Vocals Meet Synthesizer

Today’s sound tools can take vocals further than ever: You’re no longer limited to cutting your vocals through a vocoder, like Kraftwerk or Daft Punk, to sound “electronic.” Many processors can give your vocals a synth-like sheen that makes them more at home in electronic tracks; the point here is not so much to make the vocals “better” but to make them evocative and “different,” in a world where different is good.
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Go to www.eqmag.com for two vocal examples that illustrate the processing described here. “VoiceClean.mp3” has my unprocessed vocals for a song called “The Sentinel.” The vocal is in Spanish, which makes it easier to focus on the sound rather than the lyrics.

I used a Groove Tubes GT67 mic, because it seems to like my voice; the preamp was nothing boutique, just the one in my ProjectMix I/O audio interface. The software was Ableton Live, with the plug-ins detailed below.


One of the first steps for “synth-like” vocal tracks is to add heavy compression/limiting after recording the track. The object is not to suck the life out of the performance, but to make it fit well in the mix. I used a Waves C4 (Figure 1) throughout the entire track, but automated the dynamics so the chorus could have more natural dynamics. Because the C4 is multiband, you can apply the compression very precisely.


Even if you’re adding a lot of processing, that’s no excuse not to record the best take possible. I avoid using processors to “fix” problems; I’d rather not have any problems in the first place, and use processors to enhance what’s there.

Sometimes I use two EQs for different purposes: One fixed EQ (in this case, Live’s “EQ Four”) to add a “global” effect to the track, and a second to enhance some specific parts. The second EQ (Ozone 3; see Figure 2) was automated to provide a temporary highpass filter when a loop with heavy low-end content entered the mix.


While “chorusing” doesn’t sound exactly like a backing chorus when applied to vocals, it does tend to thicken the sound. Furthermore, extreme settings can lead to extreme results, like creating a wider stereo imaging by panning the wet and dry sounds to opposite sides of the stereo field. I applied Live’s Chorus FX to the vocal track to create the same kind of effect as a synth patch’s “unison” mode, where you add extra oscillators.


Use reverb with care, otherwise you’ll lose the intelligibility of the lyrics. Ozone 3’s reverb provides more of a subtle, “mastering” reverb instead of a big hall or plate. The result is a solid ambience that adds depth and space to a vocal.


Electronic music loves rhythms: drum loops, synth drones, arpeggiators, and . . . delay lines. Today’s automatable and tempo-synced plug-ins are great for vocals, especially with “synth-pop” type music. This tune uses Live’s built-in PingPong delay with automation, so I could have long tails when needed yet pull back to keep the verse understandable.

To hear the final result, download the file “VoiceFXFull.mp3” from www.eqmag.com. Of course there are more options: Reversing some parts, pitch-shifting, time-stretching, and beyond, like using some very specific plug-ins or recording techniques. Meanwhile, consider whether your vocals might benefit from some synthetic veneer — even if it’s not an “electronic” tune.