Vocal production requires a serious amount of finesse from engineers. It’s one of those skills that can keep a steady flow of work coming your way and it’s easy to hear why.
The elements of a great vocal often overlap with the elements of a good mix: you need to pay attention to tuning, EQ, compression & a dozen other pieces of the puzzle. More than just paying attention to them – you need to know how to use your tools to get exactly what you want out of a vocal performance.
When you absolutely nail a vocal in a song, people will notice. Other engineers and producers respect quality work regardless of the genre. Listeners might not know the technical reasons they enjoy a voice so much, but a well-recorded and properly mixed vocal is impossible to ignore.
Here are just a few of the places you can start to create a powerful, attention-capturing vocal:
Start At The Source!
A good vocal for mixing means you need to be proactive and start thinking of how that voice should sound during the recording stage. If there was ever an instrument you cannot cut corners on, this is it.
If you’re working with an artist for the first time, it can be helpful to try out a few different microphones to see what works best with their voice. Over time, you’ll start to build a personal preference for each type of voice, and you’ll be able to narrow down the microphone list to what you know has worked in the past.
If you’re equipment is limited to a single microphone that you use to record vocals, there’s still a lot of testing you can do. Experiment with placing the mic above or below the singer’s mouth for some natural EQ. Move the singer closer to the mic, and then further away to see how proximity effect colors your sound. If you’ve got some space, see how moving the microphone/singer around the room changes the vocal.
These might sound like the basics to a seasoned recording engineer, but for me, it’s still mind-blowing how much of a difference a few inches of movement can make in a recording session.
Make Sure Your Vocals Can Be Heard
If your vocals can’t be heard in the final mix, you’ve lost this battle before it’s even started. No amount of production, technique or automation will save a vocal that’s too quiet in relation the rest of the mix.
It’s easy to lose your vocals if you’re in a less than ideal monitoring situation. Mixing up against a wall, through headphones, or even just staying too still during a mix limit your ability to pick out soft vocals. It might not happen every time, but it’s something that we all need to be conscious of.
So how can you tell if it’s time to turn it up? The most common trick is to change your listening environment. Switch over to headphones or your laptop speakers if you’ve been mixing on monitors. Make a quick bounce and head out to your car to listen to it. Even if you’re limited on options, getting up from your seat and listening in different positions in the room can show you where your vocals are getting drowned out.
If you’re struggling to hear even a single syllable, it’s time to find a solution. Perhaps the best option is to grab a vocal compressor to even out the performance. If the vocal is particularly dynamic, automating your volume within the DAW might also be necessary.
Build Your Mix Around Your Vocals
In 99% of commercial music, the vocal is the centerpiece that the entire listening experience is built around. Certain genres will shine the spotlight on other instrumentation throughout a song, but make no mistake – when the vocals are there, they are the stars.
You don’t have to start your mix with the vocals, but you should make conscious decisions when making mix adjustments. Once you’ve dialed in what you think could be the final-mix vocals, ask yourself:
“Will changing XYZ on (the guitar, drums, etc) help or hurt how my vocals sound right now?”
If you’re approaching all decisions after the rest of your vocal production, it should be easy to keep those vocals at the front of the mix, shining as bright as you always wanted them to.
Be Extremely Critical of Tuning & Editing
Tuning and editing is absolute hell for some engineers. If you’re not a patient person, tuning a vocal note-by-note or cleaning up obnoxious breathing/mouth noises can drive you insane. Unfortunately, there’s no way around this step if you want vocals that get noticed by your peers & industry professionals.
If there was ever a time to be absolutely anal retentive in the studio, it should be when cleaning up vocals. Try to clean up unnecessary noises without sacrificing the natural sound of the vocal performance. You need to listen to what you’re doing every time you cut out a breath of air. If you cut too much (or in the wrong spot) you could ruin the whole take. Good luck trying to undo dozens of edits to bring it back.
Similarly, you need to get good at vocal tuning if you’re serious about a good vocal performance. While the amount will change depending on the singer and song, your skill with the tool should not.
Scrutinize every edit you make. If you think you heard an artifact or unnatural blip in the vocal, redo it. It’s better to fix it now than change your mind about it later.
Tip: If you really can’t stand doing the vocal cleanup, find someone you can work with that can. There are tons of great engineers that are currently assisting or offering vocal tuning/editing a la carte. Find one that does a great job, and stick with them!
Use Reverb & Delay To Create Space Around Vocals
This is one of the tricks of the trade that can take a weak vocal to rockstar-level presence in a song!
Get familiar with your time-based tools to fill space in an empty production or cut through a dense mix. Both reverb and delay are not only helpful but also necessary.
Reverb on your vocal is something that will give depth and meaning to the performance. It’s easy for beginners to overdo it with vocal reverb, drowning out some of its intelligibility. Find a balance the same way you find your volume balance we discussed in the first section.
On the flip side, delay can be used both naturally and unnaturally to hold a listener’s attention. Common vocal delays include slapback settings that essentially act as a vocal double, without a second vocal take. This can be very helpful on inconsistent singers, where a second vocal take could mean unnecessary tuning & cleaning.
Delays can often sweeten a track when synced to your tempo and used in sections that need a little something extra. You may have heard songs that use “delay throws” at the end of a line to hold your attention. By automating the delay on and off as needed, you can add space or effect as needed; keeping your listeners attention and making a more cohesive final mix.
Add Some Grit To Your Lead Vocal
Regardless of the genre, the lead vocal can almost always benefit from a bit of grit. We use many different terms for this grit including saturation, distortion, drive, etc. On a pop track, the grit will be barely noticeable. On metal and rock, it can be very apparent while still sounding great.
It’s not a new practice, and it’s something that can be easily achieved by using a vocal-focused compressor.
What do I mean by that?
When a compressor is “vocal-focused” it’s either been optimized to sound its best in voice applications (which is the case with Gain Reduction Deluxe), or it has control parameters that allow you to dial in a vocal easily.
Some generic plugins offer the alternative of vocal “presets”. Unfortunately if you can’t understand what those presets are doing, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to tweak the settings necessary to mold your compressor to your specific vocal.
Vocal-focused compressors don’t need to be complicated. At their core, they can be narrowed down to just a few knobs that control everything a good vocal needs. We spent quite a bit of time while developing Gain Reduction to make sure we weren’t adding any unnecessary complexities to the plugin, and the end result couldn’t be easier to use.
Once added to the vocal track, adjusting the amount of body and gain being added will color your sound in a harmonically pleasing way. Using the Slay knob will let you decide how aggressively you’d like to compress your vocal & the LoFi switch adds some variety.
The average listener might not know why they like a vocal, but they will like it.
Ready To Start Producing Attention-Grabbing Vocals?
A lot of vocal production is trial and error. It’s the reason there is no “best vocal microphone” - every vocal is unique.
As long as you make sure you’ve got decent vocal production tools available in your DAW, you can experiment to find your own sound and style; you might even find a few of your own tricks along the way. Use this list as a roadmap to get there, and get back to making great music!