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  • Vocal production tips

    Hi does anyone have any tips on producing vocals? I'm after a modern "processed" indie-rock sound, quite atmospheric sound I guess so any tips on double tracking, delay, reverb etc would be useful


  • #2
    Ok, I'm no expert. But here are some ideas to get the ball rolling....

    Parallel processing:-

    Copy the vocal onto a 2nd track. EQ the first track for intelligibility. Make it really clear and crisp sounding, but be careful of sibilants.

    Then, apply a fat sounding compressor to the 2nd track, with a fairly fast attack and ratio of ~4:1 or 5:1. You want to see gain reduction of anything up to 12dB on the loudest parts, and use the makeup gain to get unity in/out.

    Now, blend the 2 tracks to taste. Clarity from the EQ'd track, and body from the compressed track. My preference at the moment is for a phase linear EQ, and a tube-style compressor, but YMMV.

    I sometimes run this blend thru a further tube compression stage (TRacks Tube Comp is fine), and with the rest of the arrangement mixed properly, the vocal will sit perfectly top and centre.

    Reverbs and delays:-

    If you're using a global reverb on the mix, you might find that you want to run the vocal on a separate reverb line, or several separate reverb lines.

    Maybe an ambience preset on one reverb line, and a room or hall on a 2nd reverb line. I generally run some gentle tape saturation on at least one of my vocal reverbs.

    Sometimes an ambience setting alone will be perfect on the vocal. Sometimes you'll need something with a longer tail as well, or instead.

    What type of delay depends on the material. Do you want a single breathy, low level 'echo' a 1/2 note or a bar behind the dry track, a la Dark Side of the Moon? You'll usually need to feed a reverb line with the return from such a delay. The latest Bruno Mars track (its name escapes me) has some great use of this type of delay/reverb combination.

    Or slapback? Most delay plugins will have a slapback preset that is easily tweaked to suit your material. Some tape saturation might help on a slapback. But you can get a similar, if more subtle, effect by setting the predelay on your vocal reverb somewhere around 50-60ms.

    After that, 'character' delays are basically whatever you come up with yourself. Just try matching to different beats, 1/4 notes, 1/8ths, 1/16ths, dotted or triplet. Play with the feedback and see what works. If something doesn't work, try something else, or leave it off.

    A character delay will usually be much more effective if used sparingly. during a chorus or middle-8, or on background vocals/ad libs.

    Double tracking:-

    First off, it's usually a good idea to record the 2nd vocal line-by-line, making sure that the timing and pitch are as closely matched as possible. They need to be super-tight. Even then, you will probably end up needing to EQ the 2nd vocal quite drastically to avoid buildups at certain frequencies, and/or kill the sibilants on the 2nd vocal.

    You might also find that you don't end up sending both vocals to all of the vocal reverbs and delays. So, one or the other might be the 'driver' of the reverbs and delays.

    Another cool thing to try, if the musical key suits the vocalist, is to track the 2nd vocal an octave higher/lower. Beck uses this one a lot. Again, you'll usually need to EQ the 2nd vocal so it sits back a bit.

    Time based/modulation effects

    Sometimes you can really get a vocal to 'sit' in a mix by adding the teeniest bit of slow flanging. With some modulation plugins, you can set up a flanger with a sawtooth or triangle envelope. Match one cycle to the length of a bar, or 2 bars, and it can be like magic.

    Ditto, chorus and phasing. But beware of the above, it's like seasoning on food - too much is too much!

    Another way of getting modulation is to use 2 mics on the vocalist. Either side by side, or else one close mic, and another about 2 feet away. You will get phasing when the vocalist moves their head as they're singing, and it can sometimes be very pleasing and useable, but you usually need to get lucky with the take. And it can sound pretty atrocious if it doesn't work.

    I believe that the phasing on the vocal for Radiohead's 'High and Dry' was achieved using 2 mics.

    __________________________________________________ __________________________________

    All of the above will work much better if you have a booth, or some sort of isolation for the vocalist. I don't know what kind of setup you have, but the deader the acoustic environment, the easier it will be to sculpt the vocal creatively within your mixes.

    Unless of course, you've got a acoustically lively room which makes vocalists sound awesome. In that case, simply put a microphone in front of the vocalist, and disregard all of the other information in this post! All you need to do when mixing a vocal recorded in such a room is set the fader marked 'Vox' to zero

    edit:- Sad to say that a modern 'processed' sound will also rely on no small amount of autotune/Melodyne. Get in there and start snapping everything to perfect pitch, straighten out the vocalist's natural vibrato etc., and you'll be well on your way to getting a modern 'glassy' sound.
    flip the phase


    • #3
      I'm going to start with the basics of tracking the parts...

      Start with a great singer, and give them a clear idea of what type of performance you're looking for. Get them comfortable, put them in a great sounding room, get them a lyric / music stand, some cool (not cold) water, and put them in front of a complementary (to their voice and the sound you're after for the song) microphone / signal path, and let them do three or four passes at the song.

