Vocal Mixing and Arrangement Techniques

This week we are talking all about vocals.

Vocals are going to be the most important part of your mix, but as a producer, you know vocals are notoriously difficult to process well.

Every vocal is different, and it seems every artist processes their vocals in slightly different ways.

In this article, you will learn:

  1. Approaches to recording vocals
  2. How to bring vocals to life with processing
  3. How to turn your voice into an instrument
  4. How to arrange vocals to make them more interesting

You can listen to the full episode below:

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Vocal Techniques From The Chainsmokers’ “Roses”

So to start off, lets talk about The Chainsmokers.

These guys have amazing vocals in all of their songs, so they definitely know what they’re doing when it comes to selecting and processing vocals.

In this specific tutorial, they discussed the vocals on their hit track “Roses”.

To start off, one of the things they said made this track so great is ROZES’s voice, who is the vocalist behind the song.

Her voice already had so much character, was already almost perfectly in key.

This enabled them to not really do any heavy processing on her voice, which they said helped make it sound more organic and natural.

They also had a pretty interesting story around how the vocals were actually recorded.


Recording vocals isn’t easy

It was in New York City, in their apartment, recorded on some cheap microphone of Drew’s.

They had to even hold a towel over the air vents so the microphone wouldn’t pick up too much ambient noise.

Although they said they usually try to get the highest quality recording possible, by recording these vocals in what they called a “bootleg” way, it makes it even more interesting.

They said that its important to keep in mind that when things aren’t just perfect, it can really go a long way in making your track more interesting and organic.

Your listeners may not consciously realize it, but the track will just have a different kind of vibe to it they say.


A little vocal processing can go a long way

So for the vocal, they had all the individual vocal audio channels grouped into one vocal group so that they could process them together.

The first plugin on their processing chain was an instance of CLA Vocals, or Chris Lord-Alga plugin by Waves.

This is one of the most popular vocal processing plugins, and it is just amazing.

Drew actually didn’t even change any parameters or change anything on the plugin, he just put it on and it sounded just right to him.

He mentioned that he would be concerned that he’s ruining her voice if he really pushed it any further.

When you begin adding all these synthetic effects to organic sounds, you can begin to compromise some of those organic elements that are so great in the first place.

Following the CLA, he just had an EQ removing the lows below 167 Hz, and a tiny boost in the mids around 2 kHz.

He wanted to remove any low end from the vocal that didn’t need to be there, and he felt that although there were frequencies in ROZES voice below that threshold, you couldn’t really hear them, so he didn’t think he needed them.

To Drew, if you can’t hear those frequencies anyway, why would you let it take up room in your song?

Lastly, he had a stock Ableton reverb on the channel to perform some automations.

He would automate the dry/wet up from zero when he wanted the vocal to kind of transition out.

By doing this, he creates a nice throw that makes a nice, easy transition. This is something he does when he doesn’t want a big, long, open reverb throughout the whole song, but he does want that reverb in certain sections.


How San Holo’s vocal processing in “One Thing”

Up next we’re discussing the vocals in San Holo’s recent track “One Thing.”

It is a really great track, and has some vocals that sound just magical.

Luckily, San Holo divulged exactly how he went about it in a recent tutorial.

One of first things San Holo shows is that he has lots of vocal channels.

Some for each side of the stereo field, some for the delays, some grouped together and others not.


Little details can go a long way with vocals

For the main three vocal channels, he has one set dead center, and two others panned around 36% left and right.

He mentioned that doubling vocals like this is one of his favorite tricks to do, as it immediately makes the vocal sound much wider and more interesting.

San Holo also mentioned that he does a lot of very specific editing on his vocals.

He will make tiny cuts and slices here and there to get everything just how he wants it.

He will remove any pops and clicks, and make sure that the right syllables are pronounced by the vocalist in all the right places.

This doesn’t always sound totally natural, and in this specific case, it doesn’t.

When he plays this manipulated vocal track soloed, you can hear that it doesn’t sound 100% natural, but it absolutely does sound very unique and interesting.

The doubling effect we just discussed, of duplicating a vocal and panning each to different sides of the stereo field, is something San Holo says masks the fact that the vocal is all chopped up.

He also put a chorus effect on the center vocal to make all three vocal channels sound cohesive.


San Holo’s vocal processing toolkit

As for processing, he first did a bit of EQ to remove the low end, as well as some frequencies around 1 kHz on the vocals.

Following that, he used a Waves CLA on each channel, as well as Waves C4 Multiband Compressor at the end.

In addition to these three channels, he also has a dreamy delay going on the whole time.

He has this channel set at -24 dB so its definitely more subtle, but its there.

