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Vocal Masterclass

When affecting your vocal, it’s best to start with equalization and understand what each frequency range is responsible for. From there you can utilize compression, saturation, resonant frequency attenuation, reverb, modulation, and re-amping to better control the dynamics, overall quality, and tone of your vocal.

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The Frequencies of a Vocal

A voice resides between 100Hz all the way up to 18kHz - it’s an incredibly complex instrument but let’s break down its frequencies. Between 100 to 300Hz will be the vocal’s fundamental - 500Hz will be where the pronunciation of vowels occurs, and 700 to 1kHz is where you get nasally resonances.

With this in mind, I’m going to use a high pass up to 100Hz, with a small boost on the song key’s fundamental.

I’ll gently boost 500Hz to make the vocal more intelligible, but I can also cut it some to make the vocal sit further back in a mix.

If the vocal sounds nasally, I’ll find where this is happening between 700Hz to 1kHz and dip that until I no longer hear unwanted nasal tones.

Let’s listen to these changes.

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The Frequencies of a Vocal Pt.2

Next let’s talk about vocal clarity, sibilance, and air - perceived clarity resides between 1kHz and 4kHz. What you boost will depend on the vocal and the mix, but I usually find 2kHz to be a good starting point to boost, and then I’ll move the band around until I find the exact section I want to boost.

A 1-octave bandwidth works well here. For sibilance, which is between 4kHz and 11kHz we have a couple of options. We can use an EQ to dip it, a dynamic EQ to dip it, or a de-esser which is basically a high-frequency compressor.

I like to use dynamic EQ mixed with de-essing to tame sibilance here. Last up I’m going to use a shelf to boost the air of the vocal - this adds somewhat to clarity, but mainly gives the vocal a delicate, sometimes ethereal feel.

Describing the purpose of an airband is a little difficult - it’s one of those things you understand when you hear it.

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Dynamic Range of a Vocal

Compressing a vocal is difficult - it needs to be controlled; but since the voice is so familiar to us, we can easily hear when it sounds compressed. To remedy this I like to use 3 compressors, each with different purposes; peak down, RMS down, and upward in that order.

Peak down compression works by attenuating from the vocal’s peaks down. RMS measures the loudness of the vocal and compresses from the loudest points down. Upward compression measures the signal from the noise floor up, and compresses and amplifies it, which adds a lot of detail.

I get a few dB of attenuation from the 2 downward compressors, but use more aggressive low-level compression since it’s less noticeable. Let's use quick attacks for the downward compressors and a release of 50ms to retain detail without distortion.

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Why Saturation is so Important

Saturation gently compresses, but more importantly, it forms harmonics that alter a vocal’s timbre, frequency, perceived loudness and cause a psychoacoustic effect in which the fundamental is generated in the mind of the listener. With an EQ we could boost the fundamental and harmonics, but these frequencies change.

Whenever a new note is sung, the fundamental changes - since saturation works with this fundamental, it’ll follow it whenever it changes.

Use multiple saturation types and maybe an exciter to create a complex array of these harmonics for your vocal.

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Resonant Frequencies and Soothe 2

Because vocal notes are changing, so too are the resonant frequencies - with that in mind, attenuating them is challenging, but soothe2 lets you do this dynamically. Know that you don’t need to use this plugin - but it does help with some subtle issues that arise when working with vocals.

I’ll use the soft option, with a low depth, and higher rendering and oversampling options to make it as accurate as possible and to avoid phase issues.

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Separate Your Breathes and Sibilance

To better control difficult parts of the vocal, let’s find the breathes and sibilance in the actual track, isolate them and then add them to a new track. We’ll lower the level of this track and add whatever processors we need, such as compressors, equalizers, and so on.

For a cool effect, we can add some reverb and compensate for its changes to the gain to soften the sibilance.

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3 Types of Vocal Reverb

I’m going to use 3 different types of reverb on my vocal - the first, a super short room or ambient reverb to thicken the vocal. The second will be a medium-length reverb with dense reflections and an emphasis on the mid range - this way the vocal blend in.

Last up I’ll use a long, stylistic reverb to give the vocal character and an identity separate from the surrounding instrumentation.

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Doubling and Modulation

When trying to make your vocal sound thick you can use a doubling plugin, a thick delay, modulation like a chorus effect, or a combination of these effects. Doubling is going to introduce a very quick delay to create 2 distinct voices that are still perceived as coming from the same source.

Modulation will shift one of those voices, typically with a modulating frequency or timing, to add more variation to the doubled signal.

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Re-amping or Impulse Response

Re-amping your vocal is a great way to change the signal’s timbre and create a more complex response. You can re-amp your vocal using physical components like a speaker and then record that speaker, or you can use a plugin that uses impulse responses to recreate the effect.

I’ll use a plugin for this and place it at the beginning of my chain to affect all of the processing that comes after.

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