Vocals are undoubtedly the most important part of any song. They're also one of the more tricky elements to work with in a mix, as there are so many little things that account for the end product. We're going to show you some plugins and approaches that will give you a stunning vocal mix, time after time.
Before we dive into the actual tools and how to use them, it's important that you start with a good piece of recorded material. If you're doubting yourself about certain takes or comps, I'd suggest you do it again. If you don't you're only going to make the process longer, harder and eventually end up scrapping it and re-recording it anyway!
Subtractive EQ - Fab Filter Pro - Q3
Subtractive EQ is the process of removing nasty frequencies from your vocal takes. A lot of rooms have resonant frequencies that won't compliment your vocalists tone, so try and use some dampening or a reflection filter. Subtractive EQ is very specific to the type of singer, microphone, room and also the style you're trying to achieve. In general though, you can chop off any low end rumble below 150hz, as this is only going to create masking problems. Then try and start with narrow cuts and surgically locate and remove unpleasant frequencies.
FET Compression - UAD 1176 (or similar 1176 style)
A FET compressor has very fast attack and release times. It's also great at retaining dynamic range and transparency on a vocal, whilst giving it some colour. An 1176 style compressor will be fundamental in catching the peaks of your performance so that your signal is nice and even throughout. For a pop style vocal I tend to go for a 12:1 ratio with a fast attack and fast release. The 1176 controls are actually backwards, so a fast attack/release is actually fully clockwise!
Optical Compression - Teletronix LA-2A
An optical compressor is light sensitive, and doesn't have the same fast attack and release that field effect transistors provide. For this reason, an LA-2A (or STA Level, Tube Tech CL 1B) in series after some form of FET compression means your vocal will sit perfectly in any mix.
Additive EQ - Maag EQ4
Additive EQ is the opposite of subtractive. Instead of removing frequencies, we're going to be adding them in to shape the tone and colour of the vocal. My go to EQ for the past few years has been the Maag EQ4. It's becoming a modern classic used by top name producers, and for a good reason. The Maag's sophisticated air band provides a top end sheen that all modern vocals will benefit from. It's also great on a drum bus when you crank the sub!
Saturation - Waves J37, Sound Toys Decapitator
Saturation is another great way to dramatically shape the tone of your vocal. The waves J37 is a tape emulation that can add saturation and presence to a vocal performance, for any genre. The Sound Toys Decapitator is a little bit more advanced in its feature set, it allows you to control the dark/bright tone of the vocal as well as sounding utterly amazing.
Resonance Suppression - OEK Sound Soothe
Even after removing resonant frequencies in stage 1, all of the following effects will result in new EQ issues that might sound subtle, but can affect the way your vocal sits in the mix. OEK Sound Soothe is probably the most crazy plugin on this list, as it relies on artificial intelligence. Many top mixing engineers use Soothe to tame harshness that might occur after compression. It's also very useful on drum over heads and cymbals.
De-esser - Izotope RX7
I've tried many different de-esser plugins over the years, but I've finally found myself a 'go-to' with the Izotope RX7. Sibilance could effectively make or break your vocal mix. Making sure you listen back to your mix on different playback systems is very important. I've often found my vocals sound good in the studio but very sibilant on apple airpods, which is ultimately what the end user will end up listening to your music on. With the RX 7 I no longer run into any issues with sibilance, and it's incredibly easy to use.
So there you have it, a tried and tested vocal chain used by the pro's that will make your vocals sheen on any mix. You can of course use different types of compression and EQ depending on the genre of music you're mixing, but this will get you to where you want 90% of the time. Don't forget a lot of these effects can be used in parallel. Duplicating your track and creating a compressed version, or a dirty channel is a great way to retain your natural vocal and blend in character by taste. Some additional editing tricks to help your vocals make it to the finish line are listed below, they're equally as important as your vocal chain.
- Gain staging
- Vocal Tuning
- Automation (reduce how hard your compression is working)
- Edits (removing noise and adding cross fades)
- Timing (use vocAlign for tightening doubles, harmonies etc.)