You can ‘Heat Vocals’ or add lots of presence and detail by introducing compression, saturation, parallel high-frequency compression, and a short delay to thicken the vocal. Before your compression, use some corrective forms of processing like subtractive EQ and a de-esser to tame problem frequencies.
For this video, I’ll present the info as a chain for the first 9 chapters, and then show you some plugins you can use to expedite your vocal processing in the last chapters.
The term to ‘Heat Vocals’ is somewhat new, but it comes down to creating a vocal that’s very upfront, with a balanced low-frequency range, and prominent mid and high frequencies. Additionally, the mids and highs are saturated to both fill out the vocal and give it a distinct timbre.
With that in mind, this chain is going to work well for pop and hip hop, but before we start that, let’s listen to a vocal that sounds a bit tame, and then apply some processing to get a general idea of what we’re trying to achieve.
This chain is going to add signal to the vocal through gain-compensated compression and saturation, so first, we need to balance our vocal recording to ensure we’re not amplifying problem frequencies. Although all vocals are different, a high-pass up to before the fundamental is a good start.
Then we can listen intently and dip other areas that we don’t want to amplify. Let’s listen to a vocal pre and post this balancing, and keep in mind the effect may be subtle.
One of the main frequency regions that will get amplified with this chain is the sibilance - which if we don’t control, will end up sounding really harsh and unpleasant. I’ll add a de-esser and attenuate the vocal’s sibilance by about 5-8dB, which seems aggressive, but works well.
This will cause the vocal to sound subdued in the highs, but it sets us up for processing later in the chain. Let’s take a listen.
The biggest part in creating an upfront sound is compression - we’ll want to create a quick attack, 40ms release, and use auto-make-up gain or manually compensate for the attenuation. If we want a sound in which the transients become more aggressive, we can leave this as is.
Alternatively, we can use a compressor with lookahead to capture the transient, causing less aggressive consonants - what you pick depends on the sound you’re going for.
Let’s listen to this with 2ms of lookahead, and notice how much the vocals move forward.
Saturation is also going to play a huge role, so let’s consider what saturation type does. Tube adds a second-order harmonic for a warm sound, uses mild compression, and accents transients; Tape adds a third-order harmonic, attenuates high frequencies, and introduces moderate to significant compression.
FET or transformer saturation will introduce odd harmonics for a complex sound and introduce moderate to significant compression.
Tube is going to emphasize both low and high frequencies, while tape and transistor typically have more of an impact on the mids. Let’s listen to these 3 on the vocal and try to note their differences.
Now that we’ve compressed and picked our saturation, let’s bring back some of the high frequencies that we lost during de-essing. I’ll set up a bus or aux send, on the aux channel I’ll introduce a linear phase EQ and attenuate up to about 5kHz - then introduce a compressor.
With the compressor, I’m going to heavily compress the highs, and compensate for the attenuation, in turn making the high frequencies incredibly dense sounding. Then with the aux channel’s fader, I’ll blend the effect in.
Let’s listen and notice how this makes the vocals highs incredibly present, but controlled.
Don’t feel obligated to use this, since this is a personal preference, but I really enjoy the sound of a bright reverb on the parallel compressed highs we just created. With that in mind, I’ll place a reverb on the aux track after the compressor, and blend in the reverb.
This slightly softens the highs but gives it a really distinct and enjoyable sound. Let’s take a listen and let me know in the comments if this is something you’d try.
Next, let’s add in some subtle chorusing or a very short delay to make the vocal sound thick - the goal is to keep the modulation or delay short enough to be perceived as being one signal. I’ll use a delay plugin, and reduce the delay to less than 50ms.
I’ll then blend the effect in with the wet/dry dial.
Let’s listen and notice how the vocal sounds thicker.
If the vocal still isn’t sounding impressive enough, I’ll duplicate the vocal track and use the same processing, but without the sends, and start the chain with a pitch shifter. I’ll tune the vocal down 1 full octave, and then blend in the lower vocal with the original.
You can also do the same but create a higher octave, and blend that as well. This is the last step I’ll include in our chain, but feel free to add some longer reverb, or stylized detail as you see fit.
Let’s listen to the lower octave being blended in with the original, and notice how even when it can’t be easily perceived, it makes the vocal more impressive.
If you’re looking for a quicker way to achieve a similar sound, or want a different plugin to incorporate into this chain, Parallel Aggressor is a great option. The controls are simple with spank affecting transients and heat introducing tape saturation, with extra options at the bottom.
Let’s try this plugin out without any other processing on the vocal, and notice how it can accomplish a lot of tasks.
Although this plugin won’t achieve a similar sound to our chain, it can make a great addition to it if you want an accented high-frequency range, and it’s free. It introduces 2 aggressive high shelf filters that can easily increase the detail and presence of the vocal's high frequencies.
This could be a good alternative to our parallel compressed track in chapter 6 or just added somewhere in the chain. Let’s listen to it.