When making airy vocals, you need to find ways to amplify frequencies above 12kHz - this can be done with EQ, frequency-specific reverb, or through unique parallel compression tricks. Since these frequencies can increase the chances of aliasing, it’s best to use oversampling when possible.
Air Frequencies are typically located above 12kHz - they’re difficult for us to hear but have a very pleasant effect when they’re audible. The easiest way to create an airy vocal is by using a parametric EQ, creating a shelf filter with a high Q to amplify 12kHz and above.
Let’s take a listen and notice how amplifying this range is the foundation of creating an airy vocal.
If our reverb lets us equalize the reflections then we can isolate the reflections to above 12kHz, meaning we’ll amplify the air of the vocal and extend it depending on the reverb length. Use a short pre-delay, and if available, emphasize the high frequencies of the reflections.
These settings are a good start, with which you can really begin to dial in the timbre of the reverb and air with other parameters. Let’s take a listen and notice how this adds air and gives the vocal a unique quality.
Crisp and airy vocals is a popular combination in hip-hop and pop - to create it, use a send, and on that bus, start with a linear phase EQ that isolates the highs. Then heavily compress the signal and use the channel fader to blend in the effect.
For a crispier sound, include more of 8 to 10kHz and increase the amount of compression, for an airier sound, isolate 12kHz and above and use a little less compression.
Let’s listen to it.
Some EQs include dedicated air bands - for example, the Maag EQ4 has an airband that extends to 40kHz - odds are your vocal doesn’t occupy these frequencies though. Keep in mind that a filter set this high will only really affect 20kHz and below, just to varying degrees.
Typically speaking, if you want the effect to be subtler, set the center frequency higher. Let’s listen and notice how less of our highs are amplified the higher we set the air band’s center frequency.
If you’re running a 44.1kHz session, then the highest supported frequency is 22,500Hz - since some bands go above this mark, it may be a good idea to use oversampling. Granted, most EQs can’t create harmonics that go above this cutoff frequency, but the effect could exacerbate aliasing distortion.
If we’re running this EQ into a heavy saturator, I could definitely see this being an issue, so let’s try this and use no oversampling and then oversampling on the saturator.
Similar to our crisp and airy trick in chapter 3, we’re going to set up a send and on its bus use a linear phase EQ, with which we’ll isolate the highest frequencies. I’ll then use upward compression, like the MV2, to capture compression and amplify these frequencies.
I’ll do this pretty heavily and then blend the effect in with the original signal via the bus’s channel fader. Let’s listen and consider how this method offers a unique timbre.
Using the same setup as the last chapter, Let’s isolate the highs with a linear phase EQ. Then, we’ll insert a gate to attenuate this range whenever it falls below a set threshold - after this, you could add compression, reverb, or whatever you want to dynamically affect this range.
I like this effect with reverb since it creates a really unique effect in which reverb is only added at specific points. Let’s take a listen with reverb added after the gate.
If your processing is going to amplify 5kHz to 12kHz, you’ll want to add a de-esser prior to trying to amplify your air. Since some air bands don’t let you isolate the amplification to above 12kHz, you may also unintentionally amplify harsh ess sounds.
So let’s listen as we amplify the air frequencies aggressively and in a way that also affects sibilance, then enable a de-esser inserted prior to the EQ and observe the difference.
This is slightly random and more geared towards producers, but I’ve noticed that certain BGVs take really well to creating an airy sound - mainly a falsetto Ooh or Aah is going to help significantly if you want an overall airy vocal sound. If processed, the effect is even stronger.
So let’s perform some of the processing we’ve covered so far, but to falsetto BGVs and notice the overall increase in air.
Although you could use a multi-band saturator to create an airy sound by saturating high frequencies, you’ll likely cause aliasing distortion by generating harmonics that go above the highest supported frequency. That said it’s best to avoid it, but if you do use it, enable oversampling.
Let’s listen to saturation of the highs and notice how it amplifies the high range, but has a timbre that doesn’t always create an airy sound.
MB compression can be used to amplify air frequencies via attenuation then using makeup gain, but it has the potential to cause issues. Compression with a quick attack and quick release will cause harmonic distortion that, like high-frequency saturation, can result in aliasing distortion and a harsh sound.
If you do choose to use it for this purpose, set the attack above 5ms, and the release above that as well. Let’s listen to the effect with too quick of settings and then the settings I recommended, and keep in mind the difference will likely be subtle.