Vocals: Recording, Editing and Mixing

Recording Vocals

Here are some tips and suggestions for recording, editing and mixing vocals, from the perspective of a producer/engineer.

Although my focus is rock music, some of the following suggestions should be useful for other types of music but which may require different approaches.

In almost all articles about any type of audio recording, you’ll hear “there are no rules — whatever sounds good, is good.” The same is true for recording vocals; experimentation is important, and as each song and singer require a different technique, trying out ideas is even more important.

I do believe that there is still one rule though: a great performance trumps perfect pitch and timing, and also is far more important than the vocal sound itself. I’d rather hear a vocal that is totally believable and involves me in the meaning and emotion of the song than a vocal edited into technical brilliance with cool effects and perfect sonics, but is stiff, uninvolving and robotic.

The Recording Space

Where and how you set up your recording area for vocals will have as much, if not more, effect than your choice of equipment.  Make sure that the microphone is not in the center of the room; this is where standing waves will be most prominent. The best position is usually about a third along the longest dimension, but roughly equidistant from the side walls.

Use acoustic baffles and sound absorbing materials to create a good space within your recording room. Remember that you want to have sound absorption behind the singer, and also (although not as important if you’re using a cardiod patterned mic) behind the mic. Pick an area of your room that is well away from reflective surfaces.

If you’re recording at home, a good, inexpensive, way to create free-standing acoustic screens is to construct a frame using 1″ PVC piping, usually used for garden sprinklers. This stuff is available from any big box hardware store, and is very cheap and easy to work with. Buy several lengths of piping, some T-joints to make stands, some 90 degree bend pieces and glue. Sketch out your plans, measure accurately and make them sufficiently tall – 7′ is usually a good height, and you really only care about the top 4′. Once you’ve double-checked your measurements, start cutting the pipes. Assemble the entire frame ‘dry’ first to make sure that all your pieces work together, and once you have made sure that your measurements are accurate, start gluing. Now use these frames as hangers for quilts, duvets, blankets or sleeping bags thrown over the top. If you’re more ambitious, use furniture movers’ packing blankets which are also very cheap. You should easily be able to construct several complete screens for less than $25 each.

If you want to get even more ambitious, construct wood frames and Owens Corning 703 semi-rigid panels, covered with an open weave fabric such as burlap. A box of six 48″ x 24″ x 2″ panels can be found for around $70. You can get fancy by making one side of the screen absorbent, and use peg board on the other side to be more reflective.

Microphone Technique and Position

Good singers will move their position relative to the microphone depending on the changing vocals levels during the song. Too much movement, and varying room reflections will change the sound, resulting in a less consistent, and potentially more remote sound. However, even experienced singers forget mic position when they get caught up in the emotion of the performance. Part of the producer/engineer’s job is to make the singer relaxed and comfortable, and able to concentrate on the performance. Nagging singers about anything is usually a bad idea, and can be annoying. Mention microphone position a couple of times, but be supportive and gentle. With some more inexperienced singers, it can help to make a mark on the floor with tape, and suggest to the singer that that’s their mark. This doesn’t help much with singers who ‘lean’ into the mic, but it’s a start.

Arrange the mic position so that the singer sings “up” into the mic capsule. 2 to 4 inches above the mouth should work fine; the idea is that the singer should raise their chin an inch or two. Start off with the singer’s mouth about 5″ – 6″ from the microphone (maybe a little closer with a dynamic mic). Every singer will be different, so a few passes checking out the level changes between loud and soft passages in the song will be needed. Remember that with most cardioid mics, the closer the singer is to the mic, more bass will be accentuated because of the proximity effect.

Always use a good pop shield between the singer and the microphone to prevent ‘b’ and p’ plosives. Although DIY stocking constructions can work ok, a decent pop shield is not expensive and worth having. Metal mesh shields are best, with fabric mesh a close second. Don’t use foam wind covers: they’re ineffective for pop suppression and attenuate higher frequencies. Position the shield so that it’s about 3″-4″ from the mic — this also should be changed if the singer tends to get too close to the mic for quieter passages — use the position of the shield to make the singer keep his/her distance from the mic.

