When trying to make your vocals smooth sounding, it’s all about balancing high frequencies with low-mids. Attenuate your sibilance with a de-esser, equalizer, or with an analog emulation that dampens highs, then subtly increase low-mids to mask higher frequencies and add a warm, smooth quality.
For the first 3 chapters, let’s look at how EQ can be used to smooth vocals.
I’m going to start with a regular equalizer, and simply observe my frequencies while I listen intently. If I look and listen I’ll notice sibilance in the high frequencies, dynamically moving in and out in a predictable way - which I can now attenuate with a band or shelf filter.
For a more digital and precise sound, I’ll use a sharper bell, but I may want to use a shelf to keep the attenuation a little more natural.
Let’s listen to both filters being used.
With a transient EQ we can do the same thing we just did in the previous chapter, but now isolate the attenuations to only the transient aspects of the vocals. This will more accurately attenuate sibilance and other harsh frequencies since the percussive aspect will be attenuated.
Let’s listen to the same filters we used in the previous chapter, but with a transient EQ.
Last up when it comes t using EQ, we can use a dynamic EQ to attenuate aspects of the vocal that make it harsh, or amplify some smoother sounding aspects. Let’s dip the same frequencies we did in the last 2 chapters, but now dynamically amplify the low mids.
Let’s listen and notice how the more powerful low mids mask some higher, more aggressive frequencies.
For the next 3 chapters, let’s use compression to smooth vocals.
First let’s look at how optical compression can smooth vocals with its quick attack time, usually 10ms in fixed optical compressors, and its variable release. Half of the release is about 60ms, while the remaining signal will take about 500ms to 5 seconds to return to unity.
This second release stage really smooths out vocals, by reducing transients and lessening dynamics.
Similar to the last chapter we can utilize quick attack and long release times to smooth out a vocal. This time, I’ll also use a soft knee to very gradually introduce compression, which reduces the potential of distortion that could increase the vocal’s harsh frequencies.
Let’s listen to compression with a super quick attack and long release, and notice how it smooths the vocal-like optical compression, but has a different sound.
A de-esser is a frequency-specific compression, which we can use to attenuate some of the sibilance we were dipping with equalizers in previous chapters. Let’s go into the settings of this Weiss de-esser, and increase both the short and long release times.
Too long and the compression will be too noticeable, but 10 to 15ms of attenuation on the high frequencies is a great way to smooth high frequencies.
Let’s listen and notice the lessened sibilance.
For the last 4 chapters, let’s talk about how emulation can smooth out vocals.
Tape emulation, especially slower speed tape emulation, is a great way to reduce harsh frequencies, as well as boost low mids. I’ll use a tape emulation and reduce the speed to 7.5ips, or even 3.75ips if I don’t mind a little extra distortion for the vocal, and adjust pre-emphasis.
This dips highs, boosts lows, and again, adds some additional 3rd order harmonic distortion to increase mids. Let’s listen and notice the classic and smooth timbre the vocal takes on.
Next, let’s try out some classic preamp emulations - these will add distortion to the mids, as well as dip some of the highs, creating a classic timbre. For example, if we emulate the Telefunken V76, we’ll notice a very subtle dip in the highs, and boost in the lows.
We can use the EQ to accentuate this dip and boost for a smooth, vintage-sounding vocal. Let’s take a listen to it, and notice how it has a similar, but distinct feel from the tape emulation.
Although we don’t think of reverb as analog emulation, it’s emulating the response of a room or space - in this case, we can emulate a room with fewer reflections in the high-frequency range. To do this we’ll set up our reverb normally and then attenuate high frequencies.
This will make the mids sound dense, causing a smooth sound.
Let’s listen and notice how mid-centric reflections really smooth the sound of the vocal.
Last up, let’s use a microphone emulator to mimic the frequency response, distortion, and unique dynamic ranges of classic microphones. For example, we can pick a typical condenser as our source, and then emulate the sound of a classic ribbon microphone - which is known for the smooth high range.
Although you’ll probably still need some processing after this, depending on the original recording, this can be a great start at smoothing out a vocal.
Let’s listen to ribbon mic emulation and notice how it affects the high-frequency range of the vocal.