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How to Use Vocal Effects

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When using vocal effects, start with EQ and adjust the lows, mids, and highs, using the vocal’s fundamental as a guide. Then control the dynamics and timbre with different types of compression, a few dB of de-essing, and saturation before adding temporal effects like delay and reverb.

How to EQ Vocal Lows

For this video, I’m going to show more introductory to intermediate ideas and techniques. Also, the processors I’m showing could be used in the order they’re shown to make a vocal chain.

First, let’s look at the vocal’s low frequencies, and how we should affect them with an EQ. We’ll notice that the vocal has a fundamental or its lowest frequency - when we introduce our high pass filter, we want to attenuate up to right before that frequency.

Over the fundamental or fundamentals, you can create a bell filter and subtly amplify them.

Let’s listen to the changes this makes to the vocal, and notice how cutting the lows makes it sound cleaner, but doesn’t get rid of anything important about the vocal.

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How to EQ Vocal Mids

Next up, let’s consider the mid frequencies - first let's attenuate a little of 500Hz if we want the vocal to sound further back, or amplify it by a couple of dB to make it sound a little closer to the listener. Somewhere between 700 - 1.3kHz, we might find some nasally tones.

We can attenuate these to make the vocal sound more balanced.

Let’s take a listen to these new bands being added on top of what we did in the last chapter.

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How to EQ Vocal Highs

When it comes to high vocal frequencies, we can amplify 2kHz - 5kHz to make the vocal cut through a mix; we may also want to attenuate somewhere above 5kHz with a bell to help control sibilance - look at the analyzer to see where this sibilance is.

To add some air to the vocal, use a shelf filter, increase the Q, and amplify above 12kHz. This shouldn’t make the vocal harsh, but instead,improve delicate sounding aspects of it.

Let’s listen to these 3 changes on top of the 4 we introduce in the last 2 chapters.

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Compress Vocals for Upfront Sound

Compression on vocals is incredibly important - if we want the vocal to be detailed and really upfront, let’s set a quick attack, 50ms release, and use lookahead if available. Then set a 4:1 ratio with a soft knee, attenuate about 6dB, and use auto-make-up gain.

In short, this will capture the vocal, along with all of its details, then amplify them while simultaneously controlling the dynamics. Let’s take a listen and notice how much more we can hear.

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Change Vocal Sound With Compression

A compressor can be used to change the vocal’s timbre, for example, if we set a 10ms attack, and 500ms release, along with a soft knee and higher ratio, we’ll achieve a smoother sound. If we want to emphasize transients, we could use a hard knee with quick settings.

Although a quick attack and release typically cause more to be attenuated,if you set them quick enough it’ll distort and amplify transients.

Let’s use the first settings we discussed, and notice how it smooths out the vocal.

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De-essing Your Vocal

Vocal de-essing is often overlooked, but is incredibly important - too much sibilance and your track is going to be hard to listen to or enjoy. De-essers are simple, just try to achieve about 3 - 5dB of attenuation, or maybe a little less if it’s not needed.

A split band setting typically works better. Let’s introduce de-essing and notice how it balances the high frequencies of the vocal.

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Using Saturation on Vocals

Saturation is another important effect - it subtly compresses, but more importantly adds harmonics or frequencies that relate to the vocal’s fundamental frequency. These harmonics strengthen our perception of it, making the vocal sound fuller and more impressive depending on the harmonics we introduce.

Typically though, saturation will cause a 2nd order harmonic - or one order above the fundamental, and a 3rd order harmonic which is 2 orders above the fundamental.

Let’s take a listen to how this fills out the vocal.

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Hz. Response Shaping with Saturation

If you use a multi-band saturator you can shape the frequency response of your vocal - for example, I can use warm tube saturation on the low frequencies to create a fuller sound, but clean tube on the highs to cause clarity and enhance the detail.

Alternatively, I could use tape saturation to smooth out the high frequencies or make the lows sound fuller but smoother when compared to tube saturation.

Let’s listen to these different settings but using the same amount of saturation, and notice how the vocal’s timbre changes.

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Adding Short Vocal Delay

Let’s move on to temporal or time-based effects like delay and reverb - you’ll notice that we saved these for last since this is where these types of effects should be inserted in a vocal chain. A short delay will thicken your vocal, and make it sound more impressive.

If it’s shorter than 130ms, the delay will be perceived as one signal, just a more impressive one - keep this in mind we choosing delay times.

Let’s listen to how this makes the vocal sound more impressive.

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Stylized or Practical Reverb

Reverb can be stylized or used more practically - by this I mean reverb settings can make a vocal sound entirely unnatural but impressive, or be used to blend the vocal in or emulate a natural recording or performance space. Usually, stylized reverb emphasizes high frequencies, whereas practical augments the mids.

Let’s try both out to get a better understanding of what I mean by this - also, let’s pay attention to how the stylized setting makes the vocal stick out, and the practical one helps it naturally sit in the mix.

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Overall Vocal Shaping at Chain’s End

At the end of a vocal chain, it doesn’t hurt to add one more EQ. With the EQ you’ll be controlling every form of processing that came before it - meaning it can have a huge effect on the overall sound, so use it subtly and thoughtfully.

I’ll use mine to boost a small amount of presence and air, dip a little of the low mids, and attenuate any new lows below the fundamental that got added by our processing.

Let’s take a listen.

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