After Part 1 that focused on the important processes that need to be addressed before you touch an EQ plugin, we finally get to the meat and potatoes of the guide.
Processing, EQ, Compression, and every other process that needs to take place to get you Commercial sounding, A list Vocals.
Each famous mixing engineer has in common their pursuit to ensure every direction they take is the most efficient and minimal approach to mixing vocals possible.
What do I mean by this?
Most of the time, the everyday engineer mixing vocals might end up adding plugin after plugin, trying to fix problems, trying to use specific plugins that they saw guys online using, and essentially, after ending up 13 plugins down the line, realizing they made a mess. By that time, their ears are so broken that they can't possibly make good decisions anymore, and they end up super frustrated and try to restart everything in the hopes that will fix it.
What are you trying to achieve?
When you begin to approach a vocal, you need to keep asking yourself this question at every point in the project timeline and every point in the vocal mixing process.
You need to have a point of reference. Having some songs that are done by some of the greats is an excellent place to start. Each voice is different, but you’re not trying to copy that. You’re trying to understand what tonal balance the vocals have in a high-end commercial track and why.
Often, it’s going to take a lot less than you think to reach the vocal you’re trying to achieve. Most of the time, you’re trying to accomplish a FREQUENCY CONTROLLED, present but not harsh, perfect low mids, yet “alive” sounding performance. And that is not an easy feat to achieve.
Right, let's share how.
The most important job of the first pass is to look for any areas of the vocal that is outlandishly loud or extremely quiet, cut or split those vocals into their own clips, and use clip gain(or any other DAWS similar cut, split, and clip gain tool). You’re trying to ensure that when the vocal goes into the first compressor, it isn’t going to give it a hard time. You’re trying to get a somewhat consistent performance before you even resort to EQ and Compression. Crossfade where you need to, and ensure the transitions are smooth.
Remove breaths or reduce breaths if you need to as well.
While asking yourself that critical question, “what am I trying to achieve” you need to analyze the vocal frequency spectrum.
Often, there’s a build-up around the 300hz area, and using a dynamic EQ or multiband compressor helps control that. You’re going to have to try to make the release of the multiband move with the feeling of the song, but generally, you want it just controlled enough not to become muddy and not controlled enough to keep some depth and life to the song. Sometimes, a combination of a gentle EQ Bell Cut at that area and a multiband or dynamic EQ does the world of good. If you’re uncertain of how much to take out, try to listen to your favorite commercially mixed songs, and come close to matching it in that frequency area by a listening comparison.
Generally, most vocals need a boost at around 4khz to give some mid-range presence and a shelf at 10khz. Don’t be excessive; try gently nudge it to sit above the mix and be intelligible in the sentence articulation.
A low cut is also useful, but it depends on if it’s a male or a female vocalist.
Male vocals need the lower frequencies to sound full and powerful, and female vocalists can get away with a little more roll-off on the low frequencies.
100htz, 1khz, and 10khz
These frequencies are fundamental to the way we hear a voice. You’ll often find that raising 100htz slightly in a small bell curve EQ boost after taking out some 300htz restores the feeling of depth and live to a vocal. 1khz offers an interesting point in the frequency spectrum that can easily be overdone. It actually catches the listener's ear quite effectively, and the same goes for 10khz. Try gently play around with the frequencies, and you’ll find that you might get something out of your vocals you didn’t expect you’d get.
Resonance Removal with EQ
I’m not a massive fan of this because it’s something that I feel damages the integrity of the vocal quality. If you have to do it, though, don’t overdo it because that's the easiest way to destroy your vocal mix. Please don’t go and find 10 resonant peaks in a vocal by soloing those frequencies because it’s obvious that you’re going to see them that way.
Instead, look for the most offensive resonances, and consider either using something like Surfer EQ to follow that resonance as the song goes, or use a dynamic EQ like Fabfilter ProQ3 to control those frequencies only in the parts of the song when it becomes too apparent.
Conclusion: You’re going to find that you don't have to actually use as many EQ’s as you think, and you’re probably going to be better off just hitting the main frequency points, utilizing both vocal gain and frequency nudges to get the vocal to the desired result without over-processing.
Most people add compression just because everybody says they should. Then, they add loads of compression without factoring in why.
Compression serves two purposes.
1. To control a vocal, waveform peaks, and level out a vocal so you can turn it up and have each word be audible above the instruments.
