think of reverb on a vocal, we typically imagine a longer stylized one like a bight plate or a hall, but room emulation is also very important. That’s why I like to first use short reverb with dense reflections to make the vocal thick or sound more natural depending on the settings.

Then, I’ll introduce longer reverb to give the vocal more of an identity. Let’s take a listen and notice how the 2 effects complement one another.

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Thick Delay, then Long Reverb

If we want a less natural sound, maybe on reminiscent of classic recordings, we can replace the room emulation we used in the last chapter with a short delay. This will still make the vocal sound more impressive, but won’t have the realism of room emulation.

If we follow the delay with plate or chamber emulation, we can achieve a classic and full sound. Let’s take a listen.

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EQ, Tuning, then Saturation

Usually, vocal tuning is introduced first, but if we use an EQ first we can emphasize in-tune notes and reduce out-of-tune notes. Then when we tune, the tuner won’t have to work as harder, reducing unwanted artifacts or unnatural sounding note changes.

Furthermore, we can introduce even order harmonic saturation after the tuner - which will also amplify in-key notes. Let’s take a listen to a vocal tuned with these 3 processors.

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Soothe 2, then Vocal Tuning

A song’s key has 7 notes that are in-key and 5 that are not - if we know our song’s key we can use this trick. First, I’ll create a midi track on which the 5 out-of-key notes are constantly being played - I’ll use sine waves for the instrument to reduce harmonics.

Then, I’ll mute this track, and use it as the external side-chain for Soothe 2, which will be inserted on the vocal.

Soothe 2 will attenuate these frequencies, since it’ll measure them as being too aggressive, resulting in a vocal with fewer out-of-key notes. If we follow this with a tuner then the same concepts we covered in the last chapter will apply here.

Let’s take a listen to these plugins used in this manner, and notice how the vocal sounds more in tune, and the tuner doesn’t have to work as hard.

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Compression, and Dynamic EQ

If we compress our vocal and use make-up gain, we bring quieter details forward while controlling dynamics - of course, the more aggressive the settings, the more attenuation, but also, the more amplification of low-level signal. If we compress aggressively and follow it with expansion, we’ll enhance our vocals.

With a dynamic EQ, we can pinpoint which frequency ranges we want to expand, how aggressively they’re expanded, and which frequencies are affected the most by adjusting the Q value.

So let’s listen to about 8 to 10dB of compression with make-up-gain, followed by expansion via a dynamic EQ, and notice how if we expand important vocal frequency ranges, we get detailed, controlled, and upfront vocals.

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Short Compression, Long Compression

Last up let’s talk about combining compression in series - the attack and release of a compressor control a lot about the sound. If we set the attack to 2ms, and the release to 50ms, we’ll get dynamic control that’s relatively transparent since the level is returned to unity quickly.

If we follow this with a compressor with a softer knee to trigger compression at quieter levels, an attack of 10ms to emulate an LA2A compressor, and a long release, we can smooth out our vocals as well as contribute to controlling dynamics.

So the first compressor cleanly controls dynamics, whereas the second one shapes the timbre, but doesn’t need to be used too aggressively since compressor 1 did most of the heavy lifting.

Let’s take a listen to how this controls the dynamics and shapes the timbre.

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