Vocals are incredibly intricate, nuanced instruments. Not even the most complex synthesizers compare. You have the formant of the words, the attack of each note, a frequency and dynamic range that differs for every single singer… Go ahead and try to name something with more varieties than the human voice: I’ll wait.
Despite the crazy variety of elements affecting each vocal performance, a good singer/engineer combo can create something beautiful that becomes the highlight of the song. Why do you think the best pop vocal producers make seven figures for the work they do? It takes a lot of talent to dial in Top 40 vocals, even if the only thing they have to do is make their processing sound transparent.
So what do we look for in a good vocal? It starts with dynamic control – and if you don’t have dynamic control over your vocals, you’re not going to get much else out of a performance with any other processing. But what comes after that?
Most commonly, we think of a crisp, clean vocal as the benchmark for good performances. That doesn’t mean the vocal can’t be aggressive in its own way, but you should have a clear high-end that’s relatively bright compared to the rest of the mix (cymbals and pads excluded).
It makes a lot of sense – our listeners have become acclimated to hearing these bright, sibilant voices on the radio & TV. Almost anything played back through a small speaker is going to sound brighter too. So as engineers, we need to do what we can to account for this high frequency expectation and pull the proverbial blanket off of our vocal recordings.
Build A Vocal Shelf
Using a shelf in your favorite EQ can be an extremely subtle and reliable way to lift the top end of your vocal track. A shelf will give you control across a wide range of frequencies without overhyping certain parts of the frequency spectrum.
It acts on your high-frequency content in a very different way than a band-pass, low-pass, or hi-pass filter, because the frequency you set is a starting point, and rather than an endless ramp up or ramp up/ramp down, everything above the frequency you set is getting a nice, uniform boost.
Engineers should be careful not to use too much gain with a shelf, as the technique that’s made to make your vocal brighter can actually add in more sibilance than you need. Too much of a shelf will make your vocal brittle and harsh instead of bright and shimmery.
Get Rid of the Mud with a Hi-Pass Filter
EQing your vocal doesn’t end with a simple shelf. Using a hi-pass filter on it can be just as effective and lightening up a dark vocal. By adding a hi-pass filter to your vocal tracks, you can simultaneously clean up some muddiness and make room for your bottom-heavy instruments.
A hi-pass on a vocal should also be used carefully to avoid losing the body of the vocal. A well-placed hi-pass should be barely noticeable unless you’re trying to use it as an effect. Set the frequency to a level where you can hear a clearer vocal without losing any definition on the singer’s lowest notes.
Cleaning up your vocal’s low-end in this manner early in your signal chain also takes a lot of heavy lifting later on. For example, if you have a limiter or compressor on your vocal track, rolling off the low-frequency content earlier means your processors don’t have to account for it deeper in the mix.
That means more accurate, intentional mix decisions, which I think we can all get on board with!
Surgical EQ is Your Friend
The last EQ move than will clean up your vocal is the most time consuming: surgical EQ. This type of EQ calls for a narrow Q, and usually quite a bit of subtractive gain. By isolating and removing problem frequencies (like resonance in the room that you don’t want), you get the same benefits as a hi-pass filter, but in any part of the frequency spectrum.
The results? Reduced muddiness, more clarity and a professional, open-sounding vocal for your listener.
Build Space Around Your Vocals
The final piece to the puzzle for a light and airy vocal is the space around it. While reverbs and delays can be used to make things sound huge and dark, they also have their place in enhancing a weightless vocal.
Some reverbs and delays emulate big spaces with a high-frequency roll-off. For lightweight vocals, you’re probably not going to need it.
Instead, your vocal delays and reverbs should add to the same part of the spectrum that you added to with your high vocal shelf. Your higher frequency content can be fed into a delay or reverb for chilling, ghostly presence and ethereal results. Using things like a multi-head tape delay can get you amazing results, especially when tempo synced.
If you’re looking to take your spatial tools a bit farther, consider further processing and editing prints of your effects. One of my favorites is the reverse delay effect to create vocal swells in a somewhat sparse mix.
Have fun with it – the best vocal producers are the ones who experiment to find new sounds and new techniques. We’re constantly in a flux of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to seek out new sounds and use them to create your own signature style.
Have Your Own Vocal Production Approach?
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