Vocals are the main center of attention in almost any genre of music – they carry a lot of the energy, convey the emotional message and provide context for everything else.
The human ear is naturally tuned to distinguish even the most minor nuances of human voice, so even if the listener is not musically trained, he or she can tell very well whether sung vocals are sounding good or not. The cause for this can be a sub-par performance, but sometimes the sound engineer himself can also be the one to blame – if vocals are not mixed well, they will lack the driving energy and presence that really makes them lead the song.
Once again – it is very important to not overlook a good microphone – low quality gear can make your tracks lose a lot of energy and clarity. Be sure to invest in a good vocal microphone to ensure that you don’t degrade your art right from the beginning.
Here are a few practical ideas for getting that expensive sheen in your vocal tracks.
Once you’ve recorded the vocals and everything is compiled and ready to go, a good way to start is by cleaning up any unnecessary frequency build-ups. Parametric and graphic EQ units of plugins will work equally well, if used in moderation.
The main thing to keep in mind here – if it sounds good, it is good. There is no need to EQ more than necessary.
Start by cutting some excess low end – generally vocal tracks will have very little useful stuff below 120 Hz, but be sure to check this for each and every vocalist. By cutting some of the lows you will prevent sudden level peaks if a blast of air manages to sneak behind the pop filter, as well as preventing your compression from doing unnecessary work for this same reason.
Depending on the room you are recording in, be sure to check for some boomy frequencies at around 200-300 Hz, as often times these get quite crowded and can mask other instruments and make the vocals sound duller than they actually are.
Sweep around 700 Hz to check for some boxy frequencies and attenuate them as necessary. This region can make the sound harsh and papery.
Subtle high shelf boosts can also help if the vocalist has a darker vocal tone or if the mic is not very bright. It's easy to overdo the highs, so keep bypassing the EQ and compare the results to make sure you are actually improving the sound, not ruining it.
Secret to radio quality - control your dynamics
Compression will help you control the peak levels by making them more consistent, and it also has a certain musical movement to if, if done right.
The goal is to make the vocals more even, prominent and to preserve and enhance all the little subtleties of the performance to make sure that nothing gets lost in the mix. It should be said that compression is not to be used as a substitute for volume automation, as it will help the vocals stand out in just the right ways.
The amount of compression you need to do will vary between different projects and vocalists, but a good starting point would be to set the compressor to a 4:1 ratio, attack to around 10ms, and set the release so that it feels good and it grooves with the tempo.
Some lighter music will benefit from a more natural approach of taming some of the loudest peaks just to make it a little tighter, while a more modern rock production might need the vocals to be really “slammed” to get that aggressive “in your face” feel.
If a vocal track needs even more presence in the mix, you can try to use a limiter after the compression. Limiters will generally tend to flatten and distort the track a little bit, but that may be just what you are looking for.
Sometimes, if a track isn't feeling exciting or “expensive” enough, chances are that it lacks that sparkling high end excitement that you hear on the radio.
An easy way to achieve this is by using a multiband compressor – compress the high frequencies (say, 10-12 kHz and up) and bring the level of that band up as needed. This will make sure that the high end will be stable and bright. Be sure not to overdo this, as overly bright vocals will sound harsh.
Harmonic exciters can also do a good job of bringing extra life to a vocal track, so be sure to try it out as well. Saturation is your friend here, as it can add extra layers of detail and “attitude”. The extra harmonic content will make the tracks sound more rich and detailed.
Sibilance can be a “MIX KILLER” - learn "De-Essing"
Nothing kills a vocal mix like excessive sibilance – hearing a shrill whistling every time a vocalist sings the letter “s” and other similar sounds can really make the mix not very enjoyable. Vocal compression tends to bring these sounds up quite a bit, so be on the lookout for this effect and tame it with a de-esser. Be sure to de-ess the correct frequency to get the best results – don't just slap it on without checking.
Some engineers like to use staged de-essing – one narrow band de-esser to attack the offending frequency and later on, after compression they'll use a more broadband de-esser to tame the remaining sibilance, if there is any. De-essers work best on every single vocal track as opposed to a vocal bus, as the vocal bus may have varying vocal levels coming in, depending on the tracks that are played back at the moment.
Make sure not to overdo it as excessive de-essing can make the vocalist sound unnatural and lispy, which is definitely not a “radio quality” effect.
The art of ambience
No vocal mix is complete without some warm ambience that makes the track sound smooth and wide.
The trick to a coherent mix is to match the overall ambience of the vocals to the ambience of the song – this is a very important point that will make the vocals “glue” with the music and not sound like they were just slapped on top of a backing track.
Many pro mixers use different delays and reverbs for different parts of a song to change the feel and make it sound fresh from the beginning to the end. Shorter and tighter ambience for the verses and a longer, wider, more open one for the choruses will make the mix come to life.
Don't overlook your delay times and reverb settings to make sure that the effects don't drown the vocals and that everything is musical. Sometimes you might need to leave the vocals completely dry – that's fine, as long as it's a conscious artistic decision and it works for a certain song or a certain part.
Add some “easter eggs” - automation and effects
This is the part where many mixers are guilty of skipping over for the sake of saving time, but automation is actually very important, especially when mixing vocals, as they are probably one of the most dynamic sounds you will ever mix.
You might need to raise or lower a certain word of a performance to achieve a smooth and seamless performance, or, for example, lower the main vocal a little bit to accommodate a double or a harmony that might come in and raise the overall volume of the vocal mix.
Choruses often also can benefit from a tiny 1dB volume boost to give the vocals some extra energy and make the track really pop. EQ automation is also important, as you might want to achieve some slight tonal variations between different parts.
If you really want to send the vocals across the edge, you will need to get creative with some effects. Radio-quality productions are full of subtle little “easter eggs” that make the track feel magical in a way.
Delay or reverb throws on certain key phrases can make them really resonate with the listener (no pun intended, ha ha), lo-fi “old radio” effects can sometimes help you enhance parts like “answer phrases” or spoken word parts.
Modulation effects can also help to differentiate certain phrases and give them extra width. Stereo wideners can also make some parts stand out and have a different character. Vocal “swells” are also a nice way to enhance a beginning of a phrase and give it some more impact. Panning these effects out in the stereo field will also introduce some extra excitement. Just remember – decisions regarding this are up to you, the artist you’re working with and any particular project. A rulebook for a guaranteed success does not exist.
Additional texture will always make the mix sound more professional and interesting, even if these effects are subtle and are meant to be felt rather than heard. Listen to your dry vocal mix and imagine what you would hear if this song was playing on the radio, then trust your gut instincts and apply the effects where you “feel” them.