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How I do vocals

PaulCanuck

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After @Moso 's kind words on Donna and my song "Coyote" I simply have to respond to his request to talk about how the vocals and bridge were done. I don't pretend to be an expert in production (there are many with more knowledge than I on the Muse) but maybe others will get some ideas from my process and add them to their own.

 

First off you need to make a track with your background music, or at least enough of it to sing along to.
The arrangement should be decided before you track vox IMO.
I find you need instruments in the backing track that are close in frequency to your vocals - such as a piano or guitar. The surest way to sing out of tune is to sing to a bass track :) 

 

Use a decent mic that suits your voice.
I use an old Shure 545 dynamic cartridge mic. My vocal is naturally "tinny" and needs some bottom end which this mic provides.

 

Use a screen pop filter
Gets rid of explosives caused by puffs of air.
I find a screen filter works better than a "foam" one which I find changes the EQ of the mic.

 

Distance from mic
I sing about 4-6 in from the pop screen which is about 2 in from the mic.

 

Mic pre-amp
Use a mic preamp so that the input level is high enough that it doesn't clip, but has a high s/n (signal to noise) ratio so you don't get any hiss. Rather than spend $300, I use the mic preamp in my stereo audio system which is pretty clean.

 

Don't over-sing!
This is a mistake I kept making in the past - I'm trying to rid myself of it.
I worried about every phrase, pronouncing every word, making each note pitch-perfect.
Don't think about "impressing" anyone with your singing - serve the song - that's the only one you need to impress.

 

Do multiple takes
You can then pick and choose best tuning/phrasing etc. from each track.
Copy/paste together to get a final raw track.

I use Audacity for recording and editing mainly because I'm familiar with it.
Effects/plug-ins are done in my DAW - either Acid Pro or Reaper currently.

 

Amplify/reduce words/phrases that seem too low or too high in the mix
This is a pre-compressor process for the really low/high stuff.
I also amplify soft consonants like an "s" or "f" at the ending of words as these are sometimes lost at the compression stage.
Silence regions where there are no vocals.

 

Apply compression on the raw track. I use Isotope's 3-band vocal compression plug-in.
This levels out the vocal so everything is heard clearly.

 

Create a new track for wet only reverb and create it by applying a decent reverb plug-in to the compressed track. I like to bring reverb up or down depending on parts of the song. For parts where there is less instrumentation, the vox need less reverb and vise versa. Edit the reverb track to change these levels where needed.

 

I don't typically double-track a lead vocal. I have done this in the past, but it makes the vox seem unnatural to me. I sometimes sing a track an octave down or up, or both to strengthen the lead vox if I feel it needs it.

 

Harmony Vocals
The main thing I try to remember with harmonies is: Don't compete with the lead vox!
Sing these a bit further from mic
sing harmonies like a background singer would - don't compete!
EQ away from lead vox - sometimes I pull down low/mid freqs
compress 1st harm only - this keeps the level below lead vox consistent
space harms across stereo field - don't center them!
lower in mix than lead vox
avoid too many harmonies - you'll sound like a barbershop quartet!
use them to build the song - typically leave them out in the early stages.
don't put harms on every lead line - stay out of the barbershop!
give them more reverb than lead vox - makes them less distinct - less competitive
line up timing with lead vox

 

Greek chorus
This is what I call any oooo's/aaahhh's or falsetto bg vox
mix them extreme left/right in the stereo field
give them the most reverb of all vox - almost like the audience is singing them
lower level in mix than harm

 

I usually end up with six mixed-down stereo vocal tracks:
- compressed lead vox
- lead vox reverb (based on compressed lead vox)
- harm bus (all harms that are not greek chorus)
- harm bus reverb
- greek chorus
- greek chorus reverb

Then I mix the song down to a stereo unmastered track.


Remember: "Lead vocal rules!" "He is King for all to serve!" - every other vocal and instrument is there to support him.

And of course, mastering the track will help the sound of your vocals - I use Isotope again for this. Their "Country" preset was used on Coyote.

 

I'll add another entry for the bridge development.

 

Hope I haven't bored you!

cheers

Paul

 

 

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I agree with everything Paul has said. It is always interesting to hear about other's processes.

 

I have a few comments, and a couple of different ways of doing things .