With some voices and microphones, sibilance can be a problem. Sibilance is the bright ‘hissing’ noise made by consonants such as “s,” “t” “c” and “f.” To reduce sibilance with directional mics is to rotate it off-axis by a few degrees. This position reduces the high-frequency sensitivity of most mics a touch, and can help reduce problem sibilance. Around 15 degrees is enough. An off-axis placement also has the advantage of reducing popping. It is always better to spend time getting the vocals sounding good, with minimal pops and sibilance rather than try editing or de-essers later.

If you’re recording a singer with a naturally ‘boxy’ sound, or perhaps a singer with an obviously nasal tone, an omni or figure-8 patterned mic can help, although you may need to position the singer a little closer to the mic so that the direct sound of the voice is more prominent than the room effect.

For singers with wildly fluctuating levels, try using two mics, one more sensitive than other. Space them a few inches apart, angled in slightly, and have the vocalist sing into the space between the mics. Or use a similar mic (if available) and switch in the -10 or -20 dB pad on one of them. Record on separate tracks, and switch them at the editing/mixing stage later if needed.

Most mics and preamps have a bass roll-off filter, often at a set turnover frequency between 80 – 150 Hz. Use the most appropriate setting for the vocal, but use it.

A common question is “Why do I see vocal mics positioned upside down?” Actually, there are two reasons: the first dates back 60+ years: one of the most used and famous microphones for vocals (along with the AKG C12) is the Neumann U47 tube mic, introduced just after WWII. This mic had the M7 PVC capsule, which had a tendency to dry out over time, and this deterioration was accelerated by heat. So it made sense to hang U47s upside down, as heat rises, so eliminating cooking the capsule over time. Another reason is that it’s easier to get singers to sing ‘up’ a little; singers are less likely to mess with a vocal mic height when it’s suspended on a boom upside down than a mic on a stand right in front of them.

Once the mics were mounted upside down, another advantage became obvious; there was a benefit for the singer by getting the mic, stand, boom and cables out of the way, offering the singer a better view of a music stand for holding lyrics, hanging headphones and storing other items.

Scheduling

There used to be a tradition of leaving vocals to the end of recording projects, after most overdubs and extra sweetening had been completed. Not a great idea: singers can’t be expected to sit around for days or weeks, and then pump out all their vocals in two or three days.

The number of hours you can expect to record vocals is limited, especially with heavier rock and metal. So it makes sense to scheduled vocal recording over as many days as possible, breaking up sessions into styles so that more melodic, less stressful, vocals are recorded first which serve as a warm up to attempt more aggressive parts. Depending on the length of your sessions, include a few days off too, particularly after a sessions where the singer’s voice has been really stressed.

Some singers prefer to attempt capturing a continuous performance in longer takes, punching in corrective phrases or parts. If you’re recording rock vocals with dynamics ranging from a whisper to a roar, try the dual microphone suggestion I mentioned above.

Microphone Choice

Experienced singers who have recorded often may know which microphones have worked well for them in the past. Ask, if you know that the singer has this depth of experience.

If your singer doesn’t have a great deal of experience, then start by choosing a microphone with an inverse character to the singer’s natural sound.

Every voice is different, and therefore there is no ‘perfect’ vocal microphone. Most advice on recording vocals starts by telling you to use a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone. Although often true, ‘often’ isn’t the same as ‘always.’ If you have a singer (particularly female singers) with a thin, high, hard vocal sound, better results can be achieved using a dynamic microphone, or even a ribbon. An Electrovoice RE20 can be a great vocal mic, as can the Shure SM7B, and the lowly SM58 can sound great, paired with a good preamp. Cheap LDC microphones often have a noticeable harshness at higher frequencies and therefore are exactly the wrong choice for this type of singer. The market is crowded with sub $1,000 LDC microphones, many of which have this unnatural harshness, although I tried an inexpensive Audix CX212 recently that was rather good. Among the many other reasonably priced, but premium, LDC microphone brands, Lauten Audio and Peluso are worth checking out.

Another variable is the material itself: having found the perfect mic for the first song, perhaps a rock song with wide dynamics and a belted-out chorus, don’t assume that this should be the mic used throughout all vocal sessions. An appropriate choice for an intimate ballad may require a different microphone. Usually, two different mics will cover the range of vocal delivery. Some mics don’t work as well with high vocal levels, as the timbre of vocal character changes with delivery.