2. To add movement and life into the vocal.
The second part of this is extremely misunderstood, and here’s why. People are thinking single-mindedly about compression. They don’t understand that certain compressors can add a natural feeling of movement to their vocals without breaking the integrity of their controlled peaks. The 1176, combined with the LA2a,(Available to use at Mix: Analog) is used for precisely this reason. Its ability to add a movement nuance while controlling peaks is quite useful.
Just yesterday, I used the cl1b tube tech compressor with a setting that made the vocal ebb and flow after I’d finished processing the vocal to make it feel like the vocal was alive and grabbing you. It added some saturation, as well as subtle movement in the right ways. Consider this second reason's usefulness when processing your vocals.
Sometimes, you can also automate the threshold, attack, release, and ratio of the compressor for different places in the song. This, you should usually do at the end of the process if you feel you need it to open up more or sound slightly different in a chorus compared to a verse.
Sometimes, the control a multiband compressor can give is just the finishing touch needed on a vocal. Setting a Waves C4 Multiband Compressor on Opto and shifting the frequency zones to cover 0-100htz, 100-600htz, 600-8000htz, 8000 to 20000hz can often result in a smoother, more overall controlled vocal. The goal isn't to compress much here but to create some overall balance.
You might need to occasionally automate a particular frequency zone with a fabfilter Pro MB, but that’s something you’d have to do at the end of the process to refine certain harsh words, etc. The idea is, you’d go in and specifically activate the Multiband on that frequency alone on a specific word that seems too harsh, and then automate it to deactivate directly after that, so it doesn’t affect the entire vocal.
Saturation on a vocal is heavily dependent on what you feel is missing. It’s entirely subjective, and it’s always advisable not to do too much unless you’re going for a specific type of effect.
I use the Devil Loc (only a tiny percentage of the mix knob), the oxford inflator, softube tape, Mix: Analog’s Studer Tape Machine(always way better than the plugin, but I may use the plugin for a particular scenario if it’s the right thing to use), and Fabfilter Saturn 2.
Each saturator has a different sound, and a vocal is too individualized to tell you when you’d use what. You need to listen to what each one does, make sure you’re not just making it louder(gain match the before and after), and ensure you’re improving the vocal, not hurting it.
It depends on the vocal, but usually, I’ll de-ess somewhere in the middle of the processing chain. It’s completely subjective, but this is the way I like to do it because I feel it gives a. chance for the processing that comes after that to add back some movement and life into the vocal.
I use Fabfilter Pro-DS, and Waves Sibilance.
I don’t believe in soothe on vocals unless the vocal audio quality is so bad that's all you can do, but in most cases, I try to solve it in other ways. I feel that spectral dynamics often cause more harm than good to the realism of the vocal. Still, there have been many cases where I have to use soothe, and it has its place.
A Very Sneaky Trick
Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to shortcut.
Tokyo Dawn Labs Nova GE Edition has an intelligent EQ function(that detects resonances) and a reference match tool.
Once you’ve processed your vocal using the techniques above, it’s sometimes nice to finish off the chain with NOVA.
Go to the smart EQ section Under SMART OPS, and learn the vocal you’re about to process. Then, set the processing button from de-resonate to reference file EQ match select an acapella of your choice from one of your favorite commercially mixed vocals you’ve downloaded, and match.
You’ll find one of two things. You’ll either be able to dial the mix knob back enough to give your vocal enough of a shift in the right direction to complete it, or you’ll be able to analyze the curves and understand where you need to boost, or cut, to match your vocal to your favorite track. This is ALWAYS best done at the end of the processing chain.
MAKE SURE you select the “insane” quality of the plugin to ensure the processing doesn't degrade.
The final step of the process is to automate your vocal output volume to emphasize places you feel should be more present, noticeable, and upfront. Subtle movements of 0.3 to 0.5db go a long way. A chorus vocal can sometimes do with a 0.6db to 1db volume increase as more instruments come in. Approach it intelligently and consider how you want the listener to FEEL in every part of the song, and you should find yourself getting much closer to the vocal mixes the pro’s are pulling off.
In part 3, I’m going to be breaking down exactly how you should be approaching Reverbs, Delays, Send Effects, chorus effects, Artificial Vocal Doubles, and more. That's going to tie everything together for you. It’s going to be EXCITING!