The pioneering producer explains how to process your vocals to get them sounding bigger.
“I used to start doubting myself when I did things instinctively in music production. I thought: maybe I’m not doing it the ‘right’ way. But when I got rid of this self-doubt and said “Fuck it, I’ll do it my way!” I was able to create incredible pieces of music.”
— Misstress Barbara
In LANDR’s new series ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it my way!’ producer, DJ and singer-songwriter Misstress Barbara shares her tricks, secrets and studio routines to help you get rid of the self-doubt that’s limiting your creative process.
Working with vocals is tough. They require a lot of treatment and processing in order to fit your track. Different types of music require different treatments for vocal tracks as well. So there’s no magic formula for every vocal track.
I used to struggle with this. Until the day I said “fuck it!” and decided to add tons of audio effects to my vocal tracks. It might not be the ‘correct’ way to process vocals, but is there really one? If there is one thing I process like crazy now, it’s vocals! The techniques I discovered made them stand out and sound better in my tracks.
Here are my tips for getting better vocals and what effects chains work best.
Edit, Edit, Edit
First, make sure you edit all your vocal takes properly. It may seem like a painstaking job, but your track will sound much cleaner. Tricks like noise-reduction plugins or noise gates can work wonders.
By editing I mean removing all noises in the pauses. I usually delete the long pauses altogether. There’s always some kind of useless background noise, whether it’s the ambient sound or the singer swallowing and breathing. With very sensitive microphones you hear all of that and it sounds bad!
Hot Tip: Don’t forget to use fades (fade in and fade out) at the beginning and end of each vocal section. That’ll smooth out your track and avoid unpleasant clips.
Don’t cut the breath before the vocalist sings. It’s part of the charm and the emotion of singing. This applies to pop, rock or folk for example.
Don’t cut the breath before the vocalist sings. It’s part of the charm and the emotion of singing.
If you’re making a techno track, who cares about the breath? It’s almost better to remove them all. Natural sounding vocals are not what you’re after in a dance track — you can go a little further with vocals. If it sounds more robotic, it can suit the track better than natural sounding singing. Go ahead and edit fearlessly!
Once you’re done with that, it’s time to reflect on what you want out of your vocals. Are you making a pop song or are you making a techno track? Do you need your vocals to be dirty — like when you hear a voice through a phone — or do you want them to be shiny bright? That’s important. You won’t be very convincing if, for example, you have shiny bright vocals in a hard rave 90’s style techno track, if you know what I mean. And vice versa…
Create a Wall of Vocals
Create what I call a ‘brick wall’ of vocals. That’s when you have your vocalist double, triple, even quadruple each take.
When you have many layers of vocals, you really feel the thickness. It sounds great for pop songs, and it’s also nice in dance tracks.
Once you have different layers, you can hard pan them left and right. Pan some takes a bit less excessively and leave some in the centre. The result: you’ll have a mega wall of vocals all around your stereo field.
When you’re working with a live singer, it’s not easy to double vocal tracks. Very few vocalists are able to redo a vocal take with the same precision every time.
When you have many layers of vocals, you really feel the thickness.
In that case, my workaround is to take the same vocal take, copy-paste it on another track, and move it just a few milliseconds off.
Hot Tip: Make sure you EQ the duplicate track differently. It will give you the feeling of having two different vocal tracks. It’s not the best way, but it does the trick.
Repeat that as many times as needed. Always avoid having copies of the same track exactly aligned with each other. That creates a flange effect that doesn’t sound too good. Unless of course that’s what you’re looking for — in which case I suggest to just use a proper flanger effect.
Widen Your Sound
Another way to give depth to vocals is by using a chorus effect.
Chorus creates a fuller, thicker sound with subtle movement in it. It adds harmonic content to your original sound and it ‘beefs-it up.’
I don’t use chorus on pop vocals — for pop I prefer to have many layers of vocals and I will work with the vocalist to record multiple takes.
But for techno it’s nice to add chorus because it make your vocal samples (or any synth) wider and bigger.
Process Your Effects in Parallel
There are some effects that are best for individual vocal tracks — like EQ and compression.
Other effects are best used on a bus track (also called Return tracks in Ableton), not on the individual tracks. Those effects are reverbs, delays and distortion.