      Yes, you could do it line by line, but if they're a good singer, that will probably be less comfortable for them than just singing the song. Often this leads to better phrasing, "feel" and musicality too. At that point, I'd recommend giving the singer a bit of a break and doing your comps. Go through those four takes and listen. Does one sound and / or feel better than the others? If so, use it as the basis of your lead vocal track. Make sure you note any spots in ANY take that are particularly brilliant. If you're an assistant on a session, this is where you prove your competence - by writing down any positive (and negative) comments made by the artists, engineer and producer, as well as any spots you thought were particularly good, as well as the ones you felt needed work. Later, if someone says "what track was that cool such and such on?" you'll be ready with the info. Not an assistant engineer, or don't have one helping you on the session? Then you'd better take your own notes. Use the other three takes to comp in any questionable sections / phrases / words, paying particular attention to the brilliant stuff. Also pay attention to breathing, phrasing and "flow" - you want your comps to sound natural, and a "double breath" or timbre change in mid-phrase can be a dead give-away that you sliced and diced. My approach is to make darned certain *I* can't hear the splice - even with that track soloed out. I figure if I can't hear it under those circumstances, the average listener never will either. Remember - we're illusionists; part of the trick is to never let the audience even sense you were in there editing - it should sound like one single brilliant performance from start to stop. If there's any line or section that is less than satisfactory on all of the takes, then those are the parts that I'd recommend re-tracking, line by line, until suitable performances are achieved.

      Now the next stage, assuming the pitch of the singer is good enough, is to go to doing your doubles, triples, etc. If their singing is spotty, do the tuning first - it will help with the double tracking process if they're singing to something that's in tune. Have you ever heard of the expression "a natural pilot?" They're the guys who get in a plane for the first time and with two minutes of instruction are flying expertly all over the sky. Some singers and musicians are like than with double-tracking. Some - even ones with zero studio experience - are just naturals at it. They tend to be the ones who are very consistent and sing the song pretty much the same way, each and every time, although occasionally an improviser will also be able to nail the doubling parts rapidly. It never hurts to let them give it a try, although you can't expect everyone to have this ability. Singing along with yourself is a fairly un-natural thing.

      If you're not dealing with a singer who can nail it right off the bat, then IMHO the best approach is to send them home for a few days with a copy of the comped and tuned lead vocal. Let them rehearse to that - it will help them get the timing and phrasing of the part down. Then you can come back into the studio and usually get it done a lot faster and with much less frustration than if they tried to do it cold right after you comped and tuned it. How many parts do you need? It depends on the song. I do a lot of stuff with hardly any double tracking on it, and other stuff with lots of it. I've known singers and producers who would stack and stack stuff - anywhere from three to six tracks of each and every part, including all lead, counterpoint and background vocal parts. If you're using tons of stacks, you don't always need to tune all of them. Doing so gives a more "modern" sound, but the natural chorusing that can make stacked parts sound so cool is in part due to slight timing and pitch variations in the performances.

      Speaking of Autotune, I love it for when you have a great feeling line that the singer never could quite duplicate or beat, but that has some pitch issues. If you need to fix something like that, Autotune can be a life saver. I am a big fan of the graphic mode, and prefer to edit in there with the same general approach as I take to comping. If I can't hear it when I'm done, even with the track soloed out, then I doubt anyone else will either. However, a lot of "modern" records intentionally glitch out the autotune for the Cher / T-Pain effect. If you're after that, then feel free to use auto mode. Instructions for how to get it to glitch are a Google search away.

      When it comes to timing, you can use modern techniques there too. Again, some slight timing variation is a good thing IMO, but you can do magic with the modern editing tools. There's the Vocalign plugin, which can help align the timing of two takes. I prefer to use elastic audio in Pro Tools to do that when the need arises. If one part is sustaining a note a bit longer than the other, you can easily correct that - as well as a lot of note starts, and even middle of the line phrasing issues. Skin tight (often "over-done" IMHO) timing is another hallmark of "modern" sounding records.

      The more of the tuning and timing correction you "have" to do, the more time you'll end up spending slicing and dicing. All modesty aside, I'm an expert at it at this point... but I wish I wasn't. I MUCH prefer getting it as close as possible in the tracking stage, and doing as little correction as possible. It's far more time efficient. And far more often than not, more musical too.

      The processing after that is relatively easy - again, it's all about what the song calls for, and different types of reverbs, vocal doublers / ADT type plugins, modulation effects like Eventide's H3000 and Sound Toys Crystalizer, as well as delay based effects are often used. If you want to process multiple tracks with the same effect plugin, it's far better to do so with an aux send / return. That way, you can use a single plugin for several tracks instead of having to use several instances of the plugin. Check out Gubu's excellent post (above) for some additional suggestions.

      "Look at it this way: think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of 'em are stupider than that."

      - George Carlin

      "It shouldn't be expected that people are necessarily doing what they appear to be doing on records."

      - Sir George Martin, All You Need Is Ears

      "The music business will be revitalized by musicians, not the labels or Live Nation. When the musicians decide to put music first, instead of money, the public will flock to the fruits and the scene will be healthy again."

      - Bob Lefsetz, The Lefsetz Letter


      • #4
        Thanks guys, there's some great information in there


        • #5
          I forgot to add to my earlier post that Chris 'Von Pimpenstein' Carter has a superb series of youtube videos called 'How to mix a hit record' that is a mine of information on how to set up your mix, busses and groups in a simple and intuitive way, and has some really neat tips and tricks about how to treat and process your vocals, including a cool way to deal with sibilants.

          He also goes into some detail about tracking and getting the best possible vocal performance.

          Part 1 here:- How to mix a hit record

          Parts 2 + 3 should be on the youtube sidebar.
          flip the phase


          • Anderton
            Anderton commented
            Editing a comment

            I do a LOT of editing on the waveform level - deleting the spaces between phrases, and also, adjusting gain on individual phrases if they're lower or higher than they should be.

            So why not use a compressor or limiter? Feeding a consistent level into dynamics processors means you don't have to use as much compression, so you get a more natural sound.

            I've also made a GREAT find - the Pauly Superscreen. It's expensive, but far and away the best pop filter I've ever used. I tend to close-mic a lot, and used to have to spend time dealing with editing out plosives, even when doubling up pop filters. The Pauly just totally rocks for getting rid of plosives.