Bold Vocals In A Snap

DISCLAIMER: This post is not for the faint of heart. Don’t freak out. We’re going to intentionally clip our lead vocal. If you’re going to continue reading, I need you to promise me you’ll read through to the end (or at least watch the video all the way through). Deal?

The Clipping Problem

We’ve all been there – mix is nearly finished, automation written. Then you notice your lead vocal doesn’t have what it takes to cut through the final chorus.

This is an extremely common issue that occurs simply because of the way we’re trained to feel music. We want our songs to climb-and-climb until that last chorus punches through and drives it home. More power usually means higher levels, meaning that you’re nearing your ceiling and have nowhere left to go.

So when your vocals that sounded great for the rest of the song start sounding unintelligible, muddy, or weak, you need to find a way to break the mold without pushing your mix into full-on clipping or over-compression.

The Clipping Solution

Sometimes to prevent clipping, you need to clip. Sounds confusing, right? Well, we’re not talking about digital clipping here, we’re talking about SATURATION. Rather than automating our vocal into the red where clipping would have a negative effect on our sound, we’re going to be smart about it.

By loading a clipper onto the track, we can control how it clips, the amount of clipping, and even maintain an overall output level that matches with the rest of the song.

We’re making the clipping subtle and musical – something we haven’t always had access to in the digital mixing realm.

Why Clipping Plugins Work When Digital Clipping Doesn’t

Your DAW isn’t nearly as selective as a clipper when it comes to audio exceeding a threshold. At its most basic level, your DAW is looking at 1’s and 0’s like any other program. When we clip in the DAW, you’re driving the level so high that the program has trouble deciding what should be a 1 and what should be a 0.

To compensate, the DAW makes its best guess. It’s why barely touching the red is sometimes isn’t audible – the program is good at making guesses when they’re close to an acceptable level. But as you continue to drive into the red, it has to work harder to interpret the audio and usually fails pretty fast.

The result is harsh, unnatural distortion.

Meanwhile, clipping plugins are programmed to make clipping sound natural and warm, much like a good overdrive or tube distortion does to a guitar. They’re selective about which harmonics to clip and when to clip them. They distort in a very musical way.

The result is a more aggressive, musical output with a well-defined attack and body.

And if you’re that guy in the back screaming, “But clipping is wrong!” - you are sadly mistaken. Clipping is actually what you do to your guitar when you put it through distortion, and clipping (when done with the proper tool) can accomplish things no other form of audio processing can.

Taking Your Clipping A Step Further

Here’s your reward for sticking with us – a little mix tweak we use with JST Clip to get the most out of our vocal performances.

If you’ve used our plugins in the past, you know we’re no strangers to adding “Mix” knobs when they make sense. Any time you can avoid a second bus for parallel processing saves you time and effort when making mix decisions.

When clipping the lead vocals for the last chorus of a near-final mix, we definitely want to be subtle. Applying a clipper at 100% may be too much coloration, as Fluff demonstrates here:

By processing your vocal in parallel, you’re maintaining a consistent sound going into the final chorus, but adding the body and aggression needed to cut through the dense mix. The Mix knob lets you do that quickly and easily, saving you from level-matching multiple tracks in the DAW and risking affecting other parts of the mix.

Are You A Clipping Supporter?

Clipping (not the bad digital kind) has proven to be one of the most divisive mixing tools in our industry. It gets a bad rap from engineers that think we’re talking about those little red lights on their mixing board and don’t take the time to learn about how clippers work or why they’re effective.

If you’re using clipping in your workflow, be proud of it! Share your experience with those that say all clipping is bad, and make sure they know the difference.

REMEMBER: Friends don’t let friends mistake intentional clipping for accidental clipping.