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Vocal Cords: Crafting Hard-Hitting Hip-Hop Vocals

February 20, 2008
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Dynamics Processing

My first insert in an effects chain is always a compressor—such as the Waves R-Comp—in order to dial in a gentle compression that tames unruly dynamic fluctuations in the vocal track. Next in line is always a more aggressive limiter that will catch the more dramatic dynamic shifts that can make a performance sound horribly uneven. I like the Waves L1. It’s heavy-handed, but its sound is pretty invisible. The third and fourth inserts in my effects chain are two separate Waves DeEsser plug-ins—each with different frequency settings so that I can control the sibilance. I set the first plug to focus on the 6kHz range, and the second to address the 12kHz range. The last insert is Digidesign’s 7-Band EQ.

Sends & Returns

In Pro Tools, I then create five stereo aux returns. This is where I will set up an array of digital delay, tremolo, and imaging plug-ins. On the vocal channel, I activate Send A, and bus the output to the corresponding input of my first aux return. Next, I route the output of effects Return A into B, B into C, C into D, and D into E. Personally, I prefer dark delays, so the first thing I do on Channel A is insert Digidesign’s 1-Band EQ with the low-pass filter engaged. Doing this ensures that the delays I set up afterwards all react to the frequencies I’ve specified. For organizational purposes, it’s a good idea to name all of the inputs and outputs after the appropriate plug-in. It’s also smart to color code, group, name, and add comments to every track in the Effects Return section for quick and easy recognition. This is especially critical for sessions with a high track count.

Echo Boys

Next, I dive into a ton of delays. I will often take one SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in, and feed it into another EchoBoy, which feeds into yet another EchoBoy. I set all three plugs to different Echo Time, Mix, and Feedback settings—the first plug to an eighth-note delay, the second to a 16th-note delay, and the third to a 32nd-note delay. Doing this results in so many delays going in so many places that it creates a sort of false reverb that doesn’t seem to add any “distance” to the sound of the lead vocal in the mix.

Trem-u-lation

Once the settings on all the EchoBoy plugs are dialed in, I route all of my delays into the SoundToys Tremolator—a vintage tremolo simulator. The setting of this plug will vary greatly from song to song, but, generally, I start by setting the Depth to around two o’clock, Groove at nine o’clock, Accent all the way to the left Sync setting, and Rhythm to an eighth-note pulse (or whatever time the first delay was set to).

Stereo Imaging

Though things should sound pretty good at this point, it might be cool to alter the panning a bit using a few imaging plugs. I really like the Waves S1 Stereo Imager, Waves Mondo Mod, and GRM Tools Doppler plug-ins. There are no perfect settings for any of these—everything depends on what kind of effect you want to achieve. Play around with them, trying settings that result in a sound that’s not so traditional (such as panning the vocal straight down the middle). Try some sweeps from left-to-right, or widen your stereo image to get a big, all-encompassing vocal mix. Remember, mixing is an art form, and the key to success lies in every decision you make—just as every small stroke from a painter’s brush determines the final masterpiece.

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