Fig. 1. The Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter generates harmonics and alters the phase relationship of frequencies to produce a unique vocal sound. Everyday EQ and compression aren’t always enough to bring a lead vocal track to life. When you need a special sauce that conventional processing can’t cook up, here are a few specialized plug-ins that just might be up to the task.
Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter This gem emulates the now-rare Model 402 tube processor heard on so many hit records in the ’70s. As one would expect given its name, it adds musically related harmonics to audio signals. But due to the way it alters phase relationships, it sounds very different from other exciters.
For a killer effect on hard-rock vocals, instantiate Vintage Aural Exciter on an insert slot for the track and set the plug-in to MIX2 mode (see Figure 1). As you turn up the AX MIX control, the vocal’s midrange band will become increasingly more prominent and sibilance will take a nosedive. High amounts of processing (AX MIX set to 7 or above) will make it sound like the vocalist took several steps forward and is breathing down your neck. The sound’s presence and color are unlike anything you can achieve using EQ.
Vintage Aural Exciter’s AX mode is only supposed to be used when feeding the plugin audio via an effects send, as that mode only passes wet signal. Break the rules: Instantiate the plug-in on an insert for the lead vocal track, switch to AX mode and crank the input control. The singer’s track will sound like it’s being squeezed out of a poorly tuned pocket radio!
Fig. 2. Frequencies between 1Hz and 4.1kHz are dynamically enhanced to clarify a vocal track. Noveltech Vocal Enhancer Vocal Enhancer uses signal modeling and intelligent adaptive filtering to accentuate flattering aspects of your vocal track that might otherwise be understated or completely buried. Unlike static EQ, the effect can vary highly over time. Easy to use, Vocal Enhancer lends crystalline clarity to a previously muddy-sounding vocal in the wink of an eye. Simply adjust the frequency range you want to enhance, and then boost the Enhancement control to add the effect. When cranking the Enhancement control to very high levels, I usually like to limit the high end of the range to around 4kHz in order to preclude intensifying sibilance (see Figure 2).
Because the plug-in’s processing can boost the vocal’s level, an automatic gain compensation (Gain Comp) function is provided. When activated, Gain Comp reduces the plug-in’s output level back to unity gain and an associated gain reduction (GR) meter shows how much the plug-in’s output level is reduced. (Despite the customary association with dynamics processing, level showing on the gain reduction meter does not indicate that compression is being applied.)
Fig. 3. SoundToys Radiator authentically emulates the sound of a tube mixer, producing tones ranging from subtle saturation to drastic overload. SoundToys Radiator EQ and compression can only take your sound so far when the lead vocal was recorded through a clinical, boring preamp. A good strategy here is to stop fighting your original sound and change the preamp—after the track has already been recorded. SoundToys Radiator makes your track sound like it was recorded through a ’60s-era Altec 1567A tube mixer, which graced many early Motown hits. The effect is not subtle (unless you set it up to be)— Radiator heaps gobs of color and grit on vocal tracks.
Radiator’s input and output controls each drive a separate virtual tube-saturation stage. (The Radiator bundle also includes the Little Radiator plug-in, which models the singlestage Altec 1566A tube preamp.) The two stages each add slightly different color, so I like to goose both controls a bit at once (see Figure 3). Lower the Mix control to add back a bit of the clean vocal and retain definition. For a male vocal that sounds too cloudy, try switching Radiator’s mic/line switch to mic; doing so will cut the upper-bass and lowmidrange frequencies up to 4dB. Then raise the Bass EQ control just a hair to dial a little low bass back in.
For a completely over-the-top vocal effect, crank Radiator’s input and output controls to the max. The effect will genuinely sound like an abused mic pre overloading—great for industrial rock!
Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering, and post-production engineer, a contributing editor for Mix magazine, and the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording).