How To Make Your Vocal Tracks POP

[Editors Note: This blog was written by our friends at Soundfly – learn more about their online course series and how you can get a discount at the bottom of this article!]

 

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:

  1. A small or medium ratio, something like 2:1 or 3:1
  2. A quick (but not instant) attack time, around 10–15 ms
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The unbound quartet (or quintet, etc.). Record four or more leads, and space them out evenly across the stereo spectrum.
  5. 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:

  1. High- and/or low-passing your double(s)
  2. Putting your double(s) through a 100% reverb, and mixing to taste
  3. Hard-compressing your doubles only, to emulate parallel compression
  4. Only keeping the doubles on lyrics or moments of great importance
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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Mix Buss Compression Made Easy!

[Author: Scott Wiggins *]  

How many of you are completely terrified of doing anything to the mix buss, aka “stereo buss” “2 buss”?

It is real easy to mess up an entire mix with too much processing, in particular, mix buss compression.

Over the years of searching the internet creeping on my favorite mixers (Jaquire King, Dave Pensado, Chris Lord Alge, and many more) mix buss compression settings I’ve found that a little goes a long way.

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Mix Buss Compression Glue

Have you ever heard the term “glue” in a conversation of recording and mixing?

No, I’m not talking about the kind you used to put on your hands in elementary so you could peel it off when it dried.

Am I the only one who did that?

I’m talking about the way compression can make tracks seem like they fit together a little better.

When set up correctly it makes the whole song feel like it’s glued together in the subtle ways which gives it a nice musical polished cohesive sound.

The goal with mix buss compression would be to just tame any transients that may spike up in volume just a little too much, and then bring the overall volume up of the rest of the tracks juuuuuust a bit.

We’re just trying to add a little more energy and fullness to the mix.

mix buss compression

Mix Buss Compression Settings

The Attack:

The attack setting you use for mix buss compression is important just like using a compressor on any other track.

With a faster attack the compressor will clamp down sooner on the transients that tend to be a little louder than the rest of the audio coming through.

A slower attack will wait milliseconds before it clamps down on the audio and starts compressing.

I tend to use a faster attack, BUT I’m not crushing those transients with a ton of compression, so I still keep the dynamics in my mix.

If I found I was killing the transients too much and there was no excitement in my mix, I would probably make it a slower attack setting.

Release:

I tend to use a medium to fast release setting.

I’ve heard a lot of famous mixers say they set the release with the tempo of the song.

So they would watch the gain reduction needle and have it release on beat with the song.

I try my best to use this method.

Ratio:

I use a really small ratio of around 1.5 to 1.

This means that once my audio passes the threshold I’ve set that there is very little compression happening to that audio.

It’s just a little bit. I’m not trying to squash the life out of it.

You can experiment with a little bit higher of a ratio, but know that the lower the ratio the less compression (more dynamics), and the higher the ratio the more compression (less dynamics).

Threshold:

I dial the threshold to where I’m only getting about 1 to 3 dbs of gain reduction on the peaks of the audio.

I tend to keep it on the lower side of 1 to 2 dbs of gain reduction.

You just want to kiss the needle. You don’t want to have to much mix bus compression happening.

Remember, we are going for a subtle “glue” like affect.

Make up Gain:

Just like on any other compressor, I turn the make up gain to math the amount of gain reduction happening.

Be careful here. Don’t turn it up to loud and fool yourself that you like the result just because it’s louder.

Do your best to math the input volume with the output volume of the compressor.

We tend to think louder is better when it’s not really better, it’s just louder.

I’ve shot a video tutorial below to show all of this in action on a mix i’ve started. Check it out!

Conclusion

Mix buss compression is a great way to add a little bit of excitement and glue to your mix.

Some people like to slap it on the master buss AFTER they have mixed it (Ryan West who’s credits are Jay-Z, Eminem, Kid Cudi, Maroon 5, T.I, Rihanna and Kanye West)

And some engineers like to slap a little bit of compression on in the beginning and mix through it.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong way when it comes to when to put it on.

The key is to be subtle and don’t kill a good mix with too much mix buss compression.

Use your ears like always. They are your biggest weapons.

Good luck and happy mixing!

If you want to learn the 1st step to a successful mix even before you think about adding mix buss compression, check this post out about “The Static Mix”.

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[Editors Note: This is blog was written by Scott Wiggins and it originally appeared on his site, The Recording Solution, which is dedicated to helping producers, engineers and artists make better music from their home studios.]

10 Ways to Make Vocals Sound Modern & Professional

[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by Rob Mayzes, producer, mix engineer and founder of Home Studio Center, a site dedicated to providing valuable tips around recording from home studios.]

 

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.

Conclusion

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.