 

With vocals and other acoustically recorded tracks such as acoustic guitar, unless you have a treated room at home it is nearly impossible to get a professional sound.

The room reflections just give too many EQ issues. So I say do your practice vocals at home then pack up your lap top interface mic stand and pop shield and go to a studio and dry hire a sound booth, track the vocals there.

 

In the production process I only do one process in solo mode all other processing I do in context with the whole track. The solo button is the enemy of a good vocal mix. You can not get the vocal to sit in the track forwards backwards left right or up and down if your processing in solo mode. How would you know? What might sound great in solo, in context be too far back.

 

In solo mode I will do the following.

Subtractive EQ:  Create a boost EQ of say 15 to 18 db with a narrow Q, say eight. I will then looking at the frequency analysis, sweep up and down the range listening for any unpleasant noises. If I find one I will expand the Q until I hear some good stuff coming back in. I will then back it of slightly narrow it. Then zero the db, switch off solo mode, and in context with the track pull down that frequency until I feel it sounds right. I will then in context AB the EQ to see if I have improved the sound. I will check for any low end noise that may be there, and roll it off if necessary. There may be more that one frequency that needs subtractive EQ. 

 

Track prep: I will remove any paper rustle or incidental noise from the track. Label everything, colour code everything. Boring but it helps with speed, speed is everything. I always colour the same track types the sane colour for every mix I do so I can find things instantly.

 

The following processes are all in context that is the solo button is not used, I always have the track playing. 

I will decide if the lead vocal can be on one track. And if it can not I split it. An example of this could be, if in the verse the singer is whispering and screaming in the chorus you have no chance of EQ-ing or compressing the track with the same settings. So in that case I will have a Lead Vox verse track and a chorus track. 

 

Gain staging: I will insert a gain plug in, and adjust the gain to that the vocal is peaking most of the time at around -14db. 

I will then clip gain the odd parts of the vocal that are exceeding this or way below this. This is not precise amplitude editing, it is just getting rid of the major variations.

 

I will then insert my vocal correction plug in ahead of the gain plug in as the first in the chain. print the vocal take to the plug in. Check that the plug in analysis of the take is correct and fix any issues. I will then seperate the consonants from the words. Then with the whole track playing I will hand tune, and time the vocal track and do finer amplitude adjustments. 

 

Compression:

Then I will add first  compression to even out the amplitude further from the gain staging, and hand amplitude adjustments I have done. I am only doing 2 db here. Genre dependant.

Then I will add second compression,  here I am setting the attack and decay times so I can hear the lyric clearly in the mix, hear all the low level detail I feel the song needs. This is genre dependant. I will then add colour to the vocal compression if I think it needs it. Note I switch briefly to solo mode when I am compressing to do one thing, and one thing only. Set the out put volume to the same as the input volume. Louder always sounds better, so to tell if your compression has actually improved the vocal it needs to be the same volume in by pass as it is when the compressor is active. I go back to context and A B the compressor in and out and ask myself, have I made it sound clearer more distinct. If I have then all well and good and I can press on. 

 

I will then with a note pad listen to the whole song listening for problems and jotting them down all in one listen. This is important because to retain my objectivity I need to listen to the track as little as possible. Otherwise if you listen long enough, loud enough bad stuff starts to sound good. 

 

At this stage I may have to go back to the vocal editor plug in and make finer adjustments, say the compression has created the odd plosive issue and I need to physically turn that consonant down or, I can't get a particular word to pop while still keeping the compression at a seamless level and I need to physically turn it up in volume.

 

Now I need to refer to my reference track. Before I do, because this has already been mixed and mastered, I have to level the playing field, just like with the compression volume issue. I will insert a spectrum analyser on the mix bus, and the match EQ my whole track to that, so that the overall track has a similar frequency profile. I will add a limiter to the mix bus to simulate the mastering sound, and make sure that the reference track and my track are the same volume. 

 

I will AB the tracks insert an EQ on the vocal and do additive EQ in context which my whole track and the reference track. This is usually a high shelf boost up above where harshness happens.

I will go back to the second compressor and fine tune the settings so the distance the vocal is back in the mix is the same as the reference I am aiming for.

 

I will then D ess. I do not use a D-esser I go back into the first plug in in my chain the vocal correction plug in and turn down any s or consonant plosive that I had separated in the prep stage to remove any issues.

