These days, producing your own demos essentially means the same thing as making a fully produced record of your song. It’s expected that your demo will sound full, warm, and professional, and your vocal performance has to POP to grab the interest of potential labels, bandmates, booking agents, or whomever you might be trying to impress.
If you choose to sing on your own tracks, or work with a vocalist in a band, and don’t know how to make them pop like your favorite records, it can be tough to know where to start. Soundfly’s new online course series, Faders Up I: Modern Mix Techniques and Faders Up II: Advanced Mix Techniques, is taught by today’s top sound engineers, who will help you get the professional sound you’re looking for in just six weeks. (Scroll to the bottom of this article for a special discount code!)
The next session starts on February 6, 2018, but for now, here are a few tried-and-true methods for getting your vocal tracks to sit confidently in your productions.
VOCAL POP TIP 1: NO MATTER THE MIC YOU USE, USE EQ
If you’re just starting to record and process your own vocals for the first time, you might not have a $15,000 vintage Neumann microphone at the ready. Perhaps you’re working with a stage mic like an SM58, or a USB mic like the Yeti from Blue Microphones. But even if you’ve saved up to rent something nice, your voice and the mic can’t do all the work.
Equalization (EQ) is an incredibly powerful tool, and often a necessary one to really make your vocal track pop. Here are a few common moves I make frequently when processing vocals:
1. High-pass filter. Sometimes also called a low-cut filter, this gets all the muddy background noise out of your vocal.
Plosives from sounds like Ps and Bs can send an exorbitant amount of air into the microphone and cause a low-end rumble below 100 Hz. Sometimes noise from the power in a building can create a buzz around 50 or 60 Hz.
You can fix a lot of this problem by cutting out the low end! Try a high pass around 100–150 Hz.
Generally, you can get away with a slightly higher cut for female vocalists, whereas you don’t want to kill a male vocalist’s lowest notes. Be sure to listen for the lowest note in your song and make sure you’re not totally gutting it!
2. High boost for “air.” A common characteristic of high-quality microphones is a boost in the 6–10 kHz range. This adds a pleasant “airiness” to a vocal that really grabs the ear and adds clarity.
If your mic doesn’t achieve this for you, or you want to over-emphasize this effect, consider giving your vocal a small bell-curve boost around 6 kHz.
3. Cut the “honk.” Sometimes your vocal might pop out a little more than desirable, somewhere in the 2–5 kHz range. This is the area most responsible for achieving intelligibility of the human voice, but sometimes we end up with moments of too much intelligibility.
If you take an EQ scalpel to the offending frequency area and carve this area precisely, you make room to boost the whole vocal and help it stand out even more. (Note: This is an effect perhaps best achieved using a multi-band compressor to isolate the frequency range, so if you have something like that available to you, use it!)
VOCAL POP TIP 2: LEVEL OUT YOUR VOCAL WITH COMPRESSION
In the realm of pop and electronic music production, I cannot think of a single time I didn’t use at least a little bit of compression on every vocal track in my mixes.
Compression, even in the most acoustic of settings, is involved in some degree of processing the vocal at one or several stages.
Let’s assume for now that you’re not working with a hardware compressor in between your mic and your interface — so you’re probably compressing after you’ve recorded. Here are a few notes for getting the most out of your compressor.
1. Before you compress, automate! Automation is a severely underused and often underappreciated ally in making vocals and instruments pop in a production. If there’s an obvious offending peak in volume in your vocal track, try to even it out before you stick a compressor on and try to get it to do the work for you.
Note that if you do this, you might want to “bounce in place” your automated track. Otherwise, your channel strip’s compressor will affect the volume before the automation, which defeats the whole purpose.
2. Less is more. Compression is a good way to give your vocal take consistency and add a nice, warm color to it. However, it’s very easy to go overboard with it, when the time comes.
It can be tempting to work with the built-in presets of a compressor, but frequently those will squash your vocal way more than what you’d actually want. That said, though, Logic’s initial settings are actually a pretty good starting point:
- A small or medium ratio, something like 2:1 or 3:1
- A quick (but not instant) attack time, around 10–15 ms
- A moderate release time, around 50–60 ms
After that, it’s about adjusting the threshold until you achieve the desired gain reduction. Start subtle, and try to keep things at or below 6 dB of gain reduction. Any more than that, and your track might start to sound flat and lifeless.
3. Double it up! Parallel compression is the technique of sending your vocal track to a second location (via a send or bus), and compressing only the duplicated signal, usually in an extreme way.
You can gain a lot of presence and “body” by compressing a vocal signal really hard, but it’ll dull the top end and make it feel lifeless and overtly aggressive. Instead, if you compress a copy of the signal really heavily, and mix only a little bit in, you get some of the body and presence without killing your vocal performance.
The settings for the parallel compressor can be pretty extreme. Keeping everything else the same, raise your ratio to somewhere between 10:1 and 20:1, and then lower your threshold until you achieve gain reduction in the 15–20 dB range.
That’s a punishing crush, but mixed in tastefully, it can add a lot of pop to the vocal!
VOCAL POP TIP 3: SPACE IS THE PLACE
These days, the use of reverb on vocal tracks is on a bit of a downward trend overall. Dry vocals are great for the intimate and/or aggressive sound of rap tracks and alternative rock, but might not work for bigger pop productions or folk numbers. Here’s a reliable way to create a larger-than-life space for your vocal.
1. Set the scene with sends. Set up two separate sends for your vocal. One will go to a mono, plate-style reverb that gives the vocal some general resonance, and helps the vocal sit into a space with the other instrument(s) in the track. The other will be a large and wide hall verb to give your vocal bravado and gravitas.