Distortion on vocals? Yes! Most times, no matter what style of music I’m making, I like to add some distortion to the vocals. It gives them a different character (a bit more dirt) and sounds interesting when mixed with the original, dry vocal track in parallel.
You’ve probably heard of parallel compression. Any effect sounds great in parallel! This technique helps maintain the dynamics and character of the original while adding as much of the effect as you need.
Try using distortion in parallel on your vocals for a touch of extra grit. Here’s how you can do it with Return tracks in Ableton Live:
- In Session View, right click and Select “Insert Return Track”
- Drag and drop your favorite distortion VST on the Return track
- On your original vocal track, add distortion by using the Send knob that corresponds to the letter of your distorsion Return track
- Mix between the original vocal track and the Return track to your taste
Try this with reverbs and delays too.
Hot Tip: Put an EQ and a compressor on your reverb bus/return track. That way, the reverb effect of the vocal will be EQed as well, and the compression will enhance the reverb.
Steal My Signature Effect Chain
When I need to process vocals for techno breakdowns and make them sound ‘crazy,’ I have a very precise effects chain that I use on each track.
A chain of effects works from left to right, and each effect you add will affect all the other ones that come before it, so the order is important.
Make sure you keep healthy levels by gain staging properly at every step.
Start by EQing your vocal track as you like it. Cut the low frequencies — they carry a lot of popping and noise. Plus, the character of your vocals is never found in the low frequencies. It’s in the lower mid and mid frequencies. So cutting the bottom harshly is not a problem. Your ears are always the best judge of how much to cut.
Do you want a vocal line that’s in your face — like in radio pop tracks? Or do you want it to breathe a little more? Compression allows you to find your formula.
Compressors lower the volume of loud peaks. They even out the notes that stick out in the mix. This lets you to bring up the gain of the whole signal without clipping. Compressors are common problem solvers, especially for vocals.
Adding reverb on your actual vocal track makes the entire track wet. This removes the natural blend of the original dry version with the wet one that you get in parallel.
If that’s your desired effect, go for it. Just be careful with the wetness knob of the reverb — if it’s too wet you will lose your vocal completely.
Just like the reverb, delay will be more intense if put on the vocal track itself. Don’t make it too wet, or your vocals will be bouncing all over the place.
I really love how Radiohead treats their vocals, and especially their delays. At the end of a sentence, you’ll hear the reverb of the last word delayed —it’s a beautiful effect. I love to use it to furnish quiet moments, before a break for example.
To do that, you need to automate your delay:
- Arm the recording button on your delay track.
- Press the Arrangement Record Button
- Play the track through and ride the wetness fader of your delay: increase the it when the last word approaches and bring it back down a few seconds after.
5. Other Effects
After the EQ, compressor, reverb and delay, add your other desired effects. You might find that some need automation— whether it’s a filter, chorus, or distortion.
6. Finish with a compressor
When you put a compressor at the end of the chain, you enhance all your effects. It helps glue everything together. Try it with and without — you’ll hear the difference.
Use either your DAW’s native plugins or find free VST plugins.
Delay Your Reverbs
I really love how Radiohead treats their vocals, especially the delays on their reverbs. At the end of a sentence, you’ll hear the reverb of the last word delayed —it’s a beautiful effect. I love to use it to furnish quiet moments in pop tracks, before a break for example.
I use this effect in my song ‘Words.’ You’ll hear it well around 1:39:
To do that, you need to automate your delay. This is how you do it in Ableton:
- Put a Delay after a Reverb on your vocal track (or do it in parallel as described above).
- Arm the recording button on the track with your reverb and delay.
- Press the Arrangement Record Button.
- Play the track through and ride the wetness fader of the delay on your reverb: increase it when the last word approaches and bring it back down a few seconds after.
Ain’t No Vocals Wide Enough
There’s rarely a single ‘right’ way of doing something when it comes to audio production.
Over the years, producing both techno and pop has taught me a lot about mixing vocals. I’ve developed a personal style of making my vocals wide, big and dirty.
Follow the tips above to get the most out of your vocals and to get a better mix.
Read Misstress Barbara’s tips on how to start a track. Stay Tuned for the last instalment of ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it my way!’ where Misstress Barbara will talk about her favorite plugins, right here on the LANDR Blog.