Vocal Chains for Hard Rock + Metal Frontwomen
There’s nothing like listening to a female-fronted band with an incredible vocal range belting out a hard rock or metal track. On the stage, it creates a great, high-energy dynamic when a frontwoman leads a crowd in song, but how do we recreate that same vibe in studio recordings?
If you’re working with a metal frontwoman, you’re going to need to bring your A-game to the session – those larger-than-life vocals don’t spring up on their own. They’re a team effort – the frontwoman needs to deliver that same energy and control that she’s got on stage, and you need to record and mix it in a way that enhances the sound and pushes it front and center in the song.
Fortunately, if the performance is good, this all comes down to you making the right vocal chain choices as you work.
Start With the Right Mic
As with most any vocalist, the right microphone selection is a key element of any vocal sound. In situations where you’ve got multiple microphones to choose from, a shootout is often the way to go.
Spend some time with the frontwomen testing various microphones out if they don’t already have a preference and you haven’t worked with them before. Large diaphragm condensers are the most common choice, with some opting for tube options that come with a bit of their own character and warmth. A Neumann M149 tube microphone is going to sound drastically different than a U87, but it won’t be until you’ve heard both that you’ll really know which is more suited for your singer's vocal.
In the event you’re going to be tracking without access to a large mic locker – try and at least stick to the basics. Shure SM7Bs are just as common for female vocals as they are for male vocals in rock and metal, as are more budget-friendly condensers like the Aston Origin and Audio-Technica AT 4033. Each of these three options can be picked up for less than $400.
Spend Most of Your Time on Dynamics
With the energy we’re looking to get from our frontwomen, it’s only natural that a large part of our time as engineers and mixers will be spent taming transients and shaping the dynamics of their voices. By starting with the two most common processors (compression and EQ), we can help control the loudest parts of the vocal while molding the singer’s voice into a shape that fits the song.
During tracking, this means using just a bit of compression – a couple of dB of gain reduction, but nothing too crazy. We just want to catch any stray peaks, but not at the sacrifice of the quality of the audio. First time recording engineers should skip this part of the process and just record the vocal directly into their DAW without compression. It’s easy to add it in later, but hard to “de-compress” a vocal that’s had compression printed on the way in.
Similarly, EQ decisions should be light and straightforward during tracking sessions. A high pass filter that rolls off below ~80 Hz can help eliminate some muddiness but save any drastic EQ cuts or boosts for the mix session too.
Once you start mixing the vocal, special care should be taken with the low-mids. This is the range where all the body lives for a strong vocal, but it’s also where things start to sound boxy. Try to focus your cuts on the 400 – 500 Hz range where vocals start to sound boxy, and don’t be afraid to boost a narrow band and sweep the range to make problematic frequencies easier to find.
Use Space for Size
Using time-based effects to place a frontwoman’s vocal in a particular space is nothing new, but usually it’s more about sitting it further back in the mix. In the case of hard rock and metal where the vocals should be prominently featured, opt instead for time-based effects that add to the size and presence of the performance!
This usually means a short slapback-style delay on the lead vocal to make it sound more present and reverbs that might be a bit louder than you’d find in other mixes to help convey the width of the vocal in the mix. As a good rule of thumb, you should always try to clean up the low-end of the vocal track before hitting this part of the chain, as too much low-end content in a reverb’s signal will create muddiness, not presence.
Lastly, you should experiment with automation on these elements to create that same energy and movement in your mix as a frontwoman running around the stage. Check out this example of how it’s done using Howard Benson Vocals with this submission from Benjamin Lechuga:
As you can hear from the first note, Alice’s voice is a commanding presence in the song and the vocal chain is merely there to help accentuate the best parts and bring more clarity and character to her overall sound!
Power Vocals & Production
I’ve worked with my fair share of female-fronted bands in the past and can confirm that the single best compliment to a great singer’s vocal is a solid strategy for vocal production around the lead. It makes a ton of sense – if you’ve got an instrumentalist that’s great with their instrument, you’d plaster them all over the mix. The same should be done with a great vocalist.
If you’re ready to take your vocal production chops up a notch, make sure you check out The Vocal Producer’s Handbook – now included with 8 vocal-focused plugins, professional lessons, and more as part of the JST Vocal Mixing Bundle.