Buying Microphones

If you’re primarily recording just one singer, don’t base your purchasing decision on reviews. Try out different microphones, and pick one that best suits your singer. Microphones are tricky to buy — online stores often won’t accept microphone returns unless they have a defect. Visit a good pro audio dealer with a demo room and try out several mics. Or book an hour or two at a local studio with a decent mic cabinet, and try out their options, but use the same preamp with each test, so that you’re comparing apples to apples.

If you’re planning to record different, unknown singers, start with at least a good dynamic mic, and a large diaphragm condenser.

If you have a limited budget, spend money on a preamp first. A good preamp can make a basic mic sound good, but a crappy preamp can make a great mic sound far less impressive. You can add to your mic collection as your budget expands, but it makes no sense to replace poor quality preamps.

Headphone Mix

The headphone mix that the singer hears is critical to achieve a great performance. A touch of reverb is often helpful as it creates a sense of space around the vocal, but ask the singer what they prefer.

The balance between the backing track and the vocal can influence the performance:

  • If the vocal is too loud in the headphones = flat notes — lower energy.
  • If the vocal is too soft in the headphones = sharp notes and a strained performance

If a singer is mostly flat, turn up the backing track in their phones a little without telling them. If the singer is mostly sharp, then turn the backing track down. This will help correct consistent, but small, pitch problems. If the singer is inconsistent; sometimes sharp, sometimes flat, then you have to do more work in helping the singer create the right performance. Remember though, the performance is the most important element: slight pitch issues are less important than a convincing, emotionally believable performance.

Take the time to set up your monitor mix so that you can easily adjust the mix so that you can immediately offer the singer changes to help; drums a bit louder to help timing issues, more keys or guitars to help with pitch, less bass or lead licks to help with focus , etc. Keep the headphone mix as simple as possible, and usually it’s a good idea to pull out most of the sweetening and any parts which could be distracting, such as percussion with off rhythms.

Headphone choice is another consideration, and if your singer prefers ‘one ear off’ that will lead you to a different mix. Closed back headphones are needed.

Recording Chain

Try to capture the character and performance of the vocal going to the computer (or tape) and forget about trying to create it in the mix. Editing and mixing vocal tracks should be the final touches to enhance an already good vocal track.

Audio interfaces contain preamps. Most of them are just OK, but are usually bland and can easily be bettered by a good, separate preamp.

For rock songs, I always use hardware compressors as part of recording chain because this type of material often needs more dynamic control before the signal gets to the analog-to-digital converters. For different types of music, you may decide that a compressor isn’t needed. Unlike the days when we recorded to tape and wanted to get the best signal-to-noise ratio, and therefore wanted to record hefty levels to tape, modern digital recording has such a huge dynamic range when recording 24-bit that this isn’t strictly necessary. However, I still choose to use hardware compression, but now not as much for dynamic control but rather because I like the coloration of the sound that different compressors impart. A compressed vocal in the headphones also benefits the singer; they feel less need to compensate dynamically.

Aim for 5-6 dB of gain reduction on the signal peaks, but don’t overdo compression during recording—you can’t remove it later. Start with a ‘not too fast’ attack time, so the transients pass relatively unscathed, with medium release time. You’ll need to experiment with your particular recording chain, singer and style of song.

One disadvantage of project studio recording is that there is less attention paid to the recording levels before the converters. I like riding a vocal fader during the recording, but to do this you’ll need some type of outboard mixer. It then becomes simple to push/pull the vocal levels during the recording which results in a smoother recording, and less work to do at the editing/mixer stage. There are many small mixers available at reasonable cost, some of which have the audio interface and converters built-in, so that they connect to your DAW machine via FireWire or USB. If you’re recording just with a DAW, be sure to set up your cue (foldback) monitoring sends so that they are sent pre-fade, so your adjustments to levels don’t alter the headphone mix.

