The Vocal Rider GUI is toward the right,
while on the left, you can see the automation
(blue line) generated from Vocal Rider
riding the gain.
Native $400 MSRP, $200 street; TDM $800 MSRP, $400 street
If every vocalist you work with has perfect mic technique, you can skip the rest of this review. But for everyone else, there’s the Vocal Rider plug-in (VST/AU/TDM/Audio Suite/RTAS).
The concept is simple: Plug Vocal Rider into a vocal track, set a target level range for the vocal, and Vocal Rider analyzes the vocal level as you mix. If the vocal level goes down, Vocal Rider brings it up, and vice-versa.
In practice, though, you have quite a bit of latitude for optimizing the target level and gain range. For example, if you don’t want to bring soft sections up too much, you can restrict the maximum amount of gain. Or, you might want to do the equivalent of compression, but without the artifacts—just use a wide gain range. In any event, it’s easy to try out Vocal Rider settings and if you need to tweak them, that’s equally easy.
I tested Vocal Rider with a “problem child” vocal that had multiple level variations. I had already done level automation, and added substantial compression to even out the dynamics— and thought I had done so relatively successfully. But tossing out the automation and starting over with Vocal Rider was a true revelation: Notes that were substantially lower hit the proper level, compression became redundant, and the vocals had an overall consistency that made them fit superbly with the mix.
Waves recommends putting Vocal Rider last in a chain of plug-ins; if you want to add a compressed quality to the voice, you can do so prior to Vocal Rider, and it will still know how to react. However, I also had good luck putting an L2 Maximizer after Vocal Rider (with conservative gain reduction settings) to add a bit more “punch.”
With a few programs (Pro Tools, Nuendo, Cubase, and Studio One), you can even feed a mix of the music into Vocal Rider’s sidechain. This insures that the vocal is not only consistent with itself, but can change if the music changes— louder during loud parts, neutral (no boost) during softer passages.
Although Vocal Rider does its level-changing automatically, you can write the automation data it creates to a track, then fine-tune the level manually, as needed. Also note there are a few other ways to customize the response, such as an Attack parameter that modifies how the vocal is detected, and a Vocal Sensitivity parameter that determines how much of the detected vocal is treated (i.e., how sensitive it is to the vocal envelope).
While Vocal Rider works extremely well for sung vocals, it’s equally effective with narration. Prior to Vocal Rider, I used to go through narration phrase-byphrase and normalize or change gain as needed for consistency—no more.
There is one caution: Vocal Rider is part of Waves V7 plug-ins. If you’re running V6, no problem; but if you’re running version 4 or 5, installing V7 will remove older installations (with a prompt, of course). To run Vocal Rider and your older plug-ins, you’ll need to upgrade them to V7 versions (not a bad idea anyway, as V7 offers several performance enhancements; besides, it’s free if you’re on the Waves update plan).
In a way, Vocal Rider reminds me of Gibson’s Robot tuning technology for guitars: It doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do yourself, but accomplishes the task with far greater speed and accuracy. Think about how much time you put into getting vocal levels right, and how many times you just piled on the compression when deadlines loomed. Even if you value your time at minimum wage, Vocal Rider would pay for itself relatively quickly—and more importantly, your vocals would sit a lot better in the mix.
There are very few plug-ins I would rate as “indispensable” for mixing, but Vocal Rider earns that label easily—it does its job transparently and effectively.
TIP: YOU CAN’T FEATURE EVERYTHING, SO DON’T EVEN TRY
The singer wants the vocals louder, and the drummer asks, “Shouldn’t the snare be more prominent?” Pick the instrument that needs to be featured at any moment, and let the other instruments play a supporting role.
TIP: START YOUR MIX IN MONO
If all the panpots are centered, you’re forced to use methods other than placement to differentiate instruments— such as EQ. Then, go for stereo and enjoy how the mix opens up.