When you are doing any sort of creative work playing it safe will never allow you to accomplish incredible and unique results. We all like being secure in life or with whatever we do, but in music production and especially in working with vocals this is not a good idea. Read on to learn why and what not to be afraid of doing.
Every singer has a different voice character and we want to emphasize on that and apply the right processing to make it stand out, which means different tools for different vocals. Never be afraid to push beyond the rules and you will be amazed by the result.
One once said that the...
“Greatest risk you could take is playing it safe.”
Make your vocals stand our and differentiate using a few different techniques briefly explained below.
Do not be afraid to add distortion and do parallel compression
I love adding distortion to vocals. I always do it. Distortion, if subtly applied, can add warmth to the vocals and make them blend well with the mix, or when applied in higher rates it can really differentiate the vocal.
Noticeable distortion use can be often heard in rock music, but when used wisely, it can be applied to all sorts of genres. I personally like to keep things clean though and at the same time add an extra touch to the vocals and here is how I do it.
Subtle use - I apply distortion directly to the vocal track but keep it as dry as possible only to achieve better blend with the mix and cut out the highest frequencies (distortion usually smoothens the high-end edges of the frequency spectrum).
Aggressive use - I duplicate the vocal track and add a lot of wet distortion signal to it. I like to work with distortion plugins, which allow you to do a high-cut, which helps me distort part of the frequency range, but still keep the vocal clean by carefully blending the two vocal tracks together. Similar to what you do in parallel compression.
Also known as New York compression, parallel compression is the technique of applying heavy compression to one vocal track and mixing it with the same vocal track, which is lightly compressed or not compressed at all. This is essential not only when working with vocals, but also with other elements like drum tracks that need presence in the mix. If you feel like your vocals are “lost in the mix”, parallel compression is one thing you want to try out to fix this.
Do not be afraid to use special effects and add a lot of delay
Use them wisely though. The Wet/Dry faders and automation are your best friends here. If you take a listen to some of the most popular songs out, there is very often delay automation only on certain phrases. This can not only emphasise on a certain word or phrase, but you can use it to fill in holes in the vocals, where you feel the vocal is too empty, or just make them unique.
Modulation effects are sometimes preferred to add extra personality to vocals. Things like choruses, phasers and flangers can really make things interesting, but you need to be careful, because unless used properly you may end up with phase issues or other unwanted results. Keep things clean by duplicating your track and adding modulation effects only to the additional track.
Do not be afraid to go beyond with vocal tuning and auto-tune
Experienced producers can sometimes intentionally leave vocals just slightly out of tune to keep its natural sounding. However, in other cases tuning techniques can be applied to achieve more artificial character to the vocals. It is much used in electronic music, where you have a lot of electronic instruments.
One way to do that is by using vocal processors like Melodyne or Flex Pitch (that can be found in Logic Pro). You hear these types of effect in popular songs created by Skrillex and Justin Bieber to name a couple, where the vocal sounding is far from natural. It is done by tuning them precisely to each note part of your scale and reducing the vibrato to a minimum. This instantly turns the vocal into a robotic
What never works
No matter what you do with your vocal files one thing you always want to avoid is clipping the vocals. Vocals, or as a matter of fact any track in your mix, must not go in the red. This allows you to do a smooth mix and gives you room for mastering.
Phase issues and mono
Mono referencing must always be done. Yeah, I know everyone listens to stereo whether it’d be a pair of headphones, HI-FI system or their computer speakers. However you might be surprised that there are radio stations still broadcasting mono. In my country it is a bit funny, because some of the most popular songs that are being played on radio were never referenced in mono, which means tons of missing sounds. I personally find this a bit ridiculous, especially when you want to be serious about your sound quality.
Imagine this cool stereo effect you added on the vocals you are working with, your song goes viral and when you hear it on radio one day, vocals are barely audible. This can totally happen and I think the mono reference is one of the overlooked processes part of the mixing process.
How to fix this?
Having a duplicate mono signal of your stereo vocal track is a good way to correct this. Parallel Compression comes handy here. You can feed a heavily compressed mono duplicate of your stereo-spread vocal track and balance them together while referencing the mono and stereo mix of your entire song mixdown. It requires a bit of ear training and experiment, but once you get it right, you will achieve really nice results.
Practice and experiment until you get things right. Never be afraid to try out new vocal processing techniques even if you fail at first. Nothing great comes easy, so make sure to push the boundaries, when you edit vocals and use different methods for different songs. Everything you create is unique and it often requires a little bit of imagination to achieve great and often unexpected results, but that’s the whole beauty of the music creation process. Most importantly, believe in your own abilities and never be afraid to try new things.