2. Make it tight. Your first vocal reverb, the plate verb, is more musical in function. It’s about creating sheen and a coherence with the band or production than about defining a “space” that the vocal is in.
Some good starter settings for a plate reverb are a decay time around 1–2 seconds, with a short predelay, around 30–50 ms.
Be sure to filter out some of the low end “mud” from your reverbs! You don’t want the reverberated signal muddying up your lead vocal sound. A high-pass filter in the 200 Hz range is a good place to start. Follow that up with a low shelf that reduces the low end below 600 Hz or so, by as much as necessary to clean things up.
Some reverbs, like the UAD EMT 140 pictured above, will have built-in filters and shelves for exactly these purposes, but you can achieve these same results with a simple EQ plugin or two.
3. Make it huge. Your vocal wasn’t recorded in a void, and you probably don’t want to depict it in a void, either. A great way to make your vocal sound larger than life is to create a larger-than-life space for it to resonate in! A wide hall reverb is a great space to illustrate this.
A good setting for this is somewhere between 3–8 seconds of decay time (we’re talking Grand Canyon-sized space), but obviously size your space to taste. Also, make sure that you give the reverb some predelay, on the order of 60–100 ms. Your vocal doesn’t leave the mouth and instantly hit the other side of a canyon!
Since these reflections are much farther away, you’ll want to take some high end out of the signal. Again, many reverbs will have some built-in shelving options available, but you can always take away more through EQ, if need be.
Just remember that, like with much of this processing, less is more. Always be sure to listen to your spacial effects in headphones as well as speakers, to make sure you’re truly hearing the space you’re creating, and not just the sound of the room you’re in.
VOCAL POP TIP 4: DOUBLE IT UP
When it comes to getting a “full” and “big” vocal sound, nothing quite gets the job done like simply laying down a second take and mixing it in, also known as doubling. In modern pop production, it’s not uncommon for a chorus part to have two, three, four, five, or more doubles of the main vocal part, just to thicken up the sound.
For a new vocalist, replicating an exact performance as closely as possible can seem daunting, if not impossible. However, some of the quirks and intricacies of each individual take, stacked together, can make a lead vocal that much more interesting, and can smooth out any individual mistakes or variations.
If you’re up for the challenge (and I highly recommend you give it a try!), here are a few suggestions for configuring doublings in a way that builds up your lead vocal into a fuller sound.
- The classic double. Take your lead and sing it twice. Run both vocals straight up the middle, in mono, or try just barely widening them by 5–10%, one in each direction.
- The wide triple. Record your lead three times. Pick a favorite and stick that in the middle. Pan the other two hard left and hard right, respectively, and turn those doublings down in the mix.
- The whisper triple. Similar to the wide triple, but the second and third takes are the lead performance “whispered” and mixed low in both ears. Great for achieving an ASMR effect, if that’s what you’re going for. This can also be used in conjunction with the wide triple.
- The unbound quartet (or quintet, etc.). Record four or more leads, and space them out evenly across the stereo spectrum.
- The crunchy chorus. Record three or more “loose” doubles, each with a slightly different timbral approach, and pan them all within 5–10% of center. This is great for creating a chorus or church choir effect.
These are just a few of the techniques with which I’ve found success. Bring layered harmonies into the fold, and you can really go crazy with stacking up a huge vocal sound!
Beware of the pitfalls
If you do choose to record and produce real doubles, there are a few pitfalls to be aware of to get the tightest, fullest sound.
1. Watch out for hard consonants. Sounds at the end of words with a lot of high end, like Ts and Ks, can sound really messy if they aren’t perfectly tight. While it’s possible to manipulate just the very end of a sound to perfectly align with the main lead, it’s often better to have only the lead take care of these sounds. The same thing goes for the front of sounds, including breaths.
When recording the doubles, try to get softer end consonants, or edit them out altogether in your DAW.
2. Don’t be afraid to cut things out. It’s easy to think that merely doubling the entire lead is the right idea, and that’s that. If you’re really digging the full sound you get from your two or more solid leads, voiced fully together, great! But also consider:
- High- and/or low-passing your double(s)
- Putting your double(s) through a 100% reverb, and mixing to taste
- Hard-compressing your doubles only, to emulate parallel compression
- Only keeping the doubles on lyrics or moments of great importance
- Cut out all the extra noise and empty content of the audio waveforms, when the double isn’t singing
Get creative with your doublings, and only take what you want from them!
3. Less is more. Once again, it’s important to recognize whether you’re adding something to the mix because it’s important, or because you just think it should sound better if you do. Be honest with yourself — are there too many doubles? Do you need a double at all, or is it just muddying up your track?
Lastly, if you’re less comfortable with recreating a perfect lead vocal performance, here are a few tips and techniques for approximating a lead vocal doubling effect.
- The chorus effect. This kind of effect will double your vocal track inside a plugin, giving it a slight pitch shift and/or modulation over time, and also mess very slightly with the timing of the original and the doubling. There are lots of different options for a plugin like this, such as Soundtoys’ Microshift plugin.
- Slap it. Use a slapback delay to create a quick and quickly decaying doubling effect. Your delay time should be extremely short, on the order of 10–30 ms (with a tiny bit of predelay to separate it from the lead), with a low feedback to avoid a ringing, modulated type of sound.
- Fake it. You can also create a chorus plugin type effect manually. Just copy your lead, use a pitch shifting tool to alter it up or down by somewhere around 5 cents, and slightly delay the timing of the double. Pan to taste. You can only get away with a couple of these, at most!
The world of vocal production is vast, and opinions vary widely between producers, genres, and generations about what a “correct” vocal production technique looks like. The truth is that whatever sounds good to you will probably sound good to someone else, but you won’t know until you try. So get experimenting, and make some music!
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