Be sure to read our “Home Recording 101” Survival Guide for more insight!
In most genres, the vocals are the most important part of the mix.
Especially in modern pop styles, there are a number of techniques that make a vocal sound modern, expensive and professional.
Once you apply these ten techniques, your mixes as a whole will improve.
1. Top-End Boost
This is perhaps the easiest and fastest way to make a vocal sound expensive.
Most boutique microphones have an exaggerated top-end. When using a more affordable microphone, you can simply boost the highs to replicate this characteristic.
The best way to do this is with an analogue modelling EQ, such as the free Slick EQ. Use a high shelf, and start with a 2dB boost at 10kHz.
Experiment with the frequency and amount of boost. You can go as low as 6kHz (but keep it subtle) and boost as much as 5dB above 10kHz. Just make sure it doesn’t become too harsh or brittle.
2. Use a De’Esser
When you start boosting the top-end, the vocal can start to sound more sibilant. To counteract this problem, a de’esser can be used.
These simple tools are a staple of the vocal mixing process, and required in at least 80% of cases. I find they usually work best at the very beginning or end of the plugin chain.
3. Remove Resonances
If you’re recording in a room that’s less than ideal, room resonances can quickly build up.
Find these resonances using the boost-and-sweep technique and then remove them with a narrow cut.
4. Control the Dynamics with Automation
For a modern sound, the dynamics of vocals need to be super consistent. Every word and syllable should be at roughly the same level.
Most of the time, this can’t be achieved with compression alone. Instead, use automation to manually level out the vocal.
I prefer to use gain automation to create consistency before the compressor. But regular volume automation works well too.
5. Catch the Peaks with a Limiter
Using a limiter after compression is another great way to control dynamics.
You don’t need to be aggressive with it (unless you are going for a heavily compressed sound). Aim for 2dB of gain reduction only on the loudest peaks.
6. Use Multiband Compression
As vocalists move between different registers, the tone of their voice can change. For example, when the vocalist moves to a lower register, their voice might start to sound muddy.
Instead of fixing this with EQ and removing the problematic frequencies from the entire performance, you could use multiband compression to control these frequencies only when they become problematic.
For any frequency-based problem that only appears on certain words or phrases, use multiband compression rather than EQ.
7. Enhance the Highs with Saturation
Sometimes EQ alone isn’t enough to enhance the top-end. By applying light saturation, you can create new harmonics and add more excitement.
8. Use Delays Instead of Reverb
For a modern sound, the vocals need to be upfront and in-your-face. Applying reverb to the vocal does the opposite of this, so is undesirable.
Instead, use a stereo slapback delay to create a space around the vocal and add some stereo width.
Use a low feedback (0-10%) and slightly different times on the left and right sides. I find that delay times between 50-200ms work best.
9. Try Adding a Subtle Plate Reverb
To add more width and depth to the vocal, try adding a subtle stereo plate on the vocal.
You don’t want the reverb to be noticeable, as discussed in the previous tip. Instead, bring the wetness up until you notice the reverb, then back it off a touch.
Start with the shortest decay time possible and a 60ms pre-delay to give the transients a bit more definition and room to breathe.
10. Try Adding a Subtle Chorus Effect
Another way to give the vocal a bit of depth and shimmer is to apply subtle chorusing.
Again, you don’t want the effect to be noticeable. Add a stereo chorus to the vocal and increase the wetness until you notice the effect, then back it off a touch.
The vocals are extremely important and will require more time mixing than most other instruments.
But once you apply the 10 techniques in this article, you can take a big step closer to a modern, professional sound.