Screaming vocals are some of the most guttural, intense sounds you can work with in a mix. A great screamer maintains control and power over his performance, and can replicate the same sound day after day on tour without ruining their vocal cords.
At the same time, singers and screamers alike tend to push themselves to give the most compelling, emotional performances they can each and every time. In the studio, that sense of duty is strengthened by the knowledge that what gets recorded is what they’ll be known for. A great live performance is entertaining, but a great studio performance can be timeless.
As engineers and producers, it’s our job to not only showcase their performance, but at times it’s to supplement and enhance it with the opportunities the studio provides us. Things like time-alignment and tuning are just the beginning though. With a good dynamic processing approach, you can bring a whole new level of presence to studio screams.
Start With The Source
When you’re working with any vocal (screams, cleans, whatever), it’s important to capture as much right at the source as you can. Too many engineers think that screams aren’t going to be as dependent and involved as clean vocals, but for a lot of bands, screams are featured as much, or even more than the clean vocal.
Instead of shrugging it off as some “lesser” type of vocal, a good engineer will take the time to choose the right mic for the voice, the perfect placement, and the signal chain being paired with it.
Once dialed in, it’s imperative that you watch your monitoring closely during tracking. While a scream isn’t really the most dynamic instrument, it’s high SPL and emphasized plosives make it high risk for digital clipping.
For this reason, a lot of engineers will introduce a limiter or compressor in their tracking signal chain. These tools provide additional security and insurance against a rogue pop looking to ruin your take. They wrangle up your dynamics and give you controlled, consistent source audio.
Add Some Distortion
By loading up a guitar amp in your signal chain, you control how much gain and distortion you want to add. Check out how Nick uses Toneforge to emphasize a scream here:
See how easy it is to add a little bit of aggression to an already impactful scream? If you’re concerned with too much distortion, you can always create an aux track and mix it in parallel with the unprocessed scream.
Don’t Overcook It
The most important thing I can impress upon you when it comes to heavy compression and distortion is that you need to be wary of overdoing things. A guitar amp adds a lot of gain very quickly, so matching your levels after application is a must.
For compressors and limiters, too much might not be as noticeable at first since they’re both much more subtle processors. Too much compression or limiting may come across as boring or static due to lack of dynamic range. It’s a good rule of thumb to apply the less is more approach, especially during tracking.
You can always go back and add a bit more, but trying to treat the results of too much compression can lead to unnecessary and ineffective processing further down the chain.
Ready To Scream From The Rooftops?
Screams are an essential part of modern rock and metal mixes. We’ve never had more demand for aggressive music than we do right now, and the playing field has been leveled by the ease of use and accessibility to dynamic processors.
Got your own tip for adding some polish to a screamer’s performance? Come share it with us and thousands of other engineers/producers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum.