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Vox Populi: Tips for Nailing Vocals in the Production Mix

February 5, 2006
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Composites: Use composite vocals to piece together the best vocal track. Use cross-fades to “sew up” your takes to create a seamless vocal track. Before consolidating your vocal composite into one audio file, make a copy of your edited track and keep it on a disabled track or playlist — just in case you need to redo a cross fade.

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Stack ’em up: I work with stacked vocals a lot. Doubling or tripling backup vocals is the best way to get that big, wide background vocal sound. Good intonation and timing are everything when stacking vocals. Without it, you’ll have a mess of vocal takes that won’t mix easily. Here are some subsequent tips to accomplish that:

  • Use Vocaling by Syncro Arts to match the phrasing of your overdubs so each take is in perfect timing with each other.
  • Use tuning software like Auto-Tune, Waves Tune, or Melodyne to correct intonation. Keep in mind that slight pitch fluctuations in each vocal overdub are necessary to create the “chorusing” effect. So don’t tune them too “tight.”
  • One of my standard procedures is to triple background vocals (panned hard left, hard right, and up the center). When tuning the triples, I set the tuners to offset the pitch on the left and right tracks to help preserve a natural chorusing effect. Set the tuner to detune up 3 to 5 cents on one side and down 3 to 5 cents on the other.
  • I use Antares Auto-Tune for background vocals because it’s the quickest way for me to tweak multiple vocals. Tuning plug-ins like Auto-Tune can eat up processing power very quickly, especially when every vocal part is tripled, and your track count is high. To keep your plug-in count down, reprint your tuned vocals onto separate tracks. I set Auto-tune to chromatic mode, and bus the tracks to three new tracks and record them. Then you can disable the original tracks and plug-ins.
  • Make sure you keep your original tracks in case you need to reprint them.
  • Auto-Tune works well in automatic mode in most cases. But if I’m working with vocals that are extremely pitchy, auto mode may not target the intended pitches correctly. Graphic mode in Auto-Tune can be a great way to target difficult passages. However, if you’re working with 20 or 30 tracks, this can be time consuming.
One of my tricks here is to set the tuners to target pitches via MIDI. Then, I create a MIDI track in Pro Tools, and set its output to all three Auto-Tune plug-ins. Now I’m able to “play” the pitches the tuners will target. Most of the time, I’m working with vocals that I’ve arranged or recorded, so I am familiar with each part. So I hit record, and play the part on the keyboard along with the vocal, and the tuners target only those pitches on all three tracks at once.

I will also set the output of that MIDI track to play a MIDI keyboard piano. This helps me hear what pitches I’m targeting. This technique, however, can produce some adverse affects if not done correctly. Natural voice inflections will throw off your tuner if you hold a pitch through a grace note or vocal bend. Practice letting-up on the keyboard during these natural vocal inflections. The targeted MIDI notes can also be recorded first before you re-print or “commit” the vocals, allowing you to make adjustments to how the MIDI notes “play” the tuners.

Once you’ve edited the MIDI, place your three new tracks in record, and record the results. This may not be an easy process for those who are not familiar with a keyboard, but it has become the fastest way for me to tune all three stacked vocals at once.

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Alter thin vocals with Audiosuite: Occasionally, a vocalist will naturally move in and out of the sweet spot of a microphone while recording, changing the tonality and volume of the vocal. This inconsistency can make it hard to create a unified composite vocal. Vocal takes that sound thin and further away from the mic, can be altered using an Audiosuite plug-in. Add some 150Hz with a wide bandwidth to compensate for the lack of proximity effect on those spots. In addition, add some volume if the take seems to fall away in the mix. These techniques can help match the tonality and volume of each take to sound like one phrase.

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Eliminate “p-pop”: One common problem when recording vocals is the “P-pop”. Obviously the first line of defense is to use a windscreen, or pop-filter. But with the extreme sensitivity of condenser mics today, it may not be enough. The second line of defense is to use the roll-off switch on your microphone or preamp. (I choose not to do this because you may be cutting out low frequency harmonics that might be pleasing in the mix.)

But if you have a pop problem, here is a way to remedy it: In Pro Tools, I use an Audiosuite EQ plug-in with a high-pass filter. Select the popped area just before the tone of the word, set your EQ filter to roll off everything below 150Hz or so, and process it. Crossfade the regions for a smooth transition. If you still hear a pop, redo the process by selecting a little further into the word (beyond the pop), and redo the crossfades. Experiment with different frequencies and slopes on the high-pass filter to achieve the best results.

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Watch that compression: When recording vocals, I always use a touch of compression with a Summit TLA-100A tube compressor. Never overuse compression when recording, because it can never be undone. If you have a singer who is very dynamic, and compression alone isn’t enough, try riding the preamp on loud sections instead of cranking up your compressor. Manually adjusting the preamp in real time will put less input into the compressor and will avoid that “pumpy”, over-compressed sound, resulting in a more even vocal track.

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Don’t overdrive the preamps: Getting a good hot signal into your A/D converter is very important because it maximizes the bit resolution of your converter. But lately, I’ve found that many engineers are overdriving their preamps or the outputs of their compressors to get a hot signal into the DAW. When recording vocals, (or anything else for that matter) don’t watch the input meters of your DAW or D/A converter as much as you watch the meters of your preamp, and/or compressor output. Most people keep an eye on the input meters of their DAW and meanwhile they’re creamin’ the output of their compressor, and they don’t even know it. Switch your compressor’s meters between Gain Reduction and Output regularly and be aware of both characteristics. You may find that you need to back off the gas a bit. Always record vocals as cleanly as possible. If your music calls for an aggressive, over-driven vocal sound, you can always achieve that later. But you won’t be able to clear up a distorted or over-driven vocal if it’s been recorded that way.

Experiment with distortion: In more aggressive music, an over-driven vocal can be desirable. Once you’ve captured your vocals clean, experiment with distortion. Here are some tips:

  • Make a copy of your vocal track, and add an amp modeling plug-in to that track. Blend the original clean track with the distorted track. If your vocal has a desirable over-driven sound, but is not intelligible enough, add more of the clean track to the blend, or vice-versa.
  • If you don’t have an amp modeling plug-in, use a real amp to overdrive it, and record it back in on another track. Then blend to taste.
  • Sometimes you can even get a decent overdriven sound by overdriving a plug-in or the input of another track. Use an EQ plug-in with a low-pass filter on the distorted track to “mellow” the high frequencies to emulate the effect of a real guitar amp.

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Let the human voice guide you: I’ve produced and mixed all kinds of vocal music. A cappella music is a genre that I’m particularly familiar with. For the uninitiated, a cappella means “without instruments.” Contemporary a cappella has evolved in recent years into an extremely diverse form of vocal harmony that has roots in Pop, Hip-Hop, Jazz, R&B, and Rock, and includes a new category of instrumentalist called VPs, or Vocal Percussionists. Some of the more advanced groups in this genre have experimented with creating instrumental sounds with their voices. From a mix standpoint, all of these forms of vocal music have one problem in common. The source of every tone is the human voice. Though a cappella music has proved that the human voice is very diverse, the fundamental sound waves are all very similar in texture. Here are some tips to consider when recording or mixing stacked vocals.

  • With a good microphone, stacked vocals tend to have a low-mid EQ build-up a between 300Hz to 600Hz. To combat this problem, remember to keep the vocalist from creeping up on the mic. The proximity effect multiplied over 20 or 30 vocal tracks can result in a muddy, or “nosey” sound. Use the proximity effect, or the lack thereof to your advantage.
  • Keep your female or male high tenors at a distance from the mic that will keep low mid frequencies from overwhelming his or her track. As you get into the lower harmony parts, let the singers move up on the mic a bit. The proximity effect can give your baritone or bass singer that bass response needed to fill out the harmony spectrum.
As a bass singer myself, I will sing right up on the mic about 2 or 3 inches away. At this distance, I use two pop-filters to block out even the slightest amount of air hitting the diaphragm (and protecting the mic from harmful humidity). I suggest engineers monitor using the “big speakers” to hear accurate bass response.

  • When I mix a cappella music I sometimes use an octave effect on the bass vocal to increase the lower harmonics of the mix. I use a pitch plug-in to transpose it an octave, then I use a low-pass filter to roll off everything above 100Hz. The result, an almost Moog-sounding bass line. Then I print the effect on a separate track, and blend it very slightly with the original track. This kind of effect can greatly increase the perceived depth of a bass vocal.
  • If you’re stacking vocals on a track that has instruments, you may not want to triple. It may produce a BG vocal that is too dense for the track. Doubling may be sufficient.
  • When mixing vocals, finding the right effect can be difficult. I rely on delays more than reverbs in just about all of my mixes and here’s why: Modern music has become more and more dense over the years, and as CD volumes get louder and louder, there’s no room sonically for a reverb to be effective. In fact, reverbs have almost been totally eliminated in Hip-Hop, Pop, Rock, and R&B. Using delays can give you the lengthening and spatial effect of a reverb without blurring your mix with a washy reverb. I use a stereo delay set to equal the quarter note or eighth note of the song, and offset the left and right delays by 20 to 30 milliseconds. Set the feedback to generate 1 to 2 repeats.
  • Occasionally, I will send the output of a delay using an aux send into a short reverb and let the delay “pump” the reverb. The delay will regenerate the reverb, but the short verb decay won’t wash out your mix. Many reverbs have these features built in, but I choose to use separate effects for more control. Using a multi-tap delay can also be helpful in creating a reverb-type effect. Set one stereo delay as a slap-back, around 50 to 120 milliseconds, off-setting the left and right again by 20 or 30 milliseconds to create the “early-reflection” and a second stereo delay to repeat the eighth notes or quarter notes as noted above. Experiment with the repeats.
  • In heavily stacked vocals, sibilance can build up as well. In Pro Tools, I use de-essers on tracks that sound “ess-y” or “spitty.”
There are just a few things that I do on a regular basis to get my vocals cranked up — no matter who I’m working with — so it’s in your face and clear as a bell. Enjoy!

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