Vocals are a professional engineer’s bread & butter. For 90% of mainstream music, the vocals are the focal point of each mix.
As engineers grow into their preferred workflows, the vocal track count usually grows with them. Engineers that start off with a sparse, single vocal often find themselves looking for multiple takes they can comp (short for composite) down to a single performance later. Once they’ve got the solid comp, they’ll start thinking about a doubled lead and so on from there.
So as a tracking engineer, do you know what you should be recording for vocals? Do you know how much is enough, and when to decide if a session needs more?
As a mixer or producer, do you know what to do with all of those vocal tracks once you’ve got them?
Your Leads & Features
Lead vocals are always going to grab the attention of your listener, but it’s up to you to define what those lead vocals are. Some of you will just go with your single vocal track and be done with it – there’s nothing wrong with that.
But what if we could change our definition of a “lead vocal”? Rather than thinking of your lead vocal as a single track or a track plus a double, why not feature a vocal stack as a lead?
This happens all the time in pop and electronic music, but we don’t really think about how the huge sound of those vocals come to be.
This is a great example of when vocals need to be treated together. A well-recorded, tuned vocal stack can consist of a dozen or more tracks, which can all be bussed down to a single Aux Bus.
Once there, you have the power to adjust the vocals as a single, unified instrument. Just like a guitar or piano playing a chord, the vocals have harmonic nuances that can affect the other vocals around them. You can EQ them just the same as you would any other polyphonic instrument or compress them as a group to glue them together.
Your stacks will occasionally slip into the background, providing more reinforcement than anything else to your mix.
These are your “oh’s” and “ah’s” which might be stacked harmonies or individual voices. They might be your singer’s voice, group vocals, or even just a single musician in the band providing a little change of scenery from the lead vocal.
The difference in how you treat your backgrounds comes down to their place in the stereo field. There are situations where you might have some center-panned backgrounds, but for the most part your background vocals will be spread to the sides of your mix – leaving plenty of room for your lead vocal in the center.
Just because they’re split in the stereo field doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated as a group though, quite the opposite. Your stereo-panned background vocals need balance to work properly, and treating them individual is a risky approach that can destroy that balance.
By using a stereo Aux Bus for your background vocals, you get all of the same controls you have with your leads & features. As one side of your vocals gets loud, a compressor can act on the entire group to maintain their relative balance to one another.
The third type of vocal we should focus on really isn’t a vocal at all, but the time-based effects that are applied to them.
We’ve done deep dives into the benefits of time-based effects on vocal tracks, but how you treat them once you’ve dialed them in has been a topic of debate.
Too many engineers think they’re done when they’ve tempo synced their delays and found the right tail for their reverb. Instead of the polished, larger-than-life sound they’re expecting, they get a muddy, drowned out sound.
The two main causes: too much of a good thing and an inattention to the blend & balance of the effects.
It’s easy for new engineers to apply too much reverb or delay. The same could be said for engineers with less than ideal recording equipment. When we can’t get something to sound the way we want it to, we have a tendency to mask it with effects.
Instead of burying your mistakes, it’s better to seek out new ways to fix common problems.
If, on the other hand, you are not someone that overdoes their effects, I’d be willing to bet you’re not grouping your effects as effectively as you could be. It’s fine, it’s usually the last thing on an engineer’s mind when they’re fighting a deadline. But what should you be doing?
If you can, I strongly recommend routing your vocal effects to their own Aux Bus as well. Bussing your vocal effects will let you see, collectively, how loud your effects are getting. You can treat them as a whole (sound familiar?), which means you can carve out space from your lead vocals that might be getting masked by the effects. Using a compressor like BG-Vocals, you can then set the blend of your effects back into your mix in a way that’s transparent but effective.
Do You Have a Bus Compressor on Your Vocals
If so, is it optimized for your vocals like BG-Vocals is? If not, what are you waiting for?
Come see how Joey Sturgis Tones community members are using BG-Vocals in their mixes. All month we’ll be featuring our favorite Bus Glue videos on JST’s Facebook & Instagram pages. Come share your own for your chance to get featured in front of more than 70,000 musicians, engineers and producers!