With thousands of options to choose from, deciding on a digital vocal chain can be a daunting task. “Vocal chain” refers to the specific sequence of hardware or plug-ins that process vocals before they end up in your mix. In keeping with the theme of embracing technology, I am going to cover a few of my favorite plug-ins that are a fraction of the price of their hardware counterparts. I use these plug-ins quite frequently.
It is important to note that this is not the “end all be all” vocal chain. Every artist has a unique voice. If you combine that with sonic variation among microphones, pre-amps, and interfaces