A static lead vocal is almost unheard of in today’s mixes. Listeners have shorter attention spans, and hearing a singer with a great voice unfortunately isn’t enough to hold that attention for 3 – 5 minutes.
As engineers and producers, we’re tasked with the challenge of finding ways to break out of the standard vocal performance. We need to do so in an audible, pleasing way, without doing anything so extreme that it pulls the listener out of the moment.
So how do you go about navigating the vocal processing waters? Here are a few of our favorite tips and tricks to get you started.
Use Time-Based Effects
If you want a voice to sound larger than life, you need to create a space around it that supports that claim. If your singer should sound like they’re in a massive arena, build the arena around them using reverbs and delays.
Looking to go for something intimate? Use slapback delays, short echoes & smaller reverbs to put the singer in the room with your listener.
Reverb and delay are easily the two biggest ways you can impact a vocal when it’s sounding dry or bland. You don’t always need to reach for volume automation to pump life back into it.
As you get more comfortable with how delays and reverbs work, experiment with how they can be used to generate unique and different sounds. Things like reverse delays and reverbs can add a haunting sound to a vocal. Even basic delay throws on select words can have a massive effect on your sound. There are plenty of time-based effects that will work in any mix.
Hit The AM Radio Switch
Okay, there’s not an actual “switch” but you get where we’re going. The AM radio effect has found a home in the audio producer’s toolbox since before digital recording was even a thing.
Old school guys used to throw up junky, old microphones to reduce the perceived quality and limit the frequency spectrum on vocals. These days, engineers can do it any number of ways in the box – from EQing out most of the frequency spectrum to running the track through an amp sim or lo-fi plugin.
The approach you take will be dependent on the song, and how noticeable you want the effect to be. Something like an acoustic ballad might not be the best option to distort through an instance of Toneforge, but for an already aggressive metal track, it might be just what you need for the effect to cut through the mix.
Push Your Effects Over The Edge
If you really want to create the perfect vocal, you might need to take your processing a step further. I don’t know a single engineer that feels “done” with their work. To this day, I still hear mixes I’ve done and catch something that I wish I’d gone back and changed.
For that reason, the effect isn’t done when you’ve created it. The effect is done once you’ve mixed it back into the song.
With your time-based effects, this means matching levels to your mix, cleaning up the high and low frequency content that might be finding it’s way in (this might be before or after the plugin) and dozens of other potential mix problems. The plus side is, you’ve likely already encountered those issue with other elements of the mix, and should be prepared for them already.
One of the biggest things I run into with the AM Radio effect is the loss of clarity that occurs, especially when cutting out high frequencies that might be helping the intelligibility of the lyrics. To address this, a Clipper can come in handy. Watch how Fluff uses JST Clip to make an AM Radio-style vocal cut through:
Have your own vocal sweeteners?
How does your workflow prevent boring vocals? Are you using these effects (or others) to make your singer stand out?
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