Encouragement and Criticism

The psychology of how to get the best performance out of a singer is much more important than microphone choice, preamps, compression or anything else to do with the technical aspects of recording. It’s all about getting a singer to relax, and feel confident enough to give their very best performance, without feeling self-conscious. I have been a guest on many sessions where I cringed—not because of the recorded sound, but how thoughtless comments destroyed the mood of the session, and made the singer uncomfortable and doubt their performance. I have actually seen an engineer jump on to the talkback button and bark “flat, do it again” at the first delivery of an iffy note. Moments later on another pass, this same idiot impatiently interrupted again by saying “wrong again!” If it were my session, I would have fired the moron.

Be mindful that the singer is trying their hardest. Encouragement with gentle criticism pays dividends. Try to avoid comments where you’re making comments containing “don’t.” Use positive reinforcement. Take frequent short breaks, offering the singer a chance to relax and listen back to their progress. Trying to record take after take can be confusing; it’s hard for a singer to hear which parts of their performance need adjustment, so breaks, when a singer can review the takes so far, can help enormously.

Most singers prefer a relaxed environment, and don’t want to feel that they are in a fishbowl. Turn down the lights, and get people out of the control room. Singers don’t want the distraction of seeing band members appearing to be cracking jokes, having conversations, mixing cocktails or anything else unrelated to the vocal performance. Hearing a babble of background conversation each time the talkback button is pressed is another distraction.

Record everything. There’s no such thing as a ‘practice’ pass, particularly with DAW recording (multiple vocal tracking to tape can get more challenging). Often the best performance is achieved in early takes so make sure you’ve recorded them. Set up your DAW so each pass is automatically recorded to a new track.

Make Notes

Make notes of settings used in your hardware recording chain. Microphones settings such as LF cut and pad settings, preamp settings, compressor settings , etc. All will be very useful if you decide at a later stage to record or replace additional vocal parts. Also make these notes for any hardware you use at the mixing stage.

Editing and Mixing Vocals

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about a very simple scenario: assume that your goal is to have two separate tracks of vocals: one for the verses, and one for the choruses. The verses are fairly constrained, but the choruses involve a much more aggressive vocal performance, where the singer’s voice character (timbre) changes and the levels and vocal sound change considerably.

Comping Vocals

Once the recording stage is completed, you’ll probably have multiple audio tracks of your vocals. You now will want to comp (to compile or to create a composite vocal track) vocal takes into the best comp’d track(s). You may want to keep sections of the vocals on separate tracks so that you can more easily apply processing and effects later, reducing the amount of automation and dynamic control needed, and corrective processes such as EQ which may not be needed on the entire completed vocal track. Remember that the comp should result in seamless vocal parts which do not sound disjointed. Often the individual phrases may not sound quite right when soloed, as you are auditioning out of context. Just remember to focus more on the continuity of the performance and not on all the details at this stage — we’ll tackle the fine detail later.

Every DAW will have features for comping tracks, and they all work slightly differently but the result is the same; a new track is created, and parts from your vocal takes are placed on this new track, comping the best parts of all your takes. The unused parts are removed from the arrangement, but filed away in case they are needed later. See the section below though, as some out takes can be very useful for simulating double tracked vocals.

Destructive Editing

Once you have your comp’d vocal tracks, you may have residual problems to deal with. There may be noises, pops, mouth noises, breath sounds and unwanted level fluctuation between phrases.

There are two schools of thought here; some people always use automation for everything; others (like me) prefer to rely less on automation, but rather permanently editing the audio file. For me, it’s easier to scoot through a file, selecting parts in a wave form editor, and eliminating noises, adding silence between phrases, reducing some breath sounds, interpolating pops and other minor fixes, and changing gain of entire phrases, than to make small adjustments manually by graphically changing automation. To me, it’s just good housekeeping to have a smooth vocal track where I can use any additional compression mostly for sonic reasons rather than depending on automation and compression for too broad dynamic control.

Some dislike destructive editing as you really can’t change your mind later (other than reverting to a backed up original file) but I actually like this supposed restriction; I like making decisions as early in the recoding process as possible, only leaving minor instrumental parts open to tailor later, probably because I came from the old school analogue recording days using tape, when we had to make such choices as there was much less flexibility than in the present day digital domain, and when bouncing tracks down to create a comp’d track on a tape machine was commonplace, in order to free up more tracks for record additional parts. No going back in those days!

