Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vocals, The Great Mystery

    Vocal processing is like martial arts training. Some people are naturally gifted and pick up the techniques passed down from generations before quick and easily. And then there are the rest of us...

    I didn't always know what I was doing with my vocals when I first started and as I adapt to an ever changing music industry to a degree I still don't (sigh) but... I remember how I spent hours and hours getting as close as possible to what I heard on Cd's and on the radio (learning that both mediums are completely separate and radio processes the song further!) and settling for good enough. Well let's fast forward to 2011, I know what my tools are and what they do and possess the knowledge to know when and where to use them. Its a great feeling to say the least and I want to share that feeling with you (or at least the knowledge part).

So let's get started! 

    Vocals are a musical anomaly in my opinion in the fact that they cover such a wide frequency spectrum that the task of processing a single vocalist let alone a group is daunting to say the least. When you wrap you head around the sheer processing it'll take for each vocal individually let alone each track you start feeling a little bit like "where do i start". Well here's how I do my vocals in general, I get the sound "I am looking for" when I am recording. That is half the battle, that's it right there I kid you not.

    I will prove my point. Have you ever listened to a rough mix or a just finished recording of your favorite artist and said "man! That's not finished?! What's left?!" That's where we want to be, as close to the actual finished product as possible. You take a great sounding recording, a great mixing engineer (like myself lol), a great mastering engineer and you have a great sounding song sonically and emotionally. When I was learning how to mix my records I was just trying to make them sound good so I could even sit in the same chat room with professional engineers. Now I share tips and tricks with the best of them (not the greats yet but I'm getting there).

    So without further a due I give you a little processing list to get you in the ball game of great sounding vocals. Here's a tip, moderation in the processing makes vocals shine if they're recorded right.

Lead Vocal
  • Trim Plugin - Like most recordings the vocals may have been recorded pretty loud. The trim plugin will bring down the level of the track to a usable -12db. This is the beginning stages of our gain staging which will be used throughout our processing ensuring us control and consistency on our vocal. Make sure the loudest part of the vocal is the part topping out at -12db.

  • EQ - This is where we dig in, literally. Its a bad frequency fire sale, all bad frequencies must go! First we roll off all unneeded low end from the vocal (use a high pass filter). Now we find all the bad frequencies. How you ask? Boost like an addict needing a fix! Then sweep through the frequencies listening for the bad areas and make small dips. Make sure your loudest part of your vocal sits at -12db so use that output knob (gain staging)

  • EQ 2 - Again?! Well this eq is for boosting those pleasant frequencies you heard on your fire sale (lol). Remember to put your output to -12db

  • De-esser - My favorite little plugin. Now any good de-esser will let you hear what you are de-essing and since there really isn't a frequency that is 100% known to have "all" the esses in a given track your going to have to frequency sweep. If done right you shouldn't have to touch the output stage as you are taking away a single frequency. Tip - use as many de-essers as it takes to get the sound your after.

  • Compressor - Now this is where technique comes into play. As a beginner engineer your using compression to help control your signal but as you get older you'll notice compression being used to help shape the sound as a dynamic form of eq. Use this step according to your skill level. Keep your output at -12db

  • Saturation plugin - Now this isn't a hard rule or fact but because I work all ITB (in the box i.e. strictly in my DAW) I do notice that music sounds a little thin from time to time so I use a saturation (tube saturation) plugin to help me get a little of the body I lost while processing my tracks. This helps in the over all roundness I'm going for with my tracks. Now this is 100% source dependent meaning you may not have to do this if your source material (the vocal) was recorded a certain way. Some people use this at the beginning of there chain (sometimes I do) but I noticed for me anyway that when I do that my eq decisions sometimes work against it. This way gives me a more controlled saturation since my levels are already working in my favor due to (that's right!) gain staging.

  • Limiter - I've been using this trick a lot more lately and it really gets me in the ball park plus let's me make adjustments without a lot of messy output changes to my signal. I take the L1 Ultra Maximizer (you can use any limiter plugin) and set both my threshold and my output to (you guessed it) -12db. From there I walk the threshold down until the signal (without a lot of gain reduction) is as punchy and close to -12 db as I can get it. the goal isn't gain reduction but overall loudness maximization.
Now these are just a few techniques I am currently using. You are more than welcome to use what I have shown you here as a guide, reference or even your way of processing your own mixes. So what are you waiting for, give it a try and leave a comment to let me know what are some things you do for vocal processing

Here are the plugins I used in this article

Trim - Pro Tools trim plugin (standard like most gain plugins that come with any DAW)

EQ - Waves API Collection Native Bundle - API 560 (this little graphic eq (yea I said "graphic eq") is so musical sounding in its cuts that it has become my go to eq for just that) 

EQ 2 - Waves API Collection Native Bundle - API 550 A/B (depending on what you need for boosting)

De-esser - Waves Renaissance Maxx Native Bundle - Waves R De-esser (for a real problem ess. I also love the standard waves de-esser)

Compressor - Waves CLA Classic Compressors Native Bundle - One of my all time favorite bundles from waves. I use the black and blue sided CLA-76 (modeled after the classic 1176 compressor)

Saturation Plugin - SPL Twin Tube Tape Saturation and Harmonics - Another favorite plugin of mine that not only gives you tube saturation for fullness but has a knob for harmonics which helps further separate your track (lead vocal in this case) from a busy mix.

Limiter - Waves L1 Ultramaximizer - This will bring up that track to its fullest potential in reaching our output goal of -12db for loudness and that extra umph . The goal here is transparent loudness gain and barely noticeable if any gain reduction.

Well I hope that helped some of you and also gave you a little insight into my process over all when it comes to vocals. Click the links to get more info on the plugins themselves and leave a comment down below for further discussion.

Keep mixing ya'll

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