A 10-year-old can tell the difference between a well recorded and produced vocal and a bust. They probably couldn’t describe what the difference is, but we are all so thoroughly doused in commercial music releases we instinctively know what a vocal should sound like and if something is off.
So next up when you’re working on recording a new track here are a few tips, things to avoid, and advice for getting a great vocal sound.
TIP #1 — CLIP GAIN YOUR VOCAL BEFORE PROCESSING IT
This tip is for once you’ve already tracked and comped your vocal performance.
Subtip #1.1 — Comp your vocals.
Clip gain — a function in Pro Tools that allows you to adjust the gain of an individual clip on an audio track. Similar functions exist in other DAWs.
Most singers cannot perfectly control the dynamics of a performance. This is a function necessary to even out the loudest and quietest parts of a track so they are closer relative to each other.
You may also clip gain down breaths, weird mouth noises, plosives, etc… The more a vocal track is compressed the more you will hear such noises. Also delete sections of clips that are gaps between the vocal performance — blank space. If you are recording mic level there will always be some amount of inherent noise in your track. All that noise adds up the more tracks you have. So be sure to edit it out before finalizing your mix.
CAN’T I JUST COMPRESS THE SH** OUT OF IT?
You could, but here’s what you’re missing if you do: Many pros use compression not only for the utility of controlling dynamics through gain reduction of peaks and makeup gain but also for tone shaping and saturation. If you control / even out the input of what you’re feeding your compressor you can ensure that the compressor is reacting is a consistent manor.
Perhaps you like the saturation / tone of a 1176 compressor driven just so… However, if your vocal track is incredibly dynamic and only the peaks are triggering the threshold of your compressor you won’t be able to get as even and consistent an effect. Your input affects your output. If your input is dynamically erratic, then you output even though you have applied some gain reduction may still be compromised.
TIP #2 — CHECK AND EXPERIMENT WITH YOUR DISTANCE FROM THE MIC WHILE TRACKING
If your singer gets too close to the mic you may run into an issue called the Proximity Effect. Lots of microphones have a proximity effect. A disproportionate amount of added low frequencies “boominess” the closer you sound source gets to the capsule. Sometimes this can be a nice added effect if your singer has a thin or wispy voice.
You might inadvertently increase the amount of sibilance or plosives in your track.
Sibilance is just a fancy word for the nasty “ssss” noises (upper mid-range frequencies) you hear that can sound harsh and unpleasant.
Plosives are pops you hear when singers sing some consonants such as p-words or b-words. Words that shoot out a quick pop of air at the mic. Microphones do not like pops of air. Use a pop-filter to avoid plosives and help with sibilance.
You may need to compromise. If your room is super small and dead (does not have a lot of reflections) you can track your singers further off from the mic. If your room is larger and has lots of reflections, then you may need your singer to sing much closer to the mic. It’s easier to EQ out unnecessary low end than it is to get rid of “room tone / reflections” from your vocal track.
I will sometimes purposely ask the singer to back away from the mic several feet because I want to hear that distance and the early reflections in my track to create depth of space in my mix. You can use the distance of your singer from the mic as an affect.
TIP #3 — BGVS CAN MAKE A GOOD SONG GREAT AND ARE OFTEN THE SECRET SAUCE OF POP SONGS
I’m not just talking harmonies. Ever wonder how the chorus of your favorite song sounds so huge and wide. It is a common technique to record “stacks” of the lead vocal. Have the singer sing the melody of the chorus three times. Have the lead vocal track panned dead center and then pan the two stacks (I call them “doubles’) hard left and right. Doing this as an effect in the chorus can really open up a mix and add width.
Duplicating a track and panning it is not the same as “doubling” a track. All this will do is double the loudness of that track and this will not add width to your mix as the two tracks will sum to mono if they are exactly the same. You actually have to track the part twice. The timing and pitch inconsistencies are what create the spread & width.
There are tools you can use to tighten up doubles and harmonies such as Vocalign. Vocalign is used a lot in pop music when you want your stacks and doubles to be near perfectly lined up.
Experiment with harmonies and experiment with layers. Instead of sending your vocal to a an aux with reverb, what if you sang the melody twice (doubled it) and then added an instance of a reverb plugin to the doubled vocal and made it 100% wet on the mix knob. Then you can use that doubled vocal reverb track as your lead vocal reverb and avoid the verb pulling your vocal too far back in the mix. Just a thought…
TIP #4 — HAVING A VOCAL WITH “SOUL” IS BETTER THAN HAVING ONE WITH PERFECT PITCH AND TIMING
I’ve told singers, “I don’t believe you”. I don’t deliver this in a mean way. What I mean in the moment is that when the singer sang that emotional lyric I didn’t believe them. I felt no soul.
Sometimes singers can get caught up on a performance being in perfect pitch, but by the time they hit the note the soul is gone. I’d rather have soul. I want to feel something. You can pick out what vocal performances were delivered with soul. I personally think a lot of modern music has been systematically de-souled, sometimes to a cool effect but still breaks my heart sometimes. After all, it is pretty easy to correct pitch these days. So go for soul!
TIP #5 — DON’T TUNE IT IF IT DOESN’T NEED IT (MOST POP MUSIC EXEMPT)
Unless you’re making straight down the pipe mainstream pop music, you may not need to hard tune your lead vocal. If it sounds good, then it sounds good. Don’t effff with it. Singing with perfect pitch is not natural. Don’t sacrifice soul for perfect pitch. Did it give you chills the first time you heard it? Good, keep that feeling and don’t ruin it by getting rid of all the life by over tuning.
Founder of @lostharbormusic