Vocal Production Tricks: Time Savers

Crafting a killer lead vocal track at mixdown can be a protracted process, especially if the singer’s technique was inconsistent during recording.
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Rein in erratic singing in a heartbeat using these tools and techniques

CRAFTING A killer lead vocal track at mixdown can be a protracted process, especially if the singer’s technique was inconsistent during recording. Distracting mouth noises and inappropriate fluctuations in level and tone all need to be ironed out before delays and reverb are splashed on. Here are a few plug-ins and techniques to speed up the process—and stave off tedium—on your way to the perfect vocal track.

Catch Your Breath A heavy breather can sound downright asthmatic once compression is applied to his or her track. Before you put on the squeeze, make sure you tame any excessive gasping (unless you want to preserve it to create a sense of urgency for the track).

Automating the track’s fader to dip on each breath will give you good results, but it will take forever to accomplish when every breath in a four-minute track needs to be subdued. Ditto for manually erasing each breath in your DAW. Garden-variety gating can be hit or miss, sometimes throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The fastest and surest way to silence the puffing is to bounce the entire track through either the Waves DeBreath or iZotope Breath Control plug-in. (The latter is available in the new Nectar 2 Vocal Production Suite bundle.)

Fig. 1. With only a couple quick adjustments, iZotope Breath Control reduces excessive breath noises throughout an entire track. The orange gain reduction trace at the top of the GUI confirms the track’s level was reduced where it should’ve been: between vocal phrases. Putting Breath Control in Target mode produces natural-sounding results (see Figure 1). Raise the Sensitivity slider until the plugin begins to detect unwanted breath noises; you’ll see the meter to the left of the slider register signal and the orange gain-reduction trace at the top of the GUI dip in the noisy gaps between vocal phrases, as indicated by the attendant waveform display. Set the Target slider to the level that you want all detected breaths to be reduced to. Click on the Breaths Only button to hear only that part of the track the plug-in is reducing in level; if you hear any spectra for actual singing in Breaths Only mode, lower the Sensitivity slider until you hear only breathing. Then deactivate the Breaths Only function to process the track. To ensure consistent results, I like to bounce the track in real time while listening.

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Keep a Level Head When faced with a vocal track’s wildly fluctuating levels at mixdown, it’s important to tame them before compressing. If you compress before executing this task, you’ll squash the bejesus out of the loudest phrases when you lower the threshold enough to affect the quietest ones. Automating fader moves line by line—and placing the compressor on a post-fader insert afterwards—does the trick. But the process is as exciting and speedy as watching an ant cross a parking lot.

Fig. 2. Waves Vocal Rider dynamically adjusts levels for a vocal track. Here, the plug-in automatically rides an objectionably quiet vocal phrase 3dB higher. Luckily, there’s a quicker and more appealing solution. Use the Waves Vocal Rider plug-in to automatically ride the gain on your vocal track (see Figure 2). As your track plays back, set the plug-in’s Target slider at the median peak signal level you see registering on the meter (in yellow) behind the slider. Lower the bottom Range slider if loud vocal phrases are not being attenuated enough, but exercise restraint: Too low of a setting will hamper Vocal Rider’s ability to sufficiently boost the level of quiet phrases. Excepting the foregoing, the higher you raise the top Range slider, the greater the maximum amount of boost the plug-in will apply to low-level phrases.

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You’ll generally get the best results if you use Vocal Rider’s fast attack setting to control explosive rock singers and the slow attack setting for crooning balladeers. Once the vocal track’s dynamic range is dialed, use the plug-in’s output fader to bring the overall performance up or down in level to tuck it into the mix. Follow Vocal Rider with a compressor to fatten the sound, and you’ll be on your way to a great-sounding track!

Set the Tone Singers with poor mic technique will often unconsciously vary their distance from the mic while singing. If the mic is directional (as in a cardioid model), its inherent bass-proximity effect will cause some vocal phrases to sound too bassy (when the singer is eating the mic) and others possibly too thin (when he or she has backed away). You can automate an EQ plug-in line by line to correct the track’s tonal fluctuations, but that’s about as much fun as stubbing your toe repeatedly on a cinder block. And tight budgets and deadlines don’t always allow using such a fine-tooth comb.

Fig. 3. To match one vocal phrase’s tone to that of another that sounds superior, use the Matching EQ tab in the Equalizer plug-in for iZotope Ozone 5 Advanced. Luckily, iZotope Ozone 5 Advanced’s Equalizer plug-in (and the Equalizer module in Ozone 5’s Standard Edition) provides a lickety-split solution (see Figure 3). Select the plug-in’s Matching EQ mode. In the Snapshots tab, capture the spectrum for the best-sounding vocal phrase in the track and name it “best voc.” Find the phrases that need equalization, and capture and name their spectra in turn (for example, “verse line 1,” “chorus line 1,” and so on). Click on the plugin’s Save Set button to save all your captured spectra for safekeeping.

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Select the plug-in’s Matching tab. To the right of the “best voc” snapshot, click on the Reference button. Select the Apply To button to the right of “verse line 1.” Click on the Match button, and play the beginning of the first verse. The timbre of the first line of the verse should now sound close to that of the best-sounding vocal phrase for the track, but it might need further refinement. Adjust the Amount slider by ear; a value between 30 and 50 percent usually sounds good. If the EQ still sounds a little peaky (sharp-edged), raise the Smoothing slider. Bounce the EQ’d vocal phrase to a new, empty track to render the processing. Then apply Matching EQ to the remaining tonally challenged phrases in turn, bouncing each as you go. It’s a wrap!

Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering and post-production engineer and the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording).