A lot of the topics we tend to discuss are individual fixes to problems with a track. We talk about things like “too much compression”, “not enough presence”, and “removing problem frequencies”. All of these topics are essential to being a great mixer, and I’d go as far as to say without understanding each piece individually, your chain is going to be doomed before it starts.
But for those that really want to tie everything together, a great vocal chain can throw a whole lot of techniques together at once for a stellar end result. I’m talking about how gain staging, EQ & compression work together to make you vocal fit in the mix and how arranging them in certain orders can change the way they work.
Not every vocal is going to use the same chain. It just doesn’t make sense to use certain techniques or processors when they’re not needed.
But if you’re looking for a solid foundational starting point for a warm and creamy vocal tone, this vocal chain will be perfect for you.
The EQ/Compression Debate
It seems like we always go back and forth trying to answer one of mixing’s simplest questions:
What goes first, the compressor or the EQ?
In all honesty, it depends. If your source audio is already pretty consistent or you know that the vocal was recorded with compression on its way into the DAW, starting with EQ seems like a pretty easy decision to make. It allows you to dive right into cleaning up problem frequencies with a generally even track level.
On the other hand, a vocal that has awkward peaks and spikes in volume might need some compression as the first step. Maybe the vocal track your working with has been comped together from several takes to cause the inconsistency, or maybe there was no compression on the way in. Either way, starting with a compressor would be a good way to even things out from the start.
In this example, we’ll continue with a vocal that was already compressed during tracking and start with some EQ.
Vocal EQ: Stage 1
The first stage of EQ should be primarily focused around cleaning up problem frequencies and accentuating the parts of the vocal that will make it stand out from the rest of your tracks.
Work band-by-band as you clean up your vocal. Starting with a high-pass filter around 80 Hz, remove any unwanted low-end buildup that might be occurring in your source track. Start notching out any frequencies in the mid range that might be too prevalent in your source using subtractive EQ.
If there aren’t many glaring issues, a great first-stage EQ move can be to add a slight boost to your upper mids (above 4 kHz) and another 1 or 2 dB boost to your high end using a high-shelf filter to add some air to your vocal.
With your vocal cleaned up, it’s time to push it to the front of the mix with some compression or limiting. While the compression that’s already been applied during tracking has done a bit of the work already, engineers tend to be a bit more conservative with compression on the way in than they can be during mixing. You don’t want to start with too much if more can be added later.
Here, that’s exactly what we’re looking to do. An 1176-style compressor is commonly used on vocals with a slow attack and fast release to get a warm, compressed tone without cutting off the initial power of the vocals when they exceed the threshold. By keeping a low ratio like 4:1 and using a mix knob when available to achieve a 50/50 balance of processed and unprocessed audio, you can really get a full and dynamic sound.
Plugins like Finality take some of the guesswork out of dialing in a limiter by giving users modes and switches to determine how the processor works on the vocal. While some attributes like Release, Mix & Output are identical, features like Hard/Soft Modes, Aggro & Color can make it easier than ever to find the exact sound you’re after.
Vocal EQ: Stage 2
It’s generally understood that as a compressor or limiter works on your source, certain frequencies may become more or less apparent. For this reason, it’s great to do a lot of our EQ heavy lifting before the compressor. Get the spectrum sitting just right before the compressor, and you’ll have less work to do after it.
With that said, sometimes the boost we make before the compressor don’t always cut it after the fact, and it can be easier to add a second stage of EQ rather than pushing the levels up on the EQ before the compressor, which might only drive it harder.
The post-compression EQ can be subtle, but should have the same goal of accentuating the best of the vocal frequencies, which are going to help it stand out in the mix. Often, this means reaching for that same range of frequencies above 4 kHz with a slightly larger band to bring that clarity and presence back to the compressed track.
Adding Thickness to the Vocal
As a final step in your vocal chain, thickening the vocal up with a plugin that creates harmonic distortion and saturation can be an excellent way of getting a “warm” vocal sound.
Gain Reduction is my go-to because it compresses while saturating and was designed to specifically replicate my vocal chain. It’s something where I know I can throw it on any vocal, make a few quick adjustments, and use the Body slider to boost that lower-mid content that makes a vocal sound warm and present.
With the all-new Gain Reduction 2, users will have more control than ever over their vocal, with dedicated Warmth & Air knobs, and many other aspects of vocal compression and saturation that people have been asking for.
Other Vocal Styles
If you’re looking to make adjustments to a vocal track that don’t fit this chain, we’ve got your covered with The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook – available exclusively to JST VIP members. The handbook includes both production and mix techniques to help your vocals stand out in any mix and keep your listener’s attention throughout the song.