De-Essers

De-essing isn’t much of a concern for me, as I believe that recording the vocal using the right microphone, position and hardware chain prevents the problem before it becomes an issue. However, if you record many different singers, or mix material where you had no control during the recording process, then think about investing in a used dbx 902 – the best de-esser made, hardware or software. They can be found quite inexpensively. You’ll need a dbx 900 series rack to house the module, but they are not expensive, and gives you somewhere to house additional 900 series units such as the excellent 903 compressor (essentially a dbx 160 in a 900 module) ; also quite cheap and a great workhorse as a single channel compressor/limiter.

EQ

Hopefully, you have already record your vocals with a LF cut setting on the microphone set at 75 or 80 kHz, or an equivalent setting on your preamp. But your work on the low end of the spectrum probably isn’t done. Listen to your vocal track in context, and see how much you can roll off at the low end. Don’t do this with the track soloed: you’ll think that the vocal is sounding too thin. But in with the mix, you’ll be surprised how much low end you can remove. This will help make the vocal sit right in the mix, and is one step in cleaning up the low end, a common problem in mixes that have too little low end definition. This concept also applies to many other instruments — get rid of frequencies that aren’t the focal point of that instrument’s sound and stop too many instruments competing in the same frequency band.

Taking this idea one step further, try to cut frequencies rather than boosting them. Boominess is most apparent around 200-250 Hz. Instead of boosting mid range frequencies to attempt to make the vocal more present, try notching EQ around 230 Hz with a higher Q setting (every voice will be different) and then boost the vocal level.

One of the most common problems with mixing vocals is to get them to sit well in the mix with the other instrumentation. A common mistake is just to make the vocal louder where it clashes with other instruments.

 

Many vocals have their most obvious frequencies in the range from about 750 Hz to 2.8 kHz. Unfortunately, guitars are in the same range and turning up the vocal will just make the vocals sit on top of the guitars, not mixed in with guitars. A better approach is to EQ the guitar so that the guitar sound is scooped out where it’s clashing with the vocals, using as narrow a ‘notch’ as possible, the result being that the vocals now have their own space alongside the guitars but only in the competing range.

Another technique to try is compressing the guitars more when the vocal is present, using side-chain compression to affect the guitars. In my example above, use a send from the vocal track, heavily EQ’s, so that the vocal being sent to the compressors side chain has a very limited frequency range, centered on the vocal’s fundamental frequency. It won’t sound good, but that doesn’t matter as you’re not hearing this vocal; its sole purpose is to control the compression of the guitars only for that frequency range.

If you’re looking for a new tool for mixing, dynamic EQ is a very useful plug-in, combining an EQ and compressor with features enabling you to apply EQ only when the signal within a certain frequency range exceeds a certain loudness, as set by your threshold and filter. A good example of this is the Brainworx dynEQ.

Compression

A compressor isn’t intelligent, so it doesn’t know when vocal dynamics are being changed for an intentional effect or because the singer wasn’t adequately controlling the dynamics of their performance, or even didn’t care and got caught up in the emotional delivery of their take. Often you want vocal dynamics. Your job is to ride the vocal levels (or automate) to preserve the dynamics you want, while smoothing out those which you don’t.

A compressor can make a vocal ride properly within a dense mix and it is an indispensable tool to control peaks and bring average levels up. Compressors work much faster than you can, but for slow averaging of vocal dynamics, you will do a better, and smarter, job.

Don’t ask your compressor to work too hard.

The more you do, the more obvious the artifacts will be, and depending on your compressor settings, you will make the compression noticeable, which is often not desirable. If, after you have tried the recording and editing tips described above, you still find that your vocal levels are not adequately controlled, try routing the output of your vocal track to a aux, and ride the vocal level to the aux, using automation to capture your moves. Now add final compression and other effects you want to the aux, not to the original vocal track.

Serial compression:

I use this technique all the time, and I think it’s the most commonly overlooked technique regarding compression. Using two compressors can be very helpful, as you’re making the two compressors to perform different tasks. Try using a fast FET-type compressor (such as an 1176 or software emulation) set to a fast attack, with the threshold (or input control in the case of an 1176) set so that only the peak signals are being compressed leaving the body of the vocal untouched. Aim for a gain reduction that sounds natural but firmly controls the peaks.

