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How to Level Vocals

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When leveling vocals, use automation to change the vocal’s level, then send the vocal to a bus for processing. Alternatively, use clip gain to alter the gain of the vocal and then introduce processing; compression and saturation will both work well at further leveling the vocal.

Use Level Automation, Process on Bus

The tips in this video are in no particular order.

When trying to level your vocals you can start with volume or level automation - simply open your DAW’s automation section, and begin amplifying and attenuating. To make this easier, use the Latch function and play the vocal while moving the fader up and down to write the data.

Lastly, change the output of the track to a bus, and insert your processing on that bus. Let’s listen to a vocal that has had its level balanced with this method.

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Understanding Automation Routing Issues

You may be wondering why we changed the output of the signal to a bus in the last chapter - well simply put, any volume automation you do comes after a channel strips processing. In other words, any processing you insert, like your EQ, compression, etc, will happen before volume changes.

Ideally, we want to balance the volume of the signal prior to sending it to a processor - this way that processing is more consistent.

Let’s listen to processing occurring before automation and notice how it does have the same effect as the last chapter.

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Use Clip Gain, then Saturate

If you’d prefer to add your processing to your vocal track and you don’t want to set up a bus, but, you want level changes to occur before processing, start with clip gain. Clip gain adjusts the level of the actual waveform, which occurs before any processing.

I’m going to use this TAIP saturation plugin for my processing after clip gain to cause even more control. I’ll increase the input, reduce the output, and increase some of the compression or glue function.

Let’s listen to this method being used to control the vocal’s level.

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Combining Leveling and Compression

One of the best ways to level your vocal is to first use clip gain or using the automation routing we discussed in chapter 1, and then compress. With the compressor, use a quick attack, a release of 50ms, auto makeup gain, and lookahead enabled if available.

A soft knee setting will also help to control the vocal. In short, this will capture the vocal very quickly and adjust the level. When combined with previous level changes like clip gain, this will give you a significant amount of control.

Let’s take a listen.

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Is a Vocal Rider Worth Trying?

You may have heard of a vocal rider and been curious about it - in short, it’s a plugin that does level automation for you, with some parameters that you set beforehand. In my experience, it doesn’t always work perfectly, but if you’re in a rush it can be helpful.

What’s also convenient about it is that the level is changed within the insert section of your channel strip, meaning you can insert processing after the rider and the vocal will be more consistent as it's run into your processing.

Let’s take a listen to a vocal rider being used.

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Leveling Vocal Highs with Transient Shaper

If you’re finding that a vocal’s highs are sticking out too much - maybe the sibilance is too aggressive, or the singer got too close to the mic capsule and distorted it, use a transient shaper to tame this. I’ll use Punctuate by Newfangled Audio, and suppress the transients.

With the frequency bands, I’ll control where this suppression occurs, which can help control plosives in the lows, or other unwanted vocal transients.

Let’s try this out on our vocal and take a listen.

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Advanced Vocal Leveling pt. 1

For these next 2 chapters I’m going to share some experimental techniques, so let me know what you think about them.

First, I’m going to duplicate my vocal twice - on the vocal and its duplicates, I’ll add EQs. With the first EQ I’ll isolate the lows, with the second EQ I’ll isolate the mids, and with the last EQ, I’ll isolate the highs - meaning each vocal track isolates a frequency range.

For each EQ I’ll need to set the processing to a linear phase setting to avoid phase cancellation - so I’ll set it to a low linear phase.

Now I’ll use volume automation on each track to control the level of my vocal lows, mids, and highs. By having this amount of control I can really level my vocal in an in-depth way.

Then I’ll change their outputs to a bus, and process them collectively on that bus.

This is definitely time-consuming processing, but let me know if this is something you’d like to try. Let’s take a listen.

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Advanced Vocal Leveling pt. 2

For this chapter, I’ll use the same setup I used in the last chapter, with the 3 separate tracks and their EQs. This time though I’m going to use clip gain to attenuate both unwanted sibilance and plosives, by affecting my high-frequency track and low-frequency track respectively.

On the high-frequency track I’ll find any and all sibilance that’s too aggressive - then isolate it, and reduce it’s amplitude with clip gain.

On the low-frequency track, I’ll do the same for plosives, isolate it, and attenuate.

Let’s listen to this, and know that its usefulness will depend on how aggressive your track's sibilance and plosives are.

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Leveling with Dynamic EQ

Let’s get back to some more normal processing by using a dynamic EQ on our vocal - I’ll enable the dynamic aspect of the band, reduce the range, and then set a quicker attack and release. I’ll do this for any frequency ranges of the vocal I want to control.

250Hz and 3-5kHz are both great ranges to control when trying to level your vocal. Let’s take a listen.

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Augmenting the Vocal During Chorus

We’ve discussed controlling your vocal using automation or various forms of processing, but in this last chapter let’s combine the 2 to augment our vocal where needed. For example, let’s use an EQ and create a band at 3-5kHz - then let’s automate this band’s gain.

Whenever the chorus hits we can amplify this band by say 1 to 2dB to make it cut through and stick out. Or if we wanted the opposite effect, we could attenuate this band using automation.

Let’s listen to this band being amplified, and notice how it makes the vocal cut through the mix.

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