How to Make CLEAR Vocals

How to Make CLEAR Vocals
  1. High-Pass Filter and Gating
  2. Subtract Low Mids
  3. Saturate High Frequencies
  4. Compress to Bring the Vocal Forward
  5. Amplify High Frequencies
  6. Use Bright Reverb
  7. Limiting Your Vocal

High-Pass Filter and Gating

The quickest way to add some clarity to your vocal is to combine a high-pass filter with a gate tailored toward vocals.  The high pass will attenuate aspects of the vocal that are causing plosives or unwanted rumble, and the gate cleans up the performance.

Although this seems somewhat basic, these 2 steps are often overlooked but can have a big impact on the clarity of your vocal.

When setting up the high-pass, you may want to use a linear phase mode to avoid phase changes, but use your ears to determine what’s best.

When it comes to the gate, it’s important to utilize a range function – this will ensure that the attenuation isn’t too drastic.

Subtract Low Mids

Low-mids, especially in a vocal recording, can greatly reduce the clarity and perceivability of your vocal.  Typically these frequencies are between 150Hz and 4 or 500Hz and are masking or covering up higher frequencies around 2 to 3kHz that would otherwise provide clarity to the recording.

By slightly to mildly attenuating these frequencies, you’ll reduce the effect of masking, and end up with a cleaner and clearer sounding vocal recording.

Usually, a bell filter with 3dB of attenuation is a good start.  Additionally, if you can make this band dynamic, this will help to retain the low end when it isn’t too dominant.

Excite High Frequencies

Exciting high frequencies is a great way to add clarity to any instrument, including your vocals.  By exciting higher frequencies, you’re creating high order harmonics, which both make your fundamental frequencies more easily perceived due to some psychoacoustic effects and amplify your vocal’s high-frequency range.

To make this happen you’ll need to use an exciter that can target just the high range of the vocal.  Luckily, most exciter plugins already target high frequencies.

Additionally, you can use a multi-band exciter like the Ozone 9 exciter to target the exact range that you want.

Compress to Bring the Vocal Forward

Compression with an automatic gain is a great way to bring the vocal forward and to control the perceived level of the vocal.  If you compress heavily, but in a way that reduces unwanted artifacts, you can cause relatively transparent compression that still greatly increases the clarity of your vocal.

The FabFilter Pro C-2 has a preset that covers this idea really well.  Notice that the attack is super quick, meaning that the compressor will capture the entirety of the vocal’s signal.

Additionally, we’re using a soft-knee to cause more compression, and a fast attack to retain detail.  Lastly, the automatic gain increases the amplitude of the quieter, more detailed aspects of the vocal.

Amplify High Frequencies

Amplifying the high-frequency range of an instrument or vocal is probably the first solution someone would use when trying to add some clarity.  Equalization is probably the most powerful tool in audio processing and can be used in multiple ways to make a vocal sound clear.

The easiest would be to amplify 2 to 4kHz on the vocal with a bell filter, or maybe use a shelf filter starting around this same range.

If you’re equalizing a vocal bus, you can attenuate this range on the side image as well, to make them more powerful aspects of the vocal stick out.  Lastly, some dynamic equalization can create a more unique sound.

Use Bright Reverb

Bright reverb effects are one of the many ways that engineers create clear vocals – this is especially true in rap tracks in which the vocal needs to sound crisp and upfront.  Bright reverb both causes the vocal to sound bigger, and amplifies the high-frequency range, causing clarity.

To accomplish this, you can use a reverb plugin that includes some form of equalization, like dampening, or an eq. 

If your reverb plugin doesn’t have this functionality, you can create an aux send, and amplify the signal either before or after the reverb effect.

Limiting Your Vocal

When mixing a vocal, limiters are a common processor – but they can greatly add clarity to a vocal by controlling its dynamics while reducing the number of artifacts found with heavy compression.   When limiting a vocal, be sure to compensate for the gain changes that will occur.

I’ll use Elephant by Voxengo to show some of the ways that limiting can affect a vocal.  First, I’ll push the vocal higher using the gain and then compensate for it by reducing the ceiling or output gain.

I’ll increase oversampling to reduce unwanted distortion, as well as open up the mode editor to control aspects of the listing that will change the timbre of my vocal.

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