The basics of recording an excellent vocal performance are universal.
You need to put together a suitable mic, a clean preamp and audio interface, a recording room that doesn't warp the sound, and you're half way there.
However, there remains plenty of options, both creative and corrective, for maximizing the impact of vocals in your mix.
In this article, we will explore some tips from AIMM's very own Scott Kieklak on vocal processing and effects.
Scott is the Dean of Student Services at AIMM and has been a recording and mixing engineer for over 20 years, so you're in good hands! Check out the videos below, along with the supplemental highlight transcriptions and links.
Table of Contents
- How You Record Your Vocals Matters
- Solo The Vocals
- Do What It Takes To Get Your Sound
- RVOX & Manny Marroquin
- Professional vs. Rough
How You Record Your Vocals Matters
It is critical to remember that you can't record something that sounds rough and subpar and expect a mix engineer just to shine it up and fix it.
What goes in is what comes out, so it's essential if you're recording at home that you're doing the best possible job you can when you're recording vocals.
Get the best vocal performance you can and make sure that your vocals are clear and clean.
The key to a crisp recording comes down to what your microphone and preamp combination is.
Solo The Vocals
The first step of vocal processing is to solo the vocals.
You do this so you can listen and hear the details of what's going on with the vocals. The mistake that young mixers make is that they will do a lot of eq and compression in solo.
What matters is what's happening when everything's playing, so we listen to solo just for the details, and then listen to everything together.
A great habit to get into is duplicating playlists.
In Pro Tools, playlists are a way to make a copy of what you're working on without actually affecting the actual clip you're looking at.
Playlists are great because it allows you to do things quickly, and if you don't like them, you can step through.
Rcompressor is a great tool to utilize. RCompressor is fantastic because it's very transparent, meaning it doesn't change the way your track sounds.
RCompressor simply does its job of compressing, from softest to loudest.
It's going to minimize the dynamic range.
Do What It Takes To Get Your Sound
When you're mixing, you need to listen to what your ears are telling you and get the vocals to sound the way you prefer. Whether that means adding or subtracting, that's entirely up to you.
Scott tends to add a little more than he subtracts because that makes it sound bigger and more full.
RVOX & Manny Marroquin EQ
The second level of compression and a great plug-in is Rvox. Rvox is a waves plug-in, and for lack of a better term, it's a "pop outer."
RVox pops things out and moves them forward into the speakers so you'll clearly hear the vocals, and they'll sound like the singer ran up to the front of the speaker.
When working with artists, many of them will say, "I want an in your face mix. I want that mix where everything's right there." When they say that, this is what they're talking about.
Second, is the Manny Marroquin EQ.
While you may be surprised to see Scott using this EQ up to 20k, he's adding "air" to the song. It may be incredibly subtle and hard to describe, but when if you listen to the video above, you'll without a doubt see what it brings to the table.
The next thing you want to use is a De-Esser.
Essentially, this is something that takes out sibilance. It's a one band frequency-dependent compressor.
You can aim it at a frequency, and when that frequency happens, it pulls that frequency down or attenuates it, so it's compressing based on frequency rather than level.
This is the third step of compression that we've talked about. Whatever the first compressor didn't catch, the second one catches. What the second one misses, the third one will find. Do you see the pattern?
Instead of hitting compression heavy and sucking the life out of the sound, you will just step it down.
We call it step compression because you're slowly stepping it down until it's compressed and tight in the mix. Every word needs to be heard.
Reverb is essentially the space you're in. With reverb, you're kind of creating a fake room that this singer is in.
There are some excellent reverb plug-ins, and one of them is ProR. ProR is relatively new, and you can tailor it easily and make it sound exactly how you want it to sound.
It's important to adjust the reverb in small increments while soloing, and always check your work with the entire mix. You don't want to continually make drastic changes with the track in solo because it could ultimately disrupt the feel of the entire song.
Professional vs. Rough
It's important to remember that you want your mix to sound professional.
A rough mix means that you're not taking the time to look at the detail of each of the sounds to figure out how you make the vocal come to life.
Your job is not only blending and making sure the vocals are loud enough or low enough, but your job is to make magic happen. That's what mixers do, so that's what you need to try to do every time.
You've got to put your all into it because everything you do puts your reputation on the line. That may sound intimidating, but if you put the work and time in, you'll gain notoriety as an engineer that takes mixes to the next level.
The next thing we'll do is pitch. Pitch shift does some pretty cool stuff.
In the video above, Scott uses Doubler2. Doubler2 allows you to pitch one side up just slightly, by cents, not semitones.
It's nothing you're going to massively notice, but you will be able to pitch one side up slightly. It makes the vocals sound thicker in the mix.
Automation allows you to turn up and down words that you don't hear, or things that you hear too much.
This is something a lot of younger engineers skip if it gets too dynamic.
A more inexperienced engineer may take another compressor and slam it on, but that's only going to take away that natural feel that's happening in the vocals.
Learn More With Scott
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into vocal processing.
If reading this article and watching the videos inspired you to go pick up your laptop and start mixing, that's great!
Maybe it's time to take it a step further.
There are many more tips and techniques than we can touch on in one blog or video, so why not work with the video host, Scott Kieklak, personally?
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