When you think of the perfect female vocal, what comes to mind? For me, it’s a bright, clear vocalist that fits perfectly in the mix. In rock and metal, it needs to be raw and aggressive with at least a bit of grit. In pop, it should be airy and present without sounding harsh or brittle. In a country song, it should sound full and natural…
Quite a few “perfect” vocal sounds, huh?
Regardless of the genre you primarily work with, there are certain workflow decisions you can make with female vocal tracks that will set you up for success and instantly improve how they sit in your mix. Let’s take a look at some of my favorites.
Starting With A Comped Vocal
This one applies to male and female vocalists, but your mixed vocal is only going to sound as good as the source audio track. This is why the editing phase of your session is so important in getting the right sound.
While tuning is pretty much a standard these days, not as many producers or mixers seem to be taking advantage of what comping can offer their vocals. Comping is the process of taking the best parts of multiple vocal takes and bubbling them up to a single, combined vocal track. It allows you to take your favorite verses, lines, or even syllables and use them to craft the “perfect vocal take.”
Comping has been an industry standard practice for quite a while, but even the pros sometimes forget the value of this process. Often there are two main roadblocks for them: lack of takes or lack of time.
If you’re involved with the development of the song from the start, there’s no reason for lack of takes to be an issue. Plan ahead and record the vocals multiple times with your singer upfront. Take notes on the best parts of each performance they give and you’ll have a great point of reference when you go to comp after.
As far as lack of time goes, I get it. Sometimes you’re juggling your mixing with a million other things and comping isn’t high up on your list. In those cases, I recommend picking your favorite vocal take and comping any smaller parts that are in it from other takes. This approach starts with your best option, makes minor improvements to it, and still gives you a more professional, mix-ready performance that using a single take ever will.
Use More Processing
There seems to be a stigma out there that using too much processing on a recording is a bad thing. I would like to suggest a revision to that – using too much processing the wrong way on a recording is a bad thing.
You can stack a dozen compressors, limiters, EQs, and more on a vocal without it sounding bad – you just need to understand the impact each of those processors has on your overall sound. I think far too many people are sticking with limited plugins and processors because they’re afraid they’re doing something wrong. As long as you’re using each of your tools for a specific purpose, use whatever you need to get your vocals sitting right.
Let’s take a look at a common recording vocal chain in a major studio:
Neumann U87 > Neve 1073 > UA 1176 > Teletronix LA-2A > SSL 4000J > A/D Converters > Pro Tools
Do you understand the potential this chain has to completely squash a vocal? But it doesn’t. The pros using these setups understand that sometimes it’s as much about adding color and warmth to a vocal as it is about controlling (not killing) its dynamics.
It also means that you can be doing the same in your recording sessions. Don’t be afraid to use a limiter on vocals if it helps you achieve the sound you’re after. Even in the worst-case scenario, you’re working digitally. Just disable the plugin if it’s not helping you get the sound you want.
Make Better Compression Choices
Now that you know you can use more processing, you need to make a determination about what processors you should use.
There are plenty of emulations of hardware out there that do a great job of providing similar tonal characteristics to their real-world counterparts. There are also hundreds of options that can be pushed harder or used in different ways than the hardware ever could be. With all of these options, how do you know which one’s right for your vocals?
Because of the characteristics I envisioned for my “perfect” female vocal at the start of this, I’m more likely to choose a feature-rich compressor than any stock plugin might offer. It’s not that I can’t get the sound I want with the stock unit – but I know I’m going to have to stack it with some other plugins to get it there.
Instead, a more complete solution that offers me control over the parameters I care about (breathiness, air, clarity, etc) helps facilitate my workflow a bit more. Take this example from Sam from First to Eleven:
See how much more presence and clarity he was able to bring to the final vocal mix?
Becoming a Better Vocal Producer
Vocal production can be a tough skill to master. You need to understand enough of the technical side to get your vocal mixes sitting right, but also enough about music production to understand how things like ad libs & harmonies contribute to your overall sound.
For this reason, we’ve released The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook as the perfect resource for getting up to speed on all things vocals.