I’m settling it.
Want a proven method of getting your vocals to sound the same as your favorite commercial tracks? It’s really a lot easier than you think.
Often, we’re faced with situations where we wonder how to get the best out of our vocals. This is a super simple way forward that’s really hard to get wrong.
Step 1: Find a reference track from a record that’s proven to find great success in the genre/sphere you’re interested in.
You really don’t want to get just any reference track. You want to get a studio acapella without reverb or backing vocals. The point of this is so that you can properly hear exactly the compression, saturation, frequency balance, and creative mixing choices they did at each part of the song. It’s super important to also take note of the individual places that they implement specially distorted vocal sections, flanger sections, or any other creative effect they do to give a certain part a particular sound.
The idea would be to find a reference track from someone who sounds fairly similar in tone to the vocal you’re mixing, as well as the actual song genre/style.
There’s a couple of places you can get things like, both legal and slightly grey. I’m sure a lot of you know about a certain Russian website that holds pretty much all the stems of famous songs and artists, but for obvious reasons, I won’t be mentioning that here. Not only might that be a little bit risky, but if there’s a way to support the artist, you should. However, I also know how hard it is to find these things and I don’t hold it against you if you decide to go that route.
Other than that, as far as I’ve seen, there are not many places to find this other than Youtube, Soundcloud, and you might have some luck at either https://www.voclr.it/acapellas/ or https://www.themashup.co.uk/. I’ve mostly had the luck of having the original studio files of the artist sent to me by friends in the industry or I’ve had to find them somewhere on the internet, and it generally took quite a bit of searching.
Step 2: Low Cut Filter and Compression
You’d be surprised at how well a stock DAW plugin does in attaining the dynamics if you set it correctly. First, match the volume to your reference track. Then, apply a low-cut filter to clean up some of the mud. Taking out everything below either 80hz up to 130hz can be useful depending on the type of voice you’re working with. Then, add the compressor. Playing with the knee, attack, release, threshold, and ratio(A good starting place it 4:1) while listening to your reference vocal will get your vocal controlled just as much as the commercial track. Your objective is to compress just enough to be as dynamically controlled as the reference song, not more, not less. The reason why I emphasize this is because the example you chose is supposed to be similar to your song and voice. This is how you guarantee you don’t over-compress in a genre or style that needs you to be extremely careful about doing just that.
If you’d like to do things a little bit better than using a stock plugin, utilizing our analog compressors at mix: analog like the 1176 or la2a(or a combo of the two) can really provide some incredible added saturation and a much easier time in reaching “that sound”. That’s the benefit of some analog gear, knowing that you can compress while adding some very familiar high-end saturation to the sound source. You can find links to those units here, and here, and the bundle of them both, here.
EQ: How to shape the sound to match
There’s a pretty logical way to go about this, and it requires you to start at the low end, solo sections of the frequency spectrum from low to high, and do direct comparisons to those same frequency sections of the reference songs. If it sounds like you need to boost, or cut at a particular frequency location to match, as you’re comparing, simply grab a bell curve and do so.
It’s probably going to help if you can use a dynamic EQ like fabfilter pro Q as it’s going to help you get some suppression of certain peaks in, but if you’re doing this with a smaller budget, simply go ahead and download Tokyo dawn labs nova eq for free, which is one of the highest quality eq’s that exist, and they have a very customer-centric attitude about their products and paid versions. I own all their paid versions of their plugins and I’m really glad I do because the quality is impeccable. Still, the only thing they take away in the free versions is the number of eq bands and equivalent things on other plugins.
Once you’ve done this, you should be already getting really close to the song reference you’re aiming for.
Saturation: Saturating the Top End
One of the best places to saturate is the top end because it gives you a very pleasing clarity.
