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How to Make a Vocal Chain

When making a vocal chain, you'll want to process in this order: tuning, equalization, compression, saturation, excitement, upward compression, and then reverb and delay sends. There are other chains of course, but I've found this to be a great starting point with an overall professional sound.

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Start with Tuning

If the vocal you’re working on needs tuning, start with a note-based tuner like Melodyne or Wave’s tune to control the pitch of the performance. This should go first in your chain since the signal fed into this type of processor needs to be as clean as possible.

Once you get your vocal tuned, you may want to bounce it out and use that printed tuned version as the vocal track - but this is of course up to you.

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Subtractive EQ

I like to start my vocal chain by using subtractive equalization - this lets me cut out parts I don’t want first, avoiding accidentally amplifying these parts with other processors. A high-pass filter is always a good start, and mild cuts to 700Hz and 5kHz can be helpful too.

Each vocal recording is different so use your ear to determine what you’d like to cut.

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Vocal Compression

How you compress the vocal will depend on many factors, but personally, I like to capture as much as the signal as possible by using a super quick attack time, and a moderate release. This way the compressor begins to compress right away, giving me a lot of control.

I may time the release with the BPM to make it musical, set a quick release to keep it detailed, or set a longer one for a smoother sound. This will all depend on the circumstance.

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Saturation is what makes your vocal sound full by introducing compression, but more importantly harmonics that will make the fundamentals more easily perceived. For a warm vocal, use tube with a second-order harmonic, for a clearer vocal try tape with higher-order harmonics.

Keep in mind that each saturator will have a slightly different sound and harmonic formation, so try multiple to find the one that works for your vocal.

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Exciters should come next if you want a crisp sounding vocal - keep in mind the exciter doesn’t make a clean or natural sound but a somewhat hyped and super detailed sound, like in some rap tracks. At subtle settings though, since can add some much-needed clarity regardless of the genre.

I’ll use Fresh Air, a free EQ and exciter to add some excitement to my upper frequencies.

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Inflator or Upward Compression

After my saturator and exciter is when I’ll use low-level compression to increase the detail of the quieter aspects of the signal. By inserting the compressor here, you increase the detail of the original vocal recording and the distortion you just introduced, resulting in a truly full, impressive sound.

Let’s listen to this using the Oxford Inflator and the MV2 back to back.

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Send: Room and Ambient Reverb

To make your vocal sound like it’s in a room, set up a send or 2 sends, and send the signal to both a room reverb and an ambient reverb. These will typically be short reverbs that cause the vocal to sound full, but also more realistic.

Once you’ve found the settings that you like, blend these 2 reverbs in with the original signal using the auxiliary track’s channel faders.

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Send: Medium to Large Reverb

Next, set up your medium or large reverb using another send - this reverb will be your more stylistic one, the reverb that makes the vocal sound impressive or indicative of a particular genre. Additionally, this reverb doesn’t need to be too realistic - feel free to be creative here.

I usually like bright plate reverbs, but this is just personal preference. Also, I’ll divide 60000 by my BPM to give me the length of a quarter note, then use this, or a multiple of it, as my RT60.

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Send: Short and Long Delays

Lastly, I’ll create my delays - some of these will be short to thicken the vocal, and some will be long for creative effect - but all delay taps should be in time with the track. Again I’ll divide 60000 by the BPM to get a quarter note, then use this or a multiple or division of it to sync the delay.

Fortunately, most delay plugins have a sync button now, so you don’t need to do the math.

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