 

I will now set up two to four Aux tracks depending on genre.

Reverb

Delay

Chorus

Effects for example  throw delay or filtering

 

I will create a production chain for each of those Aux tracks which will include

Gain to make sure the input signal to the effect is optimal for the plug in.

The plug in, delay reverb or whatever

EQ 

perhaps compression

I may on the delay Aux add reverb to the delay for example as well.

I will set these effects channels to what is suitable for the sound I'm after.

For example the length of the reverb tail so that it is in time with the vocal delivery, ie the tail fades before the next word. I will set the early reflections, the pre delay on the reverb to get the vocal to sit sweetly in the mix with out muddying it up too much. I am doing this with the send cranked up so there will be a bit of mud and the vocal will be too far back. The point is I am removing as much unwanted frequencies in the verb and pulling the vocal as far forward as I can with the verb exaggerated. I will then turn the send down to 0 db and slowly increase it until I can hear the reverb,  then back it off 1db. Then I will listen too it critically and make automation notes.

 

Automation. Before automation if I have conflicts with the vocal I may apply some ducking to the instrument that is causing the issue. Say a couple of db. compression on the piano side chained to the vocal track. This is about glueing the mix together more tightly.

 

I will the ride the vocal fader with my mouse and create an approximate automation track for volume. I will then go in and fine edit the automation track. I will do the same if required for any of the say four effects aux channels. Like there might be a word where its appropriate to the prosody of the song to crank up the echo or whatever. Say the singer sings "I'm lonely"

so I want him to seem like he's in a big empty room for that section. So I may increase the reverb and echo for just that word, by automation.

 

If I am doing harmonies and back up vocals I copy the plug in chains and their settings directly across to the harmony tracks. This is a starting point I then alter the compression EQ etc to what is appropriate to backing vocals and harmonies. For example the attack and decay times on the compression are totally different for harmonies because it's support you don't want the low level detail you have created for the lead vocal.  I usually tighten the harmonies up in the vocal editing plug in, by turning the consonants right down, our by just muting them. 

I will then follow the automation procedure for the harmonies.

 

Thats about it.

 

The thing is is to work fast from as few listens as you can to keep your ears fresh. To do broad bold adjustments to start and refine them through out the process. 

 

Cheers

 

Gary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My vocal is naturally "tinny" and needs some bottom end which this mic provides.

I think that's a Canadian thing (hand raised in agreement!)   Try getting closer to your pop filter/mic, for more of a proximity effect.  I put the pop filter about an inch out from the mic, then stay at a consistent distance - 1/2-1" away from the pop filter.  I 'suspend' the mic form above, and have the diaphragm just above my mouth position so that 'pops' of air will not hit it directly (even with a pop filter you still have to be careful of plosives).

 

Don't over-sing!

Great tip - but at the same time, keep some feeling in it, or it can sound monotonous.

 

Harmony vocals - when I want a full 'chorus' sound, I record 2 tracks of each harmony part, and pan each part way to one side or the other.  I'm never worried about creating a 'barbershop quartet' sound, because I seldom keep the harmonies going phrase after phrase, instead there will be one line with, one line without harmonies in a typical song pattern.  I don't back off the mic when tracking, that just reduces the volume (more 'room noise'), instead I compress the group/bus of harmonies more than the lead vocal.  A little less 'pre-delay' on the reverb setting (but more than the instruments) helps to set the harmonies 'back' in the stereo field, too.

All my plug-ins on harmonies (EQ, compression, reverb) I apply to the group/bus (called a 'folder' in Reaper) rather than the individual tracks, which I feel brings them together

 

I will the ride the vocal fader with my mouse and create an approximate automation track for volume. I will then go in and fine edit the automation track
 

I used to do my automation that way too, when I first started using a DAW (so much easier than 'riding the faders' on a stand-alone recorder!) But soon found out this created a slew of automation points, which I then either had to go into the track and reduce the number (there's a one-click thing for that in Reaper), delete some manually, or spend a ton of time adjusting multiple areas.   Instead, I've found it much easier to manually draw in the automation points, and raise or lower the volume/value for that area as needed.  Some people just manually 'slice' up the track into phrase sections, and raise/lower volumes section by section, as needed.  I prefer the 'automation' graph style, I find it easy to see the levels and how they match up with the vocal's waveform.

