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How to Process Vocals

When processing vocals, the initial stages of your vocal chain typically determine the finished sound - EQ that attenuates 3.5kHz and slow compression will result in a smoother vocal. EQ that amplifies 3.5kHz and quick compression results in a more aggressive sound that can cut through a busy mix.

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Smooth Vocal EQ

For this video we’ll first look at 2 quick ways to start a vocal chain - this will take up chapters 1-6. Then we’ll look at how to add to these quick chains for specific purposes.

Let’s start with creating a smooth sound - first, we’ll insert an EQ onto the vocal and use a 6dB per octave high pass filter, we’ll center this right around the fundamental. Then let’s subtle boost 250Hz, and dip a little of 3.5kHz, both by only a dB.

Lastly, we should observe the response and pinpoint our sibilance, before attenuating it. With this shade EQ, I’ll make the band dynamic, but a regular EQ will work well too.

Let’s listen to how the vocal becomes smoother and slightly less defined in a way that could be used purposefully.

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Smooth Vocal Compression

Let’s add compression to the EQ we used in the last chapter, and again focus on smoothing the vocal out - I’ll use optical emulated compression, so if you have an LA-2A emulation, it’ll work well. I’ll use an attack of 10ms, and a longer program-dependent release.

I’ll also use a soft-knee, and 3 to 4ms of lookahead if the plugin offers it. All of these settings will quickly capture the transient, attenuate it, and then slowly return the signal to unity, causing a smooth sound.

Let’s take a listen to this compression added after our EQ.

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Full Warm Tape Saturation

Last up for this small vocal chain, let’s make the vocal full sounding by generating harmonics. If we use tape emulation, we accomplish a few things - first, we generate low-order harmonics to emphasize lower frequencies in the vocal; second, we diminish transients due to the nature of tape.

Lastly, any good tape emulation will attenuate higher frequencies - so do this consistently, others introduce a cut periodically - either way it smoothes out the vocal.

Let’s take a listen to our first mini-chain with all 3 processors.

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Aggressive Vocal EQ

So in the first 3 chapters, we covered how to start a vocal chain off if you want a smooth vocal, but let’s do the opposite and create an aggressive, upfront sound.

Let’s begin again with the EQ - but this time we’ll use an 18dB per octave high-pass, right below the fundamental. Then I’ll attenuate some of 250Hz., before amplifying 3.5kHz with a bell - this will make the vocal stick out of cut through a mix.

I’ll still want to attenuate my sibilance, but I’ll reduce it to a lesser extent, before boosting frequencies right above it - typically 12kHz and above.

Let’s take a listen.

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Aggressive Vocal Compression

After our EQ, let’s introduce aggressive compression - you can use almost any compressor for this so long as it isn’t Opto. I’ll just use a clean setting but set my attack as fast as it can go and do the same for the release time, before setting a hard knee.

Now you might be thinking, why use a quick attack, won’t that capture the transient quickly? That’s true, but if the attack is quick enough, it’ll cut into the transient, distorting it, and in turn actually amplifying it.

Something similar can be said about the quick release, but its effect is less noticeable.

I won’t use lookahead this time, but, I’ll use auto-make-up gain to amplify quieter parts of the vocal.

Let’s take a listen, with the EQ from last chapter enabled.

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Cut Through Tube Saturation

Instead of tape saturation like we used in chapter 3, we’re going to try tube. Like tape it’ll create low-order harmonics that fill the low-frequency spectrum; however, it’ll also amplify our transients and amplify the high-frequency range of the signal, resulting in a present sound.

If you’re using Saturn 2, you can create an envelope follower, change it to transient mode, and attach it to the drive dial. What’s more, you can isolate the saturation to frequencies that make it cut through a mix, and again, attach this follower to the drive dial.

Let’s listen and notice how the vocal is more aggressive, up front, and has its transients accented.

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Reverb for Natural Sound

So, we’ve covered how to make a smooth vocal, and how to make an aggressive vocal. But let’s talk now about natural sounding reverb vs exaggerated reverb.

If I want to make my vocal have a more natural sound, I’m going to use room emulation. Most plugins offer a studio emulation setting which will work well - however, increase dampening if available, and reduce the pre-delay to more closely emulate a room’s reflections.

I would typically pair this with the smooth vocal chain, but let’s listen to it on both chains to hear how it affects the overall signal.

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Reverb for Modern Pop Sound

If you’re producing pop vocals, or want a more modern sound you won’t be too concerned with realism. That said, larger, brighter reverbs will work well - with them you can use a longer pre-delay, as well as amplify the high-frequency range if that function is available.

Additionally, modern reverb has a longer decay in the high frequencies, so control this as well if the plugin you’re using allows for it.

As you might imagine, I’d usually pair this with the aggressive vocal chain, but let’s listen to both chains run through this reverb, starting with the smooth chain.

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Delay for Modern Pop Sound

If you’re going more down the modern pop route, try this trick in combination with modern reverb. Set up a send and on the aux track insert a delay plugin - I’ll use and 1/16th and dotted 16th note stereo delay with its output set to 100% wet.

Then I’ll insert a compressor after the delay on this same aux track, and side chain the original dry vocal. As a result, the delay will be attenuated whenever the vocal is originally sung, but then increase in amplitude after the vocal is no longer present.

It’s called delay ducking, and it’s been pretty common for a while, but doesn’t get talked about too much.

Let’s listen to this used on our aggressive vocal chain, with the modern reverb enabled and also routed as a send or parallel aux track.

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Parallel Comp for Full Mids

Last up, here’s a trick I found works well for either a smooth or aggressive sound. I’ll use a parallel send from my vocal and on the auxiliary track insert a linear phase EQ, before isolating the mids with a high and low pass filter.

Then, I’ll insert either a downward or upward compressor to bring quieter details forward. I’ll use the waves MV2 for this and fill the mid frequencies of the vocal, before blending the effect in using the slider.

Let’s listen to this effect used on both our smooth and aggressive chain.

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