Try using fabfilter Saturn 2 and use either tape or tube saturation, or a free equivalent if you cant afford it. PreFET accentize is an interesting option, as it’s free and uses AI to model a FET transformer, but it lacks the multiband options Saturn does that lets you individually saturate certain areas of the frequency spectrum. If you’ve already run the vocal through real analog gear at mix: analog, you likely don’t need to do much in this step.
Sibilance: How to deal with it?
After you’ve done all this you’re likely going to have some sibilance coming out. I don’t personally like waves plugins, but I do find some of them pretty useful at certain points. The R De-Esser (Which happens to be pretty cheap as well), seems to work well as a final de-esser, making sure you’re de-essing everything from around 5khz upwards just enough to keep everything in check. Sometimes it’s best not to overcomplicate things with plugins like soothe or more complicated de-essers. If you’d really like to go to town, sonnox oxford does a fantastic de-esser too, but unless you’ve got a really badly recorded vocal, it’s not really a vital part of the process.
Some vocals might need de-essing before the initial compression, as well as after, but that’s really dependent on what type of recording quality you’ve ended up with. Keep in mind though, the more you de-ess, the more you create a lisping sound. Find your balance, and always remember, some vocal’s sibilance is not saveable and needs re-recording.
Final Saturation: Tube
Sometimes, vocals have that very iconic distorted sound. That comes from tube saturation. Saturn 2 with the warm tube setting does the job pretty well. Just crank the knob up and you’re there.
Experimental Effects: Drip 2.0
I’ve just recently gotten my hands on a very interesting effects plugin called Drip 2.0.
Love it or hate it, I can’t deny that it very quickly gets you some very complex and interesting effects you’d spend an extremely long time trying to create yourself. Sometimes, I find that putting on one of their presets like Apex on 100% wet/dry, dialing in a few settings, and adding just a touch of that as a parallel duplicate track seems to open up a vocal really nicely and give it some great behind the scenes movement. Besides being absolutely awesome on instruments if you actually give it a chance and delve into it, the parallel processing approach of Drip 2.0 is a very unique but effective mindset to adding a little bit more non-linearity to your process.
Reverb and Delay:
Adding a small percentage of a very short plate reverb can put the vocal in a room and make it sound a bit more natural to listen to. Using that on the actual vocal track itself instead of a send actually goes a long way into adding up, as it then sends that into the next reverb and delays you make as your send track.
Then, you need a reference track with the effects added in(reverb and delays). Now, you’re going to simply try to match the amount of reverb they’re using with send tracks.
Create a reverb send track with the reverb of your choice(stock reverb generally works fine, but if you have a specific reverb you’d like to use like Valhalla Vintage Plate, it’s definitely worth giving a go.
Create the delay with either a stock delay plugin or a delay plugin of your choice. Your focus is to try to match the feedback of the delay to the reference track, noticing how long it takes for the delay to come in, and how long it takes to gradually disappear. Often, they’ll have the delay end before the next sentence of the vocalist but stay long enough to fill that gap.
Make sure you have a compressor after the reverb and delay sidechaining to the original vocal so the effects duck out of the way when the vocalist is singing. You can try the Opto setting on the fabfilter Pro C with a quick attack and high ratio. That, of course, depends on what the reference track is doing. Some songs don’t keep the vocal upfront, and simply have the vocal be covered up with effects. Just use your ears on this.
With regards to the delay, you’d like to saturate the send with Saturn, quite heavily, then add a 20% wet/dry short 1.5 to 1.8-second reverb, then finally send it into the delay. Then, filter off the low frequencies and the high frequencies so it’s similar to a telephone effect. Most songs use delay like this, but it might be different depending on the reference. Since the objective is to duplicate the reference, listen to how they do it and try to copy it by taking note of their frequency approach to the delay and if they’re using multi delays instead of one.
That’s pretty much it!
Hope this was an interesting read and I hope to see you making some really awesome vocal mixes!
We’ve also got a very nice Black Friday Deal at Mix: Analog coming up next week.
See you next week, Best