When mixing male vocals, start with subtractive equalization followed by de-essing and compression – these 3 effects will attenuate aspects of the vocal you don’t want and control the dynamics. Then introduce additive forms of processing like exciting, distortion, delay, vocal reverb, additive equalization, and more.
Attenuating Problem Frequencies
For this post, I’ll show each step in order as a chain; additionally, I’m going to use stock plugins so that anyone can follow along, but feel free to use whatever plugins you like.
When equalizing a vocal, I want to attenuate aspects of it that are causing muddiness, or maybe shrillness, which will vary from vocal to vocal. For this vocal, I used a highness filter up to about 100Hz, dipped some of 620Hz, and use a sharper dip at 1660Hz.
This attenuated rumble, reduced the nasal tonality of the vocal, and reduced a strong resonance frequency. Let’s take a listen and pay attention to how the vocal becomes clearer.
This vocal has strong sibilance, so I want to attenuate it dynamically – I could have reduced high frequencies with the EQ I used a moment ago, but that would have caused the cut to be constant. Since we’re working with a male vocal the sibilance will be around 7kHz.
I’ll use a shelf filter and split range, and ensure I only get about 2.5dB of attenuation. Let’s listen to an AB of it, and pay attenuation to how the vocal becomes more balanced in the high-frequency range.
Quick Vocal Compression
This vocal is pretty controlled already, but I want to add a little more to keep the passages at a consistent level. I’m going to use about 5dB of attenuation, but more importantly, I’ll use a very quick attack of about 5ms, and a release of 50ms.
This will ensure that the compressor captures the vocal quickly, and then returns it to unity quickly. I used a subtle auto-make-up gain as well and blended in the effect with the mix dial.
Let’s take a listen and pay attention to how the quieter parts of the vocal become easier to perceive.
Exciting the Vocal
Next I want to add some subtle distortion – so far the last three chapters have all been about attenuating the vocal in one way or another, but now I’ll amplify it slightly with harmonics. With an exciter, I’ll very subtly add harmonics, which add clarity and emphasize the mids.
Since I had to attenuate some mids in chapter 1, this will help bring them back but in a more controlled way.
Let’s listen to the subtle but important changes this exciter makes.
Subtle Unique Distortion
If you’re using stock plugins like me, and you’re having trouble finding good distortion effects, see if your DAW comes with guitar pedal effects. I introduced various fuzz, octave plugins, and a spring reverb and then blended them in with the original vocal.
Although unconventional, these effects can work really well on a vocal, especially when blended in very subtly.
Let’s listen to the multiple effects, and notice how they’re blended in.
Tape Delay on Vocals
Now that I’ve controlled my dynamics and frequency response with the previous 5 chapters, I’m going to introduce a short delay to thicken the vocal. I used a 1/16th note, lower feedback, and isolated the reflections to the mid to high mids – then I blended the effect in.
The delay isn’t immediately noticeable but will make the vocal sound more impressive since the reflections will be perceived as coming from one source.
Let’s listen to the delay and notice how it thickens the vocal.
Intelligible Vocal Reverb
Using a vocal hall reverb I’m going to emphasize the mids and high mids of the vocal, in a way that’s both practical and stylistic. I’ll time my decay to the BPM, and do the same for the pre-delay with which I set a 1/64th note.
Lastly, I’ll blend the effect in until I can hear it only slightly when compared to the full mix. Let’s take a listen and notice how the reverb doesn’t stick out too much but instead lets the vocal sit in the mix.
Subtle Additive Equalization
You may not always need to do this but I found that after all of my previous processing, my vocal was still missing something – so I used a 1 band filter, and boosted 2.5kHz by 1.5dB to add a little clarity. A vocal may need more filters, but only 1 was needed here.
Although subtle, this band subtly improves the clarity and presence of the vocal. Let’s take a listen to it with that in mind.
Parallel Pitch Shifted Vocals
Last up, I’m going to create some vocal harmonies using sends – I’ll use 2 busses and place a pitch shifter on each one. For one send I’ll lower the pitch by a full octave, and for the other, I’ll raise the pitch by a 5th.
I’ll blend in these sends with the original until they support the vocal without sticking out. Let’s listen to it and pay attention to how they fill out the original vocal.
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