There’s something to be said for any song that’s got crisp, shimmery vocals sitting right at the front of the mix, but it’s especially impressive when these results are captured at home without thousands of dollars in studio equipment backing it up.
Getting from Point A to Point B can come with plenty of obstacles though. For starters – how are you supposed to get a bright, crisp vocal mix without those characteristics in the source audio? This is a common problem for many home studios caused by less expensive equipment in less-than-ideal environments. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed in the mix.
Today, we’re going to focus on some of the best ways you can add a sense of clarity to your vocals with modern recording, mixing & production techniques.
Recording Studio-Quality Vocals At Home
Of course, just because we can fix poorly tracked vocals in the mix doesn’t mean we should. Any steps that can improve the recording quality of home studio vocals should be taken. This means things like proper microphone placement, adequate levels (without clipping), and working with your singer to capture the best possible performance.
In addition to these more common aspects of recording, you can go a step further with your vocal recording sessions by decoupling your microphone (and by association, your singer) from the room. This used to be done with heavy acoustic treatment to deaden the room altogether, but now reflection filters are the norm. Their sole purpose in the studio is to help your microphone capture as much of the direct signal of your singer as possible while rejecting noises and reflections from other angles. It’s a great way to “remove” your environment from the equation.
Home studio-based vocal producers also leverage variety when coming up with great vocals. They look for different variations of the same lines in a song hoping that one of them stands out from all the rest. This can often be as simple as having a singer try to add a bit of dirt or grit to their performance, but extends into changing the melody behind the lyrics completely to see if higher or lower notes add to the clarity of the vocal. Some producers will even double their melody with a synth to add a different characteristic musically.
These kinds of variations will go a long way when comping together a crisp, professional vocal.
Have A Go-To Vocal Chain
As any professional will tell you, the vocal chain can completely make or break a vocal mix. With the right plugins and settings, you can drastically change any vocal and add some shimmering top end to lift a voice out of a mix. And while dialing in the chain might differ depending on the artist & song style, most mixers have a pretty consistent go-to vocal chain they rely on.
In many cases, these chains are a series of plugins with a specific order on each vocal track. They consist of dynamic processors like EQ and compression, followed by time-based effects like delay and reverb, and sometimes a few other spatial plugins get sprinkled in between. It all depends on the mixer and their workflow.
The constant is that these chains give them all of the resources they need so they can quickly jump in and add what they need. Compression can quickly add a bit of grit to a vocal performance and give it some bite, followed by EQ to brighten up the top end, bringing the vocal forward in the mix.
Just check out this example from JT of Famous Last Words:
Notice how much he was able to do with his vocal chain to lift his voice out of the mix and give it a polished, crisp character?
Where It All Comes Together: Reverb
If there’s one part of a vocal chain that can really put your home recordings in a new space, it’s reverb. Reverb is the perfect reason to decouple your microphone from your room in the first place – you get to start from a blank slate.
That’s not to say a vocal recording with some reflections can’t benefit from a bit of reverb too, though things can get muddy if there’s already a lot of natural reverb in your source.
In either case, reverb allows us to put our vocals in any room, hall, or stadium we can imagine. It takes a two-dimensional sound and adds depth and width to it, making it feel much more 3D. This level of immersion is what separates amateur vocals from professional ones. When done correctly, your listeners can actually feel the space around the voice that you’ve pumped in artificially. Pretty neat, huh?
A Must-Have Vocal Production Reference
I’m not expecting everyone reading this to be full-time vocal producers – most of us are engineers and mixers where just a small portion of our role is to get the vocals to sound good. We’re all wearing multiple hats in the studio these days. But what if you could have the insights of a professional vocal producer on your team?
This was our goal when creating The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook – a complete guide to all things vocal production from topline melody writing to mixing, mastering, and printing stems. It’s a must-have reference for anyone working with vocals in the studio!