Now follow this with opto type compressor (an LA-2 or LA-3 type) with a slower attack and release, but this time set the threshold lower with more moderate ratio. This will level the vocal track nicely, and the two compressors together will give you a much smoother result.

Parallel Compression:

Often used on other instruments, particularly drums and guitars, a modified version of parallel compression can work great on vocals. Either duplicate those vocal parts you want to use this effect on, or send from the original vocal track to an aux channel. On the aux channel (or separate vocal FX track), add a great deal of EQ to boost presence and air, roll off the low end, and add obscene amount of compression. You now have two vocal tracks, one natural and one with heavy EQ and compression. Now set the natural vocal channel to it’s appropriate mix level and bring up the FX vocal so it just peaks out under the unaffected vocal to add presence and excitement. Use the natural vocal channel for the send to reverb you might want. Set right, the vocal won’t get lost in the mix, and although the unaffected vocal sounds natural there will be a presence and edge that can be a real benefit to your vocal mix.

See here for more details on compression and compressor types.

Vocal Tracking, ADT, Doubling, Thickening etc.

ADT (Artificial Double Tracking): Since the dawn of time (well, since The Beatles) double-tracking vocals is one of the most useful and commonly used effects. Double-tracked vocals are stacking the same vocal twice (sometimes more) to thicken the vocal sound. This can also work very well on backing vocals.

The best results will be obtained by doing it for real, getting the singer(s) to duplicate their part on another track. However, it’s a laborious process. Getting the two vocals to be tight enough can be quite difficult, particularly if the original is more of a creative interpretation than a technically consistent performance. Where words start or end on hard consonant sounds, such “T” or “C,” the doubling result can sound sloppy. Some singers are really good at it, others are not. Either way, it can be a time-consuming and demanding process.

You’d think that it would be easy to recreate the ADT effect easily using modern technology. Just adding a digital delay to the vocal at the same level as the original part, with a delay time of 40-100 ms and no feedback should do it, right? Not really.

When ADT was first created at Abbey Road, the technique involved two tape machines; one playing back the original vocal to another tape machine, which then recorded and played back the delayed vocal in to another channel on the mixing console, the delay time being changed by use of vari-speed control on the second tape machine. Because tape was being used, with two machines, variations were being introduced several times along the process. Tape machines have wow, flutter and scrape flutter, each of which introduces slight changes to the delayed vocal. Add to this the addition of harmonic distortion introduced by the delayed vocal being passed through three stages of signal electronics, and the characteristics of tape itself, all of which introduces undefinable ‘analog warmth’ and the end result is just not the same as slapping on a digital delay.

However, its possible to get close enough for all but the most critical ears. There are various plug-ins which claim to simulate this quite well, but they are mostly expensive. I’ve had some success by using VacuumSound’s ADT plug-in coupled with a distortion/warmth unit like a Culture Vulture. Alternative plug-ins such as PSP’s Vintage Warmer can help too. Additional, a fast compressor taming the peaks to soften hard consonants, or even an envelope shaper, can make the tracked vocal sit better with the original. Melodyne’s offset by random pitch and time is another additional process worth trying.

Dual Shifter:

Another favorite. Older Eventide hardware like the h3000 had a dual shifter setting. This can be recreated by standard plug-ins. First, copy your vocal track twice. On copy 1, insert a compressor (opto type) with a low ratio and the threshold set so that the compressor is working on all but the quietest parts. Follow this with a pitch shifter, pitching the vocal down by 10 – 15 cents. Now add a digital delay, initially set to something like 10 – 50 ms. On copy 2, insert a fast FET or VCA type compressor with a fast attack, higher ratio, with the threshold set so that it’s only working on the peaks. Add a pitch shifter again, this time pitching up 10 – 15 cents. Once again, add a digital delay, but this time set to a different delay than copy 1. Route the outputs of these two copies to a submix, panned L – R, where you can apply further compression if needed, together with EQ further removing low-end mud, and perhaps adding a little presence. Tweak these suggested ‘starting point’ settings to taste.

Whisper track:

Here’s a tip for an effect which may be useful on slow, more intimate verses, especially ballads. Ask your singer to whisper, almost talking, along with the vocal track, often in a lower register, compress it, and bring this up so it’s barely audible under the lead vocal.

