Vocal Chains, Vocal Effects, Vocal Processing
"What's a good vocal chain for ______ genre?" That's like saying, "What kind of food is good", or "How do you play basketball?' It's not really the right question; but I see it a lot in recording forums.
No one can tell you what vocal chain to use. It really depends on the vocal you're working with and what you're trying to accomplish. What I can do is show you how some people approach vocal processing, and some about the tools many people use. You can take that information and use the tools available to create the sound you're after for your home recording.
As an independent musician, I'm assuming you have a decent microphone (not a USB mic), and audio interface to plug it into, cables, a mic stand, and headphones. Oh, and a DAW or other recording software.
Record in an acoustically neutral space, if you can. As a general rule, you want a fairly dead sounding place to record vocals.
OK, you've got a vocal recorded. What Now? Well, vocal processing happens, that's what.
If you're a beginner, you can start with one of the all-in-one vocal processing plugins. They take some of the most common vocal processing techniques, and put them in one package.
As you can see, Izotope's Nectar Elements has De-sessing, pitch correction, "Space", EQ, and several other controls.
They typically have presets you can cycle through and you may find something close to what you want, that way. What I'd advise is listening to what they do, and learning to reproduce it with your own plugins. Once you understand how to do that, you can get away from presets.
I've bought a couple of these plugins, and they can be pretty good. But I usually end up fashioning my own vocal chain because I have a sound in mind and the vocal chain plugins aren't always flexible enough to get it exactly.
This isn't really an effect, or processing in the way we usually think about it. But it's vocal treatment, for sure. I often go through the entire vocal performance, and even out the volume by using clip gain. In other words, if I see a phrase in a verse and it's a but low in level, I turn up that section. If something sticks out volume wise, I turn it down.
I do it by eye, and then listen.
I do this with what's called clip gain in Reaper. Most any DAW will have this function, though it might be called something different.
Doing it on the track means it's first in the signal chain. So you vocals are going to hit the processors later in the chain, more evenly.
Vocal Riding (Auto Gain)
As an alternative, or in conjunction with clip gain, you can use a vocal riding, or auto gain plugin. Vocal riders act like a finger on the fader, changing the vocal level to even it out. This technique tends to sound more transparent and natural than a compressor.
Riding a vocal can bring up quieter parts, such as the end of phrases. Waves has a vocal rider plugin, and you can do automatic gain in Reaper, with stock plugins.
You don't have to correct pitch. But if you do, it's best to do it early in the vocal FX chain. Most good pitch correction is subtle. although with extreme settings it can be used as an "Auto-tune" effect, rather than for pitch correction.
When I pitch correct, I often use ReaTune, the stock REAPER pitch correction tool (free), or Melodyne, by Celemony. Melodyne is the industry standard, but is expensive. ReaTune gets the job done, and is less resource intensive.
EQ is tone control. I use EQ in two basic ways on vocals.
- to balance the vocal tonally
- for taste
Tonal Balance: Often, you'll get a vocal that might be a little harsh, or perhaps too boomy in the low end. Maybe the microphone is not particularly suited to the voice, and you don't have an unlimited budget and unlimited choices of mics.
Your first EQ will have the job of evening out the tonal balance.
I often compress after the initial EQ, and the add a second EQ after compression.
Taste: After the vocal comes out of the compressor(s), I sometimes EQ again. This time, I'm thinking more about the emotion of the vocal, and what EQ might enhance the emotion. Do I need high treble to get that clarity and lift? Do I need to add 250Hz for more warmth? I do that here.
Compression evens out vocal levels. I often use a compressor with a fast attack and release, just to take the loudest parts own a little bit. Then, I use a compressor with a slower attack and release time to even out the average volume.
Reverb makes a voice sound like it's sitting in a physical space and the sounds are bouncing around that space. One definition of reverb is 'multiple, random, blended reflections'. That means you don't hear reverb as a distinct echo, but as a blended sound that tails off over time.
There are many types of reverb. I tend to like a plate reverb for vocals.
Originally, plate reverbs would use a signal to vibrate a metal plate. This would create a reverberant sound that was picked up by a transducer and fed back to a channel. These days, plate reverb emulations are found in most digital reverbs.
I generally EQ out some lows and highs on a vocal reverb. You don't need the mud from the lows, and you don't want the sibilance from 'ess' and 'tee' sounds going through the reverb.
