Mixing: Vocal Chains
A vocal chain is an audio effect chain that can give your vocal a polished sheen and really punch it through the mix. Audio effect chains are series of effects put on a raw or original recording/midi file to clean up imperfections and get the instrument or voice to sit right in the mix. Having your own saved and on hand increases your efficiency and productivity in the studio so you don’t always have to find that one compressor or that one EQ.
When creating your chains, especially the vocal chain, the order matters. Plugin processing is sequential, meaning the plugins will impact the audio in order from 1st to last. Depending on the genre, there might be a specific compressor that works best or a different setting on the compressor, so we will discuss the most effective, overall order of audio effects and touch briefly on some genre specific effects.
- Subtractive EQ
- Compressor (Serial)
- Additive EQ
- Saturation / Shaping EQ (optional)
Subtractive EQ is used to clean up unwanted frequencies that clutter the vocal and mix as a whole. These include that low end rumble from your room and high end harsh frequencies, with surgical EQ, in your vocal. Using subtractive EQ first ensures when you are compressing later in the chain, the compressor is bringing out only the desired frequencies.
A general rule of thumb is to set a high pass filter at around 100hz. It is important that you use your ears with each step of the vocal chain on different voices. You may need to cut more or less low end and no one setting works perfectly across the board.
Next, scan for those harsh frequencies with a new knob, set to the narrowest and boosted about 6dB. When you hear that whistle or hissing sound, bring the EQ band down about 6dB.
Any stock EQ plugin will work perfectly for this step.
Autotune is used on just about every modern pop song, so don’t be shy about applying it. It is used to correct flat, sharp and/or minor notes and mold the vocal key to the tracks.
Autotune can detect the key for you ,and after you setting the key, the most important knobs in autotune are “Retune Speed” and “Humanize.” Retune Speed determines how quickly a note is corrected to the desired pitch. This can be genre specific, as an acoustic genre would want a lower retune speed where a higher speed will create a more robotic vocal tone heard a lot in hip hop. Humanize adds realism to sustained notes at higher return speeds. For a more robotic tone, Humanize should be set to zero where a pop vocal usually sits around 25-50.
A De-esser is used to compress harsh frequencies, like “f” and “s.” The de-esser is more precise than EQing out an entire band, as it only compresses the frequencies when they pop out or trigger the threshold.
You can set your target frequencies, then use the “Threshold” knob to lower the sharp frequencies in the vocal. The “Range” knob determines how much gain reduction is put on the vocal. Use your ears and start from the highest setting, then lower until you find the sweet spot for your vocal.
To learn more about serial compression, you can Get to Know the Gear: Compressors. Simply, serial compression is used to create an even, punchy and upfront vocal, as well as prevent over compression with any one compressor.
Start with an Opto compressor such as the LA2A with a high ratio, slow acting attack and minimal gain reduction. This will create that smooth dynamic and even volume over the entire vocal. Next you’ll want an FET compressor or another opto compressor, like Tube-tech’s Cl-1B with a fast attack to punch the vocal through the mix.
This EQ is used to highlight all of the desirable frequencies and add color to your vocal now that it has been processed.
You can add air into your vocal with a “high end shelf,” boost it by a few dBs until you can hear a change. Boosting at the high mids will give you more clarity in the vocal.
Generally, your reverb and delay will be put on an aux and your vocal sent to it. In the interest of the chain, reverb and delay should always go at the end of your. Reverbs are great for adding space and will generally push your vocal back a bit more than Delay, which will add dimension and keep your vocal upfront.
If your vocal still needs an extra boost, saturation is a great way to add thickness and warmth before your reverb. They can send your vocal more forward in the mix while maintaining needed headroom that raising the volume would take away.
Shaping EQ’s are used after reverb to shape the frequencies of the actual reverb. This can create more clarity and decrease hard frequencies added by the reverb.