Figuring out how to properly process vocals can be one of the most challenging (and sometimes frustrating) topics for music producers. Each type vocal is different and unique in its own way, which means each vocal you work with will need its own unique processing chain to sound as professional as vocals used in tracks by artists like KSHMR, The Chainsmokers or San Holo.
Although each vocal you work with will be slightly different, below is the process we teach our students at Sound.Academy to follow when processing a dry vocal from scratch:
Step 1: Volume Automation
Before we start to process our vocals, take care of any pitch correction you may want to apply. Often times a vocal take may be out of key at certain points, so producers will often use plugins like Melodyne to make sure the vocal stays in key. Here is a great article discussing how to use Melodyne for pitch correction.
From here, perform any necessary volume automations on the vocal. This may be a pain, but it will pay dividends in the end product. It will give your vocal a more natural feel and will make it easier on the compressors used later in the processing chain.
It is also important to go through and apply fades and delete any pops or clicks that may have occurred in the recording process, as the compressor will amplify those as well.
Step 2: EQ Cleanup
You’ll want to apply a high-pass EQ to begin and get rid of any unnecessary frequencies in the low end. Often times a vocal will have low frequencies present that you can’t even hear, so I recommend producers slowly bring a low cut up the frequency spectrum until they hear the vocal losing energy, then back off just a bit.
Make sure you are also using your ears here to determine where your vocal sits along the frequency spectrum, as well as where it needs to sit in the mix among all your other sounds and instruments.
You can also make other adjustments using a bell curve with small dips to cut out resonant frequencies. Boosting the high frequencies, typically around 8 kHz and above, can be helpful in adding air and shimmer to your vocal.
Step 3: Vocal De-essing
When a vocalists sings into a microphone, there is a tendency to have some harsh frequencies on ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds. This is called sibilance.
Typically, you’ll want to clean these up by using a de-esser. A de-esser is essentially a compressor that works in a specific frequency range, and when that frequency spikes, the de-esser will compress only that frequency band. In this case, this will be used to tame sibilance.
Step 4: Compression
In this stage of the process, it is common for mixing engineers to use multiple compressors instead of just one. By splitting up the necessary compression among two compressors, you’re often left with a more natural, clean-sounding product.
Using a couple compressors (depending on which you use) can also give the vocal a different color based on the algorithms within that particular compressor. With all of this in mind, small adjustments are usually the way to go.
Look for anywhere between 3-5 dB of compression. More than this will make the vocal sound a bit unnatural and possibly distorted, while less than this can result in a vocal that is too dynamic.
You may even want to apply another De-esser here depending on if sibilance is amplified with the addition of new compressors.
Step 5: Additive EQ
A helpful rule help rule of thumb when using EQ is to use Digital EQ’s for cuts (Fab-Filter Pro-Q is our favorite) and use Analog EQ’s for boosts (like Wave’s PuigTec EQP1A as shown).
Boosting with analog EQ’s typically sounds more natural and can give your vocal great color. Using a plugin like the PuuigTec above to boost the high frequencies can also be useful in adding some top end sparkle to your vocal. This is what can help you vocal stand out amongst all the other instruments and synths in your mix.
Step 6: Reverb and Delay
Adding reverb and some delay can give your vocal a sense of space within your mix. The settings used here will depend on the type of track you’re creating, as well as where you want your vocal to be sitting.
If you’re mixing hip-hop vocals, you probably want some small-room reverb and almost no delay on your vocals, whereas if you’re mixing vocals occuring during the breakdown of a trance song, you might want some hall reverb and ping-pong delay.
A helpful strategy when using more reverb or delay is to sidechain the wet reverb/delay signal to your dry vocal. This means that you will only hear the reverb and delay effects when the dry vocal is not occuring. This will help you vocal remain cleaner and more understandable in the mix.
Here at Sound.Academy, we like to make sure we use a less-is-more approach. Too much reverb and delay can really make your mixing in the end a bit tricky so make sure you don’t go overboard.
As you apply this process to your own productions, make sure you have a purpose for each plugin in your vocal processing chain. Every plugin should be serving a specific purpose in your processing chain. When you turn it on and off, you should hear a clear difference in the sound.
Now lastly, remember that this is not a step-by-step guide for every single vocal you process. Each vocal will be different, just as each of your mixes will be different, but by following the process we have outlined above, you will set your vocals up for success.