Reamping:

Usually used for guitars and keyboard tracks, this can be very useful for really hard edged, tough vocals in hard rock or metal mixes. It can add lots of distortion and a great live sound to a vocal. Send your vocal track out to a recording room via a reamp box, or at a pinch, a passive DI box in reverse. Use this send as an input to a guitar amp, and close mic it. Also, add a room mic and compress it. Record these two new tracks, and mix them to taste under your lead vocal. As there’s really nothing useful coming out of a guitar amp above about 4.5 kHz, you’ll find that mixed right, it can add a lot of edge and aggression into your vocals.

Reverb

Washy vocal reverb has become less fashionable in recent years, compared to pop/rock music production of the classics from the 70’s and 80’s. But there are many exceptions. The current trend is to use reverb to create a little space around the vocal, but not much that it’s an obviously applied reverb effect.

Unlike recording orchestral music or recordings of ensembles in folk, jazz or MOR, I find that the use of convolution reverbs are less useful in pop/rock/metal genres. Convolution reverbs use a ‘fingerprint’ of an actual space and mix it (or convolve) your vocal with that space, creating the impression that your singer’s vocal was recorded in that space.

The downside of using convolution reverbs is that the IRs (the Impulse Response files used to convolve with the vocal) are less flexible and offer fewer options to create a suitable reverb sound. So I often prefer to use digital reverb units which use algorithms to create synthetic effects. These are purely mathematical calculations where every part of the reverb effect is freely adjustable and you can tailor exactly the vocal reverb you want. Lexicon is the best known and most used manufacturer of all digital algorithm-based reverbs since the 70’s.

For a lead vocal, I’d suggest starting with a short reverb time (well under 2 secs), and a pre-delay around 40 – 60 ms and boost the early refections part of the parameters depending on the reverb device you’re using. It’s not possible to give hard-and-fast recommendations; you’ll need to experiment. I’ve always been a lover of the EMT 140 fbST plate for vocals (the real one!) but some digital reverbs (the original 224XL Rich Plate that carried through the Lexicon PCM series) are all very good.

In software emulations, the UAD Plate 140 is good, and the recently introduced Lexicon Native plug-ins are superb. Unlike many software emulations of hardware, reverb plug-ins work extremely well, as in reality the hardware digital reverbs are really just giant calculators, with little or no significant analogue component coloration, so their algorithms can be calculated just as well with modern computers, although the CPU requirements can be considerable; a good reason to have one or more hardware units if your budget permits.

The usual method of using reverb is to insert your reverb on an aux (containing either routing to external hardware or your reverb plug-in) and send to it from your vocal(s) tracks. Increase your return levels until you can just hear the effect, and then back off a touch. As mentioned earlier, this is merely a starting point; adjust the pre-delay, and reverb time to fit your mix, and don’t worry too much about the finer digital delay parameters. You will probably need to EQ the send to your reverb, and often the return, by removing anything under at least 100 Hz and treat other areas of your reverb to removing any annoying resonances and notch out any unwanted frequency bands.

Try altering the reverb time between the different sections of your song. In rock music, start by making it shorter for verses and longer for the choruses. Generally you’ll have verses and chorus parts on different tracks, so you can use multiple reverb unit instances if you’re using plug-ins, as reverb plug-ins in particular are challenging to automate when altering certain parameters such as reverb times. If you’re using hardware, but only one unit, you’ll have to record the effect returns for parts using differing hardware settings.

Background Vocals

There are many techniques for recording, editing and mixing background vocals (B.Vox).

Start by applying the same editing and mixing techniques as suggested earlier for lead vocals. Your first task is to clean up the individual vocal parts. Most often, you’re looking to create a blended, smooth sound for these vocals.

Here’s an approach I like using:

Panning:

Keep your B.Vox out of the way of your lead vocal, which is almost always panned dead center. Start by panning them at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. I prefer to leave the extreme hard left, hard right positions for any effects returns. Having said that, I have found occasionally that panning the backing vocals hard left-right can work, returning effects to your mix with a narrower stereo spread.

