Recording and mixing hot is a bit of a touchy subject for some engineers and mixers out there. Recording too hot can result in a distorted, poor-quality vocal take. Not recording hot enough leaves you with too much noise floor in your source. Fortunately, mixing rarely faces all of the challenges that recording does when it comes to level setting, as many plugins will go well into clipping territory without breaking up due to 32-bit floating point technology.
Now, we’re not saying you should clip your plugins while mixing. Even if they technically don’t start distorting when the red light first pops up, your plugins generally are optimized for a sweet spot a bit below that level.
However, there are times where you’ll want to push your vocals as hard as possible for a more in-your-face sound that only comes with HOT levels. Let’s take a look at how you can achieve those without digitally clipping a thing!
Vocal Compression Tricks
Just like any other instrument in your mix, vocals can gain quite a bit of heat simply by driving them into a compressor. The compressor is going to act on the peaks, attenuating them whenever they cross the threshold. Pushing a signal in hotter is going to result in heavier and more frequent compression, but as long as your Output is set right, it’s going to do it without actually raising the level.
The result is a perceived increase in volume thanks to the reduced dynamic range. Your entire track can be brought up to its hottest level in the mix without having to worry about peaks nearly as much as an uncompressed signal.
Limiting Amplifiers & Clippers
Sometimes a simple compressor just isn’t aggressive enough to get your vocal to sound hot though. Whether it’s a result of the other plugins like reverb and delay taking the edge off or you just want something a little rawer, a limiter, limiting amplifier, or even peak clipper can by just what you need to tie up any loose ends.
This is why vocal mixing tools like Howard Benson Vocals end with a limiter. All of the mixing and production can happen while being fed into the limiter, ensuring the hottest possible output when all is said and done.
Just check out this example where Jay Maas uses compression and limiting to add some heat to his vocal mix!
As you can see, he doesn’t waste any time getting super technical or focused on any one setting. He finds the sound he’s after and knows that his levels are going to be just fine with a limiter/output gain trim at the end of the plugin. This opens a whole new world of possibilities when you can push things as hard as you want.
As an alternative (or in combination), peak clippers are a different route that some mixers choose to take too, especially with harsh vocals and screams. With a peak clipping plugin, you don’t need to worry about digital clipping plaguing your sound – you can do it in a much more natural way.
I personally use peak clippers on drums primarily to give them a bit more bite and edge, but they do the same thing on vocal tracks. It’s like going back in and adding punch and clarity to a track as if it were being turned up louder, even if it’s already close to clipping in your session!
Piecing It All Together
No matter which plugins you choose to use to add some heat to your vocals, you need to understand how they interact with each other and why order is so important in your mix. There’s a reason the limiter usually goes at the end – it doesn’t do its job effectively if there’s another plugin after it.
To learn more about signal chain and processing order, check out our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets. Inside, you’ll find everything you need to start stacking plugins and organizing your sessions like the pros do.