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How to Make Clear Vocals in 10 Steps

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Monitor Levels with KSHMR Chain

For this video, I’m going to use this KSHMR Chain by Excite Audio since it makes it easier to A B my processing. Additionally, it shows me the level change in RMS for each plugin, so I get a better idea of how I need to compensate for gain changes.

As you can see I’m going to use various equalizers, compressors, 1 saturator, and then end the chain with some temporal effects - so keep this order in mind when creating your chain.

Let’s start by listening to the full before and after to understand how the vocal sounds originally, and what it’ll sound like when clarified by these processors.

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Emphasize Clarity with Shade EQ

I’ll start my chain with this Shade EQ by UVI since it lets me create more complex dynamic bands. I’ve cut out my plosives as much as possible with this high-pass filter, and then created 2 bands - one on 250Hz and one around 3.25kHz.

You’ll notice I’ve created 2 followers - the first uses 3.25kHz as the trigger; I’ve linked this to the gain of my 250Hz band, meaning whenever 3.25kHz crosses my threshold, 250Hz will be attenuated.

This reduces the masking effect that 250Hz has on higher, clarifying frequencies.

Conversely, I’m using 250Hz as the trigger for my second follower and linked it to the gain of my 3.25kHz band - making it so that whenever 250Hz is present, 3.25kHz is amplified.

This further clarifies the vocal. Let’s listen to the effect, and keep in mind that if you don’t have this EQ, you could use static attenuation of 250Hz, and amplification of 3.25kHz instead.

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Reduce Masking with Gullfoss EQ

Next, I introduced the Gullfoss EQ, since it can dynamically amplify and attenuate bands in a way I couldn’t accomplish with a regular EQ. I’ve omitted processing below 200Hz since I don’t want to affect the lows I cut last chapter - then I subtly increased the recover and tame functions.

Recover will reduce masking, making hidden details of the vocal cut through, whereas tame reduces shrill or unwanted highs.

Let’s listen and notice how the vocal sounds clearer.

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Reduce Resonances with Soothe 2

With Soothe 2, I’ll dynamically attenuate resonances that reduce clarity and cause the vocal to sound unbalanced. Using the pre-emphasis EQ, I’ve amplified more of the lows and mids into the processor to focus more on attenuating aspects that make the vocal sound cluttered and muddy.

I lowered the mix a little to avoid too much attenuation, and also de-essed slightly by emphasizing sibilance frequencies.

Let’s listen to how reducing resonances make the overall vocal sound balanced.

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De-ess to Control Highs

Although high frequencies are crucial to achieving vocal clarity, we don’t want aggressive highs that sound shrill or make the vocal unbalanced. I’ll use a de-esser to attenuate sibilance moderately - starting with this high-shelf filter, before honing in on the most problematic frequency range with a bell filter.

Let’s listen and notice that the highs sound slightly more pleasant and that the vocal still has a good deal of clarity despite this attenuation.

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Bring Forward with Compression

Balancing dynamics and bringing up quieter parts of the vocal is crucial to creating clarity - with this compressor I used the vocal algorithm and more importantly introduced lookahead combined with automatic make-up gain. This ensures the entirety of the vocal is captured, controlled, then amplified.

When observing the KSHMR chain, I noticed that this compressor increased the RMS level, so I compensated for that with the Wet gain and the output.

Let’s listen to how bringing details forward with compression helps clarify the vocal.

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Saturate Clarifying Frequencies

With this PSP Saturator, I used the frequency-specific function to target my clarifying frequencies, saturator them, and amplify them slightly - this greatly increased my vocals clarity. Over 250Hz, I saturated them to thicken them but then compensated by lowering the level, before blending in the overall amount of saturation.

Also, notice that I pushed my signal into saturation by increasing the input, before compensating with a lowered output.

Let’s listen and notice how saturation, especially on high frequencies, has a big impact on vocal clarity.

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Add Air to Vocal

This free plugin lets me quickly add some air frequencies to the vocal - both in the high mids and in the highest frequencies, roughly 12kHz and above. As we de-essed earlier, I can amplify these clarifying frequencies without worrying too much about creating a harsh sound.

Additionally, I saw that this processor increased the RMS level, so I used the output trim to compensate. Let’s take a listen to the effect this plugin has.

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Introduce High Hz. Delay

With my dynamics and frequency response controlled, as well as my harmonics added via saturation, I’m going to turn my attention to temporal effects like delay and reverb. Starting with delay, I’ll introduce shorter taps and isolate them to clarifying frequencies, or my high mids.

I increased ducking as well, which means that the delay taps are attenuated whenever the vocal’s transient is present, letting it cut through first before the delay follows.

By quickly delaying higher frequencies, and ensuring the transient cuts through, I thicken and clarify the vocal, while making it more stylistic and interesting.

Let’s take a listen.

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Reverberate Clarifying Highs

Last up, I’m going to introduce reverb - in particular, medium-length plate reverb that accentuates high frequencies with a small pre-delay to help the dry vocal cut through first. Although I liked the emphasized highs, I found the vocal was being made a little too thin.

That said, I also amplified the lows slightly to find a better balance.

Let’s listen to this final step, and notice how the vocal sounds polished, and clear, and has temporal effects that both add character and increase overall clarity.

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