Low End EQ:

Just as we removed low end from the lead vocals, you should do the same here. But this time, while listening to your B.Vox in context, move your low cut turnover frequency up until your B.Vox start to noticeably thin out. Then back off a touch. Soloed, these vocals will sound way too thin, but will work fine in the mix. It’s important to make sure your B.Vox don’t muddy-up low end guitar and keyboard parts, as well as clouding the space used by your bass parts.

Compression:

By now you should have applied broad level control manually to your B.Vox parts. Next step is to beat them unmercifully into a blend, where individual transients and untamed peaks are ruthlessly stamped on. Perhaps this is one area of mixing where you can forget subtlety; squash those vocal peaks! Fast attack, high ratio is the order of the day, with the threshold set so that peaks are heavily controlled.

Submix:

Route the outputs of all your B.Vox tracks to a stereo bus, maintaining pan position, and with the correct mix of your B.Vox parts. This single fader aux will control your overall B.Vox level. Leave it alone for now. You’ll probably need to make multiple passes throughout your mix, automating the balance between the various B.Vox parts. Usually, I do this by grabbing automated faders in ‘touch’ mode and will go in to the individual tracks afterwards, smoothing out automation points and correcting any mistakes.

Once you have all your individual levels set, the next step is to apply some ‘glue’ to further smooth out and blend your B.Vox. Start by inserting a stereo bus compressor (hardware or software) on your aux, and set it (as a starting point) with a low ratio (2:1 or less as a start), not too fast attack, low-ish threshold, medium release and aim for gain reduction in the 3-4 dB range, adjusting the threshold until this is achieved. Continue playing through the song, adjusting the release value until it’s smooth and seamless.

Almost there!

Now you want to apply some EQ, if necessary, to create a space for the lead vocal if the B.Vox parts occur at the same time as the lead vocal. If they only occur occasionally, apply the side-chain compression or dynamic EQ techniques as described earlier, but using the lead vocal as the control signal. If the B.Vox overlap the lead vocals often, then apply the EQ scooping technique described above so that the B.Vox EQ is notched in the lead vocal’s range — it won’t take much to make quite a difference. In any event, you should use this additional processing only if you have trouble riding the B.Vox levels in the mix.

Depending on your set up, you can send from the B.Vox aux to another aux for reverb and other effects. On some B.Vox, particularly on slower, more intimate material, a chorus effect can work well on B.Vox mixed in to taste, as well as before the reverb send. I particularly like Fluid, from Audio Damage, although there are many on the market, and if you have access to Lexicon or Eventide hardware, they’re unbeatable. ADT and dual shifter effects (see above) can also work well on B.Vox, as well as many effects normally used for lead vocals. Again, experiment after you’ve cleaned up your B.Vox basic tracks.

Vocal Balance

Vocals not sitting well in the mix is one of the commonest questions around the audio recording forums. Hopefully, some of the above suggestions will help, but as a final note, it’s important to listen to your mix, as it evolves, on a variety of playback systems. Often, too loud or too quiet vocals will be easier to judge at very low playback levels, as well as playing your mixes back on small crappy speakers, simulating the environment in which your song is most likely to be played. Also try playing back your mix and stand outside the mix room, and play back your mix on other devices, including your car and all the iGadgets. Listen to commercial mixes of the same genre and see how your vocal balance and sound stand up.

Finally, when you commit to your mix, take the time to create additional, and clearly noted, alternative mixes with the lead vocal up a little on one, and down a little on another. “A Little” depends on your particular song, but 1 or 2 dB should be plenty. When you get to the mastering stage, the additional, overall, mastering processing needed may affect your vocal balance and it can be a lifesaver to have alternative mixes available, identical other than the vocal level. Creating separations for mastering can be even more useful.

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4 Responses to “Vocals: Recording, Editing and Mixing”

  1. This post brings knowledge about vocal both for beginners and pro with in-depth knowledge. Earlier i have to fight for the space in the mix specially vocals. But now its pretty clear. Thanks

  2. The whisper technique is totally new to me as i’m a beginner i’ll definitely try, thanks a lot.

  3. Thanks for the help this is coming from Reggae/Dancehall Producer Christopher-G of Christopher-G Records also Reggae artist Bushman’s Engineer

  4. Valuable info. Fortunate me I found your web site unintentionally,
    and I’m shocked why this twist of fate didn’t happened in advance!
    I bookmarked it.

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