Often, mixers will use more than one reverb on a voice. They might use a reverb with a short decay time to give the voice a sense that it's in a room. Then, a longer reverb to give more space and depth.
Delay, or echo, is when you hear distinct repeats of a sound. It's like shouting "hello" into a big canyon and hearing your vice come back at you.
Delay times are measured in milliseconds (ms) or in musical note timing (you might have a delay that's exactly a quarter note long, for instance). Feedback is a control on a delay that controls how many times the delay repeats.
Some folks like a short delay with only one repeat, called a slapback echo. Others like a longer delay time with a bit of feedback. Some like their delays to bounce from side-to-side.
One trick is to set one delay for 1/4 note repeats and pan it to one side, and another delay to triplets, and pan it to the other side. As with reverb, you can use multiple delays on a voice.
Setting Levels On Verbs & Delays
- I often will bring the level of a reverb or delay up in the mix until I can just barely hear it. Sometimes I'll back it off from there.
- It's common to raise the level of FX at the end of a phrase, or during/after a word or phrase you want to emphasize.
- Reverb and delay add a sense of space, but may take away from a feeling of intimacy and immediacy.
De-essing is turning down harsh high-frequency sounds that can result for singing the letter 's', 't', or combinations such as 'ch' or 'sh'. These sounds are called sibilants and often are around 5kHz, give or take. Unfortunately, sibilance changes. The frequencies depend on the singer, microphone, microphone technique. and which consonants they're singing.
There are a few ways to deal with sibilance, let's talk about two.
- De-essers: A de-esser is a compressor that compresses the frequencies that often cause sibilance. They usually have a threshold, which you want to set to only compress when there's too much high-frequency content. De-essers usually have a control which allows you to select the problem frequencies, and mode that allows you to listen to only the frequencies you are cutting out.
- Manual clip gain: I often go through a mix and manually split out and problem sounds and turn them down. It takes a few minutes, but it's perhaps the cleanest way to de-ess.
There are lots of ways to thicken a vocal and make it sound more full. Doubling and pitch shifting are two of them.
Doubling is when you sing the part twice and mix the two performances together. You can have them at equal volume, or have one sit beneath the other, volume-wise.
Back in the day, there was a piece of gear called the Eventide 3000. It would de-tune things slightly. When you de-tune a vocal slightly, and add it back to the original vocal, it can sound thicker and fuller.
I use the free plug-in, Duet for a similar effect. Duet shift the pitch of the vocal up a few cents, and on the other side, down a few cents. Both sides are delayed slightly from the original vocal. Usually, it's 20ms on one side and 30ms on the other.
You can also add a touch of saturation and/or distortion to vocals to give them a bit more excitement. Small amounts are good, unless you're going for an extreme effect. In that case, crank it up!
Chorus, Phase, Flange
You can add a bit of a modulation effect to the voice. I use this particularly on background vocals. You can also choose to add modulation just to your delay or reverb, to make it shimmer.
Background Vocals & Harmonies
If I have a harmony line that sings along with the lead vocal, I tend to treat it about the same as the lead. A background, multi-part harmony is different.
You can use any of the above effects on background vocals. I tend to use a bit more modulation if I'm going for a chorus sound. You might find a little bit thinner sound is good for certain kinds of backing vocals. And you can probably turn down, or even get rid of sibilant sounds. A harsh 's' sound will just build up if you have all the background vocals singing with the lead vocal.
Example Vocal Chain
Here's an example of a vocal chain I used for a song, recently. It's just one of a million ways you could do it.
Vocal Chain Conclusion
There are probably as many ways to do vocal chains as there are engineers. I've touched on a few of the basics here -- EQ, compression, modulation effect, and more.
Voxengo Span: Voxengo Span is a free, useful frequency analyzer which includes a peak meter, and a correlation meter. Windows & Mac.
Duet (Windows Only): Pitch-shifting, delay plug-in for a sound similar to the famous Eventide 3000 trick.
Izotope Nectar Elements: Vocal processing plug-in.
Waves Vocal Rider: For evening out vocals (or anything, really)
REAPER JS Plugins: Specific to REAPER, the REAPER Stash is where you can find themes, plugins, effects, meters and more, written in the JS language. The Reaper Blog has a great tutorial on how to install these REAPER-only plugins.
Tukan plugins (Reaper only): The Tukan Goniometer shown above is a free plugin for Reaper, in the JS language. Myk Robonson has a nice tutorial on how to install them.