This really helps add an interesting foundation for all the other vocals to sit on, and really helps put them in an interesting space.

He is careful in manipulating the audio on this delay channel to ensure that it never interferes too much with his main vocals.

For this, he used Echoboy with some EQ.

On the vocal group, he once again used an EQ to reduce low end frequencies, a C4 Multiband Compressor, as well as a DeEsser.

San Holo commented that he likes his vocals really loud in the mix with lots of high frequencies, and this combination of plugins he used really helped him achieve that desired result.


How Lauv turned his voice into an instrument

Now artist Lauv made an interesting video showing the process behind how he made his hit “I Like Me Better.”

For those of you who don’t know, Lauv is a producer, singer, plays tons of instruments, and makes some fantastic music.

This is one of my favorite songs of his, and I was always curious how he was able to make the lead in the song.

Basically what Lauv said he will do is when he has some inspiration for a melody, he will pull out his phone and record himself humming it.

He did this a few times for this song, emailed the file to himself, and dropped it into his DAW.

From there, he just added some basic processing, likely EQ, compression and reverb, and that became his lead.

It is really interesting because there are quite a few tutorials of producers trying to remake the lead online, but in reality it was just Lauv humming into his iPhone.

Definitely a really interesting technique for you all to experiment with.


Tank God discusses the vocal processing in “Rockstar”

If you’ve listed to the radio any time in the last few months, chances are you’re familiar with Post Malone’s “Rockstar”.

It’s a really interesting song, and the production quality is fantastic. Luckily, producer Tank God deconstructed the beat and discussed exactly how he made the hit.

Tank God mentioned that one of his favorite parts of the song is the outro.

It is this dreamy kind of outro with Post’s vocals fading in and out, pitching around.

Tank said that he’s always wanted to make a record like this, where the vocal is pitch bending around to create unique FX.

And this is exactly what Post did.

Pick out or record interesting samples of his voice, pitch bend them up in down, and a bunch of delay and reverb.

All of these together help put the vocals in this section of the song into their own space, creating a very intriguing outro for the song.


How to thicken up deep vocals with Kill Frenzy

Up next we’re talking about Dirtybird artist Kill Frenzy who did a breakdown of his track “All Night Long.”

If you haven’t heard it, it’s a super catchy house song where the main chorus is repeating the phrase “ride me all night long.”

To begin with, Kill Frenzy mentioned that the vocals are his.

He’s not a singer by nature, so he was pretty embarrassed when showing the dry vocals with no processing or FX.

He produces a lot of ghetto house music, and stated that it pretty difficult for him to find vocals he likes to use in his song.

For that reason, he just did it himself.

This is something very interesting that I encourage every one of you to try.

Use your own vocals in your song. You don’t have to sing a whole acapella, but even the phrases, shouts and chants in your song can be yours.

It enables you to use a sound that not a single other person in the world has ever used.

Your voice, singing or saying this certain phrase.

You also don’t need a fancy microphone or anything like that to do it.

Nearly every phone today will have a sufficient microphone, or even just your computer.

In the process, you will also learn a lot of what needs to be done to dry vocals in order to make them sound interesting.


Processing on the vocals makes all the difference

So once Kill Frenzy recorded himself saying “ride me all night long”, he began processing the sample to get it to sound the way he wanted.

The first thing he did was pitch it down quite a bit, 5 semitones.

He just did this in Ableton using the transpose knob.

From here, he began using a variety of plugins by Antares.

First, he used Auto Tune to make sure the vocal was in the right key, as well as give it some more interesting tonal qualities.

Auto Tunes aren’t just for making vocals sound like T-Pain, but can be used in so many awesome and interesting ways.

Following that, he used Antares Throat, which is a physical modeling vocal designer.

Basically, this just gave the pitched down vocal some more grit.

Lastly from Antares, he had a Choir.

This is what made all the difference for him, and the vocal immediately came to life.

This basically created 33 voices of him saying this phrase and panned them around the stereo field.

Just as the title of the plugin, Choir, it immediately sounded like a choir was singing these phrases.


Vocal filtering tips from Morgan Page

Morgan Page recently discussed his approach to handling vocals in a recent interview with Izotope.

As far as EQ, he will typically cut everything below 80 Hz.

Page mentioned he used to be into doing some more serious filtering, but said that there is really something you can lose if you filter out too much of that low end.

To him, there’s something about the presence that you really need in those vocals, but usually nothing below 80 Hz.

Page said that in addition to cutting out the low end of these kinds of vocals, its important to filter out the highs of background vocals.

He will typically filter all his voices and instruments around 8 kHz to really give his vocals a chance to shine.

