Vocal Tips For Great Recordings

Vocals are often the most evocative element of a song, but for a producer the vocal track is also the most problematic. Although professional vocal performances may be tracked through a signal chain featuring equipment worth millions, it’s quite possible to produce a decent vocal track without spending anything at all…

Singing For A Song

If you run Linux (which is free) then you can also run a free Digital Audio Workstation program such as Ardour. Other heavyweight DAWs such as Logic, Pro Tools or Cubase are good options for Mac/Windows, but you’ll have to fork out some cash for those if you don’t already have a copy.

If you want to record and process a vocal performance, then you can use a variety of plug-ins to achieve a more polished end result. Audiotuts have a good walk-through of how to treat a vocal track using Logic Pro 8’s native plugs, but there are many free VST plugins you can use also.

Hometracked compiled a useful list of such plugins, and I’ve selected a few below to illustrate the typical processing stages for a voice track.

These vocal plugins are compatible with both Windows and Mac platforms (unless otherwise specified) and, best of all, are completely free!

Vocal Processing Tips

With a vocal track its important to get the best possible performance, using the best possible microphone and preamp. This is a whole other topic, so for now I’ll just assume we already have a recorded vocal take to work with, flaws and all.

The first stage in processing is to remove any unwanted noise/frequencies. This can be done with a noise gate, de-esser, filtering and/or EQ.

Vocal Tip 1 – Filter/EQ

Generally speaking, a vocal will have little or no information below 100 Hz (see this frequency chart for details), so a high-pass filter to cut out this range is probably a good idea. You can even raise the threshold further if you’re dealing with a female vocalist. Most DAWs have their own native EQs and filters, but you can also use Nyquist to roll off unwanted freqencies.

Vocal Tip 2 – Noise Gate

A noise gate cuts out the spaces where the vocalist isn’t singing, and acts in a similar fashion to a compressor (although in the opposite direction). You’ll need to set up the attack and release times so that the effect works well with the timing of the singer. The Floorfish plugin will do the trick here.

Vocal Tip 3 – De-Esser

A de-esser is usually required to take out those intrusive plosives and ‘ess’ sounds, although you might get by without one if the singer is really good (don’t forget to use a pop shield). The Spitfish plugin deals with the ones that got away.

Vocal Tip 4 – Compressor

Now that most of the bad stuff has been cleaned up, it’s time to look at controlling the dynamics of the recording. As usual, compressors are the order of the day – sticking with the excellent Digital Fish Phones freebies, we can use Blockfish to even out the levels in the performance, creating a smooth vocal that doesn’t feature any unpleasant dips or spikes in volume.

Vocal Tip 5 – Reverb

At this stage, we can consider applying some reverb. Tread with caution here, as it’s easy to overdo – reverb should be barely audible, just enough to blend and pad the vocal slightly. Ambience or DX Reverb Lite can be called into action on this.

Vocal Tip 6 – Adding Depth

If you need some extra processing beyond the basics outlined above, then you might want to consider Voxengo Tube Amp (Windows Only) for some tape saturation, Kjaerhus Classic Chorus (Windows Only) for a bit of chorus fattening, or the W1 Limiter for bringing up the levels a bit further.


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