Make your layered vocals sound tighter and cleaner with these techniques
By Craig Anderton
Layering vocals is a common technique to thicken a vocal part, whether applied to a solo voice or to a massed group of backing vocals. However, there are certain considerations with layered vocals that don’t apply to single vocals, as layered vocals need to have a coherent, solid vibe. Words can’t start or end at different times, unless you’re going for a certain looseness. For tight vocals, though, there are several DAW techniques that can give the kind of feel you want..
Remove the spaces between vocals to delete headphone leakage, mouth noises, etc., then add fade-ins and -outs to smooth the transition from vocal to silence (Fig. 1). Also, insert a steep (48dB per octave if available) highpass filter to cut the very low frequencies where subsonics, hum, mud, and p-pops live.
Fig. 1: The spaces between phrases and words have been cut, with fades to add smooth transitions.
On sustained notes, you can line up the fade-outs on different vocal tracks so that they all fade out together. This gives a much more cohesive, tight vocal sound.
DEALING WITH INHALES
Inhales are a natural part of singing; however with multiple voices, inhales often don’t occur simultaneously. For a more unified sound, pick two inhales that are in sync (or just one, if there aren’t two that sync), and delete the other ones by cutting from the start of the inhale to where the note begins. Adding a slight fade will make for a smoother transition, although the inhales you’ve kept will likely smooth over these transitions anyway.
If you want to keep an inhale but it’s too prominent, fading in on the inhale can make it less obtrusive while still retaining an authentic vocal quality.
THE DREADED “P-POP”
With lowcut filters, if you reduce the lows sufficiently to remove the pop, you’ll usually reduce the voice’s resonance as well. Instead, zoom in on the p-pop (it will have a distinctive waveform) and split the clip just before the pop. Then, add a fade-in over the p-pop (Fig. 2). The fade-in’s duration determines the pop’s severity, so you can fine-tune the desired amount of “p” sound.
Fig. 2: The upper track has a major p-pop; the lower track had an equally bad pop, but the fade has tamed it.
NOTES THAT DON’T END AT THE SAME TIME
If one note is short compared to another that’s the correct length, split the short clip just before the last word, and use DSP to stretch that one word (e.g., in Cubase or Sonar, ctrl-click on the right edge of the clip containing the word,and drag to the right). In some cases you can split a note during the sustain, stretch the end longer, and crossfade the split region to make a smooth transition between the main part and “tail.” This can give a more natural sound if you need a fair amount of correction.
A note that extends too long is easier to fix—just fade it so its length matches the “reference” vocal, or split during a sustain and move the end closer to the beginning, with crossfade enabled so that there’s a smooth transition between the two..
For a really uniform sound, group all the vocal clips together and add a common fade so that they all fade simultaneously (Fig. 3). This creates a super-precise vocal sound, but as you’re not processing the vocal itself, the sound is natural.
Fig. 3: Each word has been aligned to start at the same time, while a common fade time creates a common ending. Before the fades were added, the notes had different end times.
I prefer not to mix a zillion tracks, so I like to set up aux sends to send all the layered vocals to a single stereo return. Not only does this make it a lot easier to mix, but you can also use a common signal processor (like a bus compressor set for a modest amount of compression) to “glue” the tracks together. A bused, individual stereo output also lends itself well to reverb, as the voices sound like they’re in a common acoustical space. There are plenty of good reverbs, but I particularly like Softube’s TSAR-1 with vocals.
IS IT WORTH IT?
This involves a fair amount of detail work, but I think the results are worth it. Smooth, consistent, polished background vocals make an excellent bed for the lead vocal while also giving it more importance—and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no more important element of any song than the lead vocal.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.