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How to Make Modern Vocals

When creating a modern vocal, the vocal needs to sound detailed and upfront, yet balanced with a clear frequency response. You can accomplish a modern vocal with the correct compression settings, combined with upward processing like inflation and saturation - then add temporal processing like short reverb.


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Balance Vocal with EQ

Let’s start this modern vocal chain with some corrective EQ - the changes here are subtle, but they’ll set us up well for future processing. I’ve used a high pass filter and a bell around 200Hz to reduce unwanted lows, and control low-frequency masking respectively.

I cut out some of the nasal tone around 900Hz and boosted some overtones around 2.5kHz to add clarity. Although each vocal is different, this is a good general starting point for whatever you’re working on.

Since this first effect is so subtle, let’s take a listen to the full before and after to hear what we’re working toward.

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Bring Vocal Forward with EQ

Next, I’m going to use this SplitEQ by Eventide to increase the fundamental’s tone and amplify some high-frequency transients - for this effect, I started with their increased Vocal Mic Proximity preset, and adjusted as needed. Since we attenuated some of the fundamental last chapters, this low-frequency boost isn’t overwhelming.

Let’s take a listen to how this makes the vocalist sound as if they recorded closer to the microphone.

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De-ess to Tame Sibilance

In future chapters, we’ll brighten the vocal, but before we do, we need to ensure that the sibilance isn’t too aggressive, in turn preventing it from being exacerbated. Whatever de-esser you use is fine - I used this one with a high-shelf filter and set a quick attack and release.

Then I achieved about 2dB of attenuation, but this will vary depending on how aggressive the sibilance is in the vocal you’re processing.

Let’s listen to how this subtly controls the sibilance.

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Increase Detail with Compression

With a compressor, I’ll use quick attack settings combined with a softer knee and some look-ahead to capture the full performance. Then, I’ll introduce automatic make-up gain so that the quieter parts are made louder - this setup works great for increasing details and bringing the vocal to the front.

Let’s listen to how this compressor moves the vocal forward.

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Introduce Upward Processing

If you haven’t noticed yet, making the vocal sound upfront is a big part of creating a modern sound - with that in mind I’ll use this upward processor to amplify the quietest parts of the performance. I’ll use an aggressive amount of the effect but compensate by lowering the input.

With this particular plugin, a higher curve value has a warmer sound, whereas a lower one has a slightly brighter one, so I found a combination that worked best for this vocal. Let’s take a listen.

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Program-Dependent Saturation

Next up, I’ll use this multi-band saturator - the first band goes up to right above the 1st harmonic, allowing me to use warmer sounding saturation on my lows and cleaner on my mids to highs. With an envelope follower set to measure the incoming transients, I linked and controlled the drive dials.

This way, whenever a vocal transient occurs, the distortion is amplified, causing more complex program-dependent saturation.

Let’s listen and notice how this adds some subtle harmonics to fill and strengthen the vocal.

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Soothe 2 Resonance Reduction

The processing I’ve added so far sounds good, but it’s added some resonances that are a little too aggressive - with this Soothe 2 plugin I’ve attenuated some of the excess frequencies. With the pre-emphasis EQ, I’ve focused the attenuation on the mids, and sibilance areas.

Then I lowered the mix to make the effect less aggressive and set a higher quality to reduce phase cancellation. Some alternatives to this plugin include TrackSpacer and Smooth Operator.

Let’s take a listen to how reducing excess resonances makes the vocal sound more balanced.

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Air EQ and Exciting

With everything controlled, including the high frequencies and sibilance, I feel more confident in amplifying and exciting high frequencies. I’ll use this free Fresh Air plugin to amplify air or high-frequency bands, while simultaneously increasing high-frequency harmonics with its behind-the-scenes exciter.

Let’s listen to how this brightens up the vocal, and creates a recognizably modern bright sound.

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Dense Reverb on Send

The previous 8 chapters covered processing on the track, but let’s move on to some sends- first, I’ll use a send and parallel auxiliary track to process the vocal with some short and dense reverb. With this SP2016 reverb, set to its new plate setting, I added short reflections.

Then, I used the aux track’s channel fader to blend the effect in.

Let’s listen to how this thickens the vocal.

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Long Lead Vocal Reverb

Next up for temporal or time-based processing, I created another send and parallel auxiliary track, on which I used the same reverb, but this time picked its lead vocal preset. Then with the free plugin MSED, I muted the mid-channel, isolating the reflections to the side image.

By doing so, we keep the dense reverb from the previous chapter more toward the middle, and send the longer, more stylized reflections to the side, expanding the vocal.

Although you don’t need to use these exact settings, the takeaway here is blending a short reverb with a long one to cover different aspects of time.

Let’s take a listen to this new reverb being introduced.

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Doubling and Harmonization

Last up for temporal processing, I introduced this H910 dual harmonizer to add complexity to the vocal and make it sound fuller in a way that delay or reverb can’t. The subtle modulation of the pitch, combined with a wide stereo setting, causes the vocal to occupy more frequencies and more of the stereo image.

Let’s listen to how this subtle effect creates a more impressive vocal.

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Final Shaping EQ

Last up, I’m going to send all my tracks to a singular bus on which I’ll insert this free Pultec emulation to do some final shaping to my vocal- this way I can collectively process everything, and create the final balance that I want. First, I attenuated 100Hz.

Then, I subtly amplified 3kHz, before very subtly dipping the highest frequencies.

How you shape your vocal is up to you and will depend on the surrounding instrumentation, but I felt this last EQ helped create a nice overall shape.

Let’s listen to this plugin being introduced.

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