Vocals are some of the most complicated elements in any recording or mixing session. There are a huge variety of vocals; each one has its unique characteristics, range & style. This makes the processing of each and every voice a unique, new experience.
Whether you’re brand new to mixing or someone that’s been doing it for decades - there’s once certainty that I can share with you: the order of your vocal chain matters.
I’m not saying you need to follow the same vocal chain each and every time or that there’s a single best order to put your plugins in, but if you want to achieve a vocal mix that’s clear and present, you need to seriously consider what comes first, second, and so on as you work through your session.
Let me explain a bit more with some examples of where order matters the most:
A Dynamics-First Approach
Perhaps this isn’t limited to just vocals, but placing your dynamic processing at the front of your chain just makes sense for so many reasons. Without compression, you don’t have the level of dynamic control needed to feed a consistent signal into later parts of your chain. Without EQ, you might have frequencies that just out in front, low-end buildup, or one of a dozen other frequency-specific issues that might exist that can wreak havoc later in the chain.
So knowing that EQ & compression should occur early on in your vocal chain, how do you know which one comes first? It all depends on the problems you hear in your raw signal.
If your vocal recording is muddy with lots of low-end and harsh upper-mids due to less-than-ideal tracking conditions, it doesn’t make any sense to feed all of that garbage into your compressor first. Instead, clean them up with EQ and give your compressor the good stuff.
If, on the other hand, your vocal is too unruly and it’s hard to really pick out what’s going on with the frequencies, a bit of dynamic control and evenness achieved through compression first might be the way to go.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dynamics because each session is going to be different. Use the processor that makes the most sense for your current situation first, but always do so intentionally.
Now some of you may be thinking, “Why limit myself to just one compressor and one EQ when I can stack them together?” You wouldn’t be wrong to think this – tons of engineers and mixers will use EQ before and after compression to get a cleaner signal in and a more colorful, balanced sound coming out of their dynamics section.
I especially like this approach for surgical EQ, where I’m making deep, narrow cuts to my vocal before the compressor. By eliminating those problem frequencies first, I can push my compressor harder and really saturate a vocal without risk of the bad frequencies influencing my sound. Then, after compression, I can make small boost with a wider Q to accentuate the frequencies I like in the compressed vocal.
But beyond sandwiching your EQs & compressors with each other, did you know that you could be sandwiching your effects with dynamic processors as well?
A lot of people seem to think that feeding a dynamically processed vocal into their effects magically means they’re going to get a good wet signal out, but that’s not always the case. There’s a reason many delays and reverbs offer a hi-pass filter on them – it’s because the effects section is just one more place a mix can get muddy (and it can happen faster than you’d think).
The next time you go to use these time-based effects on vocals in your sessions, consider using a limiter or something similar as the last stage of your chain. You can use it right on the effects aux, or bussed back together with your source vocal as a way to glue the two together.
Painting a Fuller Picture
Vocal mixing can’t work in isolation. No matter what you throw at your vocal track as far as processing goes, many sessions just aren’t going to cut it with a single vocal track. You need to mix things up with vocal production to stay competitive.
For those of us who aren’t vocal producers, this can present a bit of a challenge. How do you approach vocal parts like harmonies and ad-libs when it’s not something an artist comes to you with?
The first step is understanding how and why certain vocal elements work within the context of a song. Our eBook, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook covers the essentials so you can look at vocals objectively, even if you’re not a vocal producer by trade. Pick up your copy today to start seeing what they see in vocals sessions with higher track counts and and how having more options makes for a better mix.