How to produce a good a vocal track in 2 steps (recording and mixing)
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Recording a good vocal track (Part1)
Every good vocal take starts out with 3 things. A good mic, a good level and good singing technique (proper distance from the Mic, controlling sibilance, pops). So 1- a good Mic: I know someone here will try and tell me im wrong but using a Walmart microphone to record your precious vocal track is just asinine on so many levels. If it’s all you have, then I understand totally. But for another 100 bucks you could have put yourself in a much better position. 2- (a good level) There are those who enjoy recording their vocals low and using normalize later as to magically improve the signal of a track. You want vocals that are up in your face? Then turn up the gain. Don’t go any louder than peak -3 db. Even if you go over -3db WGAF. “Well about gain staging”? Who gives a flying fuck, all plug ins now a day have input control and that’s what your gain/trim knob is for. This isn’t 1925 horse and buggy shit, get on your levels and jack them up for a in your MF face sound. For more relaxed vocals, bring down the gain a bit. But also keep in mind what your singer is like. I’ve had people come in and sound check them fine but when the performance starts they are blowing up the meters. Play that by ear. And finally 3- (Good singing technique). This may be one of the most important things you will be challenged with. A good singer can make your job so easy, all you have to do is press a button and sit back. On the flip side, a shitty singer can piss you off so bad you want to take him and his equipment and throw them out the door. However this is frowned upon in many countries. So we have to do the next best thing, work with them a bit. Tell them they need to stay close to the pop filter (taking caution not to bump into it) and be direct. Project your voice in to the mic and not sideways and shit. Trust me your probably saying “why is saying this” Don’t ask. Make sure they keep a constant distance from the mic at all times, a trained singer will at times move away from the Mic, but that’s typically only for high notes. They are controlling the dynamics with motion. They get it. Your pop filter should be within 4-6 inches of your Mic. I encourage you to experiment with closer positions. And further away distances until you get that “sweet spot” like the one your wife will say to you “Right there baby”. Hopefully with these elements and a little bit of practice and luck, don’t forget luck, you will be on the road to success.
Recording a good vocal track (part2)
In this next step we will go on to the house cleaning and FX portion of getting a good vocal track. The first thing we need to take care of before inserting an FX is sibilance. This is done before the vocal track hits a compressor. There are 2 ways to accomplish this, 1- Using a De-esser, or 2- Gain automation. A de-esser is the easier route but it is not precise and let’s face it, De-essers are good for taming S sounds. This leaves K’s or P’s (pop noises that are made with the lips) in limbo. This is where automation comes in. After you have learned automation, you know what to look for, you begin to use your eyes and see the little zippers in the wave form. These are the S sounds. Your eyes become trained similar to your ears while mixing. You see the syllables and know exactly where to add your gain nodes to drop the level -3 to -5 db.
The second part is gain staging the whole signal. Gain automation is done by attacking the signal at the source and that’s the clip itself. We are not going to be sending sporadic signals into our precious compressors and ask them to deal with it. That’s how you end up crushing your dynamics with an over compressed sound. Don’t get me wrong if you have a well-balanced signal that doesn’t jump around much than a compressor should handle it fine but this is a great place to even out signal jumps. For example your chorus level is -10 but the verses are -15db. Automate the gain to even out these differences. We are not looking to be exactly perfect here. Matter of fact, I find the more we strive for perfection, the more we lose some of that originality. We just want to make sure our plug ins are not going to be accepting erratic level jumps putting to much burden on plug ins. This is also a good time to get a plan together for any issues in the vocal (pitch) using auto tune or my personal choice Melodyne.
After you have completed house cleaning, then it’s time to move in the new furniture. This is where we will begin adding FX. I almost always start my vocal FX chain out with subtractive EQ. I create a high pass filter with a medium slope around 100 Hz and begin sweeping till I find the sweet spot. This EQ is only there to make sure we are only sending things into the compressor which is worth value. My approach is don’t try to take too much off in one bite, take smaller bite size pieces. Meaning, don’t try and correct everything at once, correct major issues with the first EQ, run that through a compressor, then use a second EQ to bring out the vocals shine and presence. Your chain should be- Subtractive EQ/Compressor/Additive EQ Im not going to get into every frequency adjustment here or this post will be 10 years long. After the second EQ you’re going to want some type of spectrum spreader. Mono vocals alone don’t always stand out in the mix. We some sort tool to bring it to the sides. If you mixed your other tracks properly you have made sure you didn’t spread too many other instruments out to the sides (typically only lead or occasionally rhythm instruments). This will allow the vocal to be thick and full, filing out in stereo. This can be achieved using Stereo spreaders. Don’t overdo it. These tools are known to drown a mix and make it sound muddy if not done correctly. Next I use a saturation plug in, something to add some grit, analog coloring. Sometimes I place this plug in before modulation plug ins. It’s all personal preference. But typically when used after, it has a tendency to clean up some of the modulation, Sending those into saturation also gives a great effect. There are literally a ton of other choices but im going to make this fast and move on to the stereo bus.
After you have your chain set up and vocal sounds good, set up a bus and add a plug in like reverb or delay. What you want to do is tap the vocal tracks send and route it to the bus. This allows you to control the amount of reverb using the send on the vocal track. This send can also be automated for precision and tight changes (verses and chorus). This should go without saying but this reverb/delay bus will be routed to the master bus. This will allow a portion of the signal to be mixed with the original vocal signal. Typically this bus effect should be set to 100% wet. But I have found different settings to be very favorable.
You can also sidechain vocals but im sorry that’s about all the time we have for now. Join me next time for “Baking cookies with a blow-torch”.
Written by Charlie Roy