Learn Mixing | Mixing the Ultimate Lead Vocal, Part 2

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Last month, I detailed ways to use dynamics processing to park a lead vocal track at the perfect level in a mix—not too loud, not too soft. This month, we''ll talk timbre. I''ll discuss some fantastic plug-ins that splash on unique color that no equalizer can touch. You''ll learn how to use advanced compression techniques to alternately control and hype your singer''s tone. But first, I''ll shout out a few basic tips.

Sculpting the perfect timbre for your vocal track begins with assessing the track''s weakest qualities and correcting them. If the vocal sounds boomy, roll off bass frequencies below 100 or 150Hz with a mild shelving filter. (A 6dB/octave roll-off works well.) Use a high-pass filter with extreme caution to dump rumble or kick-drum bleed; setting the corner frequency too high will make the track sound thin and harsh.

Does the vocal sound muddy but otherwise have a pleasingly deep bottom end? Use a bell-curve (also known as peaking) filter to cut at around 200Hz. Sometimes a vocal will have plenty of bass and articulate highs but still sound too thin. In this case, boosting slightly with a bell-curve filter at around 1kHz can broaden the sound. Don''t overdo it, though, or the track will sound nasal.

Many vocal tracks benefit from having several dB of boost in the 4kHz region—again, with a peaking filter—to make them cut through a dense mix. If consonants are not quite articulate enough, boosting slightly with a shelving filter above 12 or 13kHz should improve intelligibility while also adding a sense of airiness. Tread softly—too much high-frequency boost will increase noise and sibilance and make the track sound brittle.

When inexperienced singers croon through a directional mic, they may arbitrarily vary their distance from the mic throughout the song. Due to the mic''s bass proximity effect, some phrases will sound more bassy or muddier than others. You could automate varying amounts of EQ cut line-by-line to compensate, but a split-band compressor will get the job done much faster.

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Fig. 1 The Waves C4 plug-in can be used as a split-band compressor to make dynamic EQ adjustments.

The Waves C4 plug-in works great for this purpose (see Figure 1). Set one of the bands to cover a range roughly between 90 and 300Hz. Bypass all the other bands. In extreme cases, you might need to set the active band''s range as deep as –18dB. Adjust the threshold control so that gain reduction only occurs when the track would otherwise sound too bassy or muddy.

Last month, I discussed reasons why you''d usually want to place dynamics processors before EQ on a lead vocal track. There is, however, an advanced technique that breaks that rule. To fashion an urgent and hyper-detailed sound, place a de-esser after your equalizer. In the equalizer, apply several dB of boost above 4 or 5kHz using a shelving filter. The de-esser should be set to treat the same frequency range. (See last month''s installment for more tips on using de-essers.) Adjust the de-esser''s threshold to silence any sibilance and keep the singer from sounding too piercing in his top register. Quiet phrasing toward the lower end of his range (passing under the de-esser''s threshold) will sprout detail like the Hubble Telescope. GO BEYOND FILTERS
Several standout plug-ins offer meta-tone that can''t be achieved using equalizers. Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter includes a MIX2 mode that sounds outstanding on rock vocals. It pulls the midrange dramatically forward, increasing clarity and intelligibility while simultaneously quashing sibilance.

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Fig. 2 Soundtoys Decapitator is one of several plug-ins that add tone that is unattainable with EQ.

SPL TwinTube offers separate controls for dialing in tube-like harmonics and saturation. You''ll swear you''re hearing high-end, modern tube circuitry being added to your vocal track; it sounds that convincing. For a more vintage tube sound, Soundtoys Decapitator is your ticket back to the future. The “Style A” setting models the drive preamp of a ''50s-era Ampex 350 tape recorder. Boost Decapitator''s Drive control, roll off some highs, and set the Mix control to around 70% wet for a velvety, fat tone (see Figure 2 on pape 80).

A vocal that sounds thin and two-dimensional can also be fattened up by running it through the Slate Digital Virtual Channel (part of the company''s Virtual Console Collection bundle). The plug-in''s Brit N setting beautifully models the colorful solid-state distortion of a Neve console, adding subtle girth and depth.

Always approach your settings for dynamics processors, tone-shaping plug-ins, and faders as your starting point and not the finish line. Don''t be afraid to automate EQ and fader adjustments line-by-line—or even for one lyric or syllable—if that''s what''s needed to make every moment of the vocal performance an event. The Waves Vocal Rider plug-in is a great time-saver; following a couple minutes of setup, it will automatically ride levels on your vocal track to near perfection. Make the last few fader adjustments manually, if needed, to make your vocal riveting from start to finish.

The lead vocal track should now sound anchored and spectrally balanced, but dry. Tune in next month, when we''ll kick it up a few more notches in star quality by adding attention-grabbing effects!