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I just wanted to say thanks for this post Paul. I have nothing to add really, I am definitely learning and other than using Logic Pro effect presets for vocals I don't do anything else.

 

But this post is tremendous in terms of ideas and I gaurantee I will be putting it to good use during my next recording. 

 

Thanks for taking the time to write it.

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Murphster - although 'presets' can be a good starting point, you should experiment with settings for EQ, compression and reverb (to start with) to see how they affect the sound.  I used some presets on compression until I watched a couple of youtube tutorials and found that the sound improved by changing some of the settings (longer/slower attack on lead vocal, for example, lets the vocal 'sit' better in the mix).

 

 

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On 10/05/2018 at 14:31, Mike B said:

I used to do my automation that way too, when I first started using a DAW (so much easier than 'riding the faders' on a stand-alone recorder!) But soon found out this created a slew of automation points, which I then either had to go into the track and reduce the number (there's a one-click thing for that in Reaper), delete some manually, or spend a ton of time adjusting multiple areas.   Instead, I've found it much easier to manually draw in the automation points, and raise or lower the volume/value for that area as needed.  Some people just manually 'slice' up the track into phrase sections, and raise/lower volumes section by section, as needed.  I prefer the 'automation' graph style, I find it easy to see the levels and how they match up with the vocal's waveform.

I do the same, but it's not remotely for simplicity's sake. My automation tracks looks like they were drawn in by a spastic monkey with ADHD and an expresso IV.  It's not uncommon for one to have well over 100 points, with additional automated EQ and FX, and then be sent to a bus where it is automated some more. 

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I find it interesting that as I do more and more mixing, I find ways to make things (i.e. my lousy voice!) sound better.  I always read to add some 'air' to the vocal EQ, meaning bump up the 10K-12K range (which is right at the top of my old hearing).  Recently I put a spectrum analyzer on a vocal-only studio recording of one of my favorite performers (incidentally, a Canadian with a somewhat nasal voice) and I found an interesting EQ bump in the 2K-6K range.  I was usually EQing that range down a bit, with an even more sharper dip around 7K for the 'esses'.  Bumping up that range just a little produced a much fuller sound, to my surprise. YMMV of course.

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See! I told you there were peeps better at production on this site than me. :)

I haven't learned automation yet - just tweak volumes manually ATM.

Doesn't vocal compression accomplish the same thing?

Seems the more I experiment with my vox tracks the worse they sound :)

 

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19 hours ago, PaulCanuck said:

Doesn't vocal compression accomplish the same thing?

If all you are trying to accomplish is a relative volume match, then yes.  You still need to be careful about having the compression squash the sound and making it too even, but they pretty much do the same.  Often times, though, there are phrases that are still louder or softer even with a compressor, so I compress to get it close and then fine tune with automation.  This way I get the best of both worlds.

 

But automation is much more powerful than that.  You can automate EQ for those times when the track sounds fine except for the one odd boomy (or muddy or tinny, etc.) part.  Or you can automate FX to get more reverb (for example) in specific parts of the song.  And tweaking the volume isn't always about making the entire track level; you can also make certain parts stand out more, or get out of the way for a bit.  Compression will never accomplish this.  

 

The long and short of it is, I use automation to ensure the instruments play nicely throughout, and that instruments get exactly the amount of spotlight I want at each moment.  In my experience, it's very rare that a constant volume level for each track accomplishes this.  

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What Justin said^^^ :)   For example, during a chorus, where the music is louder (and there might be backing harmonies), you might want the lead vocal a little louder.  But other times, you might want it less loud to blend in better with the harmonies.  This is most easily accomplished with automating the volume.

I tend to use compression to make the vocal sit better in the mix - this is more needed in a 'busy' mix or a hard rocking mix than a 1+ 1 or quiet song.

 

Another good trick with automation is to turn on an echo/delay at the end of phrases, or at the end of a song - interesting effect when used sparingly.

 

A compression trick I use (now) - gentle compression - with maybe a 5 to 8 dB reduction with a slow/long attack and decay, followed by another compressor with a smaller (2-4 dB) reduction.  I use ReaComp compressor in Reaper, may not be the best one out there, but comes with a lot of presets that one can then work with further.