He mentioned that in a digital world, its so easy to hear highs, so that 8 kHz cutoff region on most instruments is usually his go-to.


Creating awesome vocal chops with Justin Mylo

Now Justin Mylo recently revealed exactly how he approached creating the vocal chops in his hit track “Jumping Jack.”

First off, if you’ve heard this song, its undoubtedly one of the catchiest parts of the song. W

hen getting ready to discuss exactly how he did it, Justin commented that this is one of the things people ask him about the most.

Funny thing is, all the chops were just taken from a loop.

Producer so often feel the need to make every sound they use themselves, but the reality is the pro’s use samples like crazy.

Obviously some more than others, but use the tools you have available to you.

So Justin found a loop he liked, and began chopping it up.

He took little pieces he liked, and rearranged them to align with his melody and chord progression.

Where there was a note change in his MIDI, he would put a vocal chop there.


The processing that brought his vocal chops to life

The first plugin on his processing chain was Soundshifter by Waves, which he used to pitch the whole vocal chop loop up and put it in the right key of the song.

After that, he had quite a bit of reverb and a little delay on the channel to really add some depth to the sound and make it more interesting.

One other thing to note here is that once he had all his chops in place and processed, he flattened the whole thing to audio.

This enabled him to see exactly where each piece of audio started and ended.

Converting to audio is something that is sometimes overlooked by producers, especially when hurrying to finish a project, but can cause a lot of problems for you down the road.

Say for example, you have an interesting ambient impact in the background of your song.

To make it interesting, you use a cool Phaser, some Delay and a lot of Reverb.

The thing is, with these kinds of effects, you can’t always tell where it ends.

There might still be a delay or reverb when you can’t even hear it.

This can really interfere with your mix in subtle ways, especially if you have some low end on there.

You might not be able to hear exactly what’s interfering, but you can hear your sub sounds really muddy in a certain area.

By flattening to audio, you can see exactly where the sound from any source starts and ends, and ensure that the sound isn’t interfering with any other elements.

If, for example, you like to stay in MIDI so that you can alter the patch later on if needed, just freeze your MIDI channel and bounce out the audio.

You can replace the audio in the second channel later if needed.


Processing tips for dreamy vocals with Cazzette 

Production Duo Cazzette provided some explanation of their track “Dancing With Your Ghost” not too long ago, and touched on exactly how they approached the vocals in this song.

One of the first things they did to achieve this result is take out a lot of the low end.

They cut up to around 110 Hz, and also made a small dent in the mids where some frequencies were sticking out just a bit too much.

Following that, they began to apply a little bit of compression using a Waves C1 compressor.

This helped thicken the vocal up a bit.

They actually strongly recommended that people use Waves compressors on vocals.

They said these are their favorite to use on vocals because they just sound so good.

After that, they did a bit more EQ, but even more subtle this time.

A small dip here, a little bit of a boost there, nothing too crazy.

They then did something pretty interesting with a distortion plugin on the channel.

Instead of just setting the dry/wet, they automated it on and off during different sections of the vocal.

This really helped make the vocal more interesting and definitely added some subtle character.

Lastly, they added quite a bit of reverb.

They used a Waves reverb here, and this really made the vocal sound quite a bit bigger.

Lastly, they used a FabFilter Timeless, which is a really great delay plugin.


How Catz ‘N Dogz create ghetto-house vocals

Producer-duo Catz ‘N Dogz recently discussed how they processed the vocals on their remix of Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto”.

One of the first things about this track that is striking is just how simple it is. Only 26 channels.

Although they definitely do produce a simpler genre of music, mostly house music, every element in the song plays a very specific purpose.

They are very deliberate in their sound selection, and strive for having fewer, better elements.

As for the vocal, its simply a loop saying “I want you to get together.”

Not a crazy singing acapella or anything, but they still needed to do a bit of processing to have it sit where they want it in the mix.

The first plugin they used was Waves CLA Vocals.

This is their go-to vocal processing tool anytime they need to work on vocals.

They will actually use presets from this plugin quite a bit when they are in the studio with a vocalist.

They will record the raw vocals, then slap a preset on and can quickly hear what the vocal will likely sound like when fully processed later in the process.

One other trick they showed is a vocal trick that really helps keep their mix clean.

They will add as much reverb and delay to the vocal track as they want, getting it to have all the tonal qualities they’re looking for, and will bounce to audio.

From there, as soon as the vocal phrase is finished, they will chop off the reverb and delay tail.

This enables them to keep those tonal qualities they like, but not having it ringing out and affecting the rest of their mix in any way.

You can listen to the full episode below:

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