 

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56 minutes ago, Mike B said:

Another good trick with automation is to turn on an echo/delay at the end of phrases, or at the end of a song - interesting effect when used sparingly.

It's not exactly what you are talking about, but I usually put a sidechain on my delays.  That way, the vox comes through clear with the echo dominating the in-between spaces.  

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Good stuff guys!

 Now I know why I haven’t gotten back into recording. This sounds like a lot of knowledge to learn. Like years worth. And a lot of work! 😀. But from the songs you guys put out it sounds like you enjoy the process and know what you’re doing. 

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On 18/05/2018 at 20:47, Oswlek said:

It's not exactly what you are talking about, but I usually put a sidechain on my delays.  That way, the vox comes through clear with the echo dominating the in-between spaces.  

That can work on reverb too. On a vocal, for example, it could dry up the vocal while leaving the tail. Done right, it can work quite well!

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Some good points there guys. I am curious - does anyone here use distortion on their vocals?

I started to notice it on a Black Keys album a few years ago - I wasn't sold on it when I first heard it, but I have heard that it can be useful for some songs where you need a dirtier vocal.

 

I did use it once on this song a few years back (to mixed reviews) :)

 

Anyone?

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I have yet to add any distortion on my vox tracks, though it's more due to lack of familiarity than distaste for the technique.  :)

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Hmm, not distortion per se, but I do add saturation, which is...ahum...distortion in a way. So, I guess I do. 😉😃😃 I use it very subtle though but still.

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49 minutes ago, The S said:

Hmm, not distortion per se, but I do add saturation, which is...ahum...distortion in a way. So, I guess I do. 😉😃😃 I use it very subtle though but still.

Is that what they call "tape" saturation? Man, if I could get my vocals as good as yours are ... :)

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23 hours ago, PaulCanuck said:

Is that what they call "tape" saturation? Man, if I could get my vocals as good as yours are ... :)

Yup, it's the "vintage" thing to do I guess. Saturation. Tape Saturation. Tape Machine Emulator. Whatever works, I use. Worst case scenario, it doesn't add anything but it makes me feel like I'm doing it like in the good ol' days. It's a win/win. 😎

 

You're vocals sound great Paul, don't think otherwise. 😃

 

Regarding my own sound, I have to give credit to my mic and preamp. Also my somewhat treated room. That was the purpose and goal when I achieved them since the vocals are the single most important factor to a pro sound, so that's where I put my money. I know people say gear is not that important and to a certain degree that's true, but having the correct and also excellent gear for your voice (trying out different mics and find the one that makes you shine) do make it a whole lot easier that's for sure.

 

/Peter

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On ‎26‎/‎05‎/‎2018 at 10:21, The S said:

Yup, it's the "vintage" thing to do I guess. Saturation. Tape Saturation. Tape Machine Emulator. Whatever works, I use. Worst case scenario, it doesn't add anything but it makes me feel like I'm doing it like in the good ol' days. It's a win/win. 😎

 

You're vocals sound great Paul, don't think otherwise. 😃

 

Regarding my own sound, I have to give credit to my mic and preamp. Also my somewhat treated room. That was the purpose and goal when I achieved them since the vocals are the single most important factor to a pro sound, so that's where I put my money. I know people say gear is not that important and to a certain degree that's true, but having the correct and also excellent gear for your voice (trying out different mics and find the one that makes you shine) do make it a whole lot easier that's for sure.

 

/Peter

Think I'll try that - I had thought of saturation at the master stage, but not on individual vocal tracks.

Good points about room set-up too. Mine isn't set up acoustically at all - but it's not too bad results-wise.

I'm thinking a better set-up would add the last 10% quality wise to recording vox. I've read some ppl use a closet lined with acc. material.

As far as distortion on vox - I wonder if there is a plug-in for that - off to google... :)

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I've used a couple of saturation/distortion plug-ins, but never found anything I really liked much.  Have also tried a distortion chain in Pod Farm - it's ok if one is looking for a particular style or sound, but I never really found it fit well with my songs.

 

As to acoustic treatment - for recording vocals, the most important thing is not to have room-induced reverb, which is usually very quick (small rooms we all use for recording) and not good sounding.  Unless you've got a good-sized room, high-ceiling, non-parallel walls, etc, you're usually better off with a 'dead' sounding room, or close-miking, so you can add reverb or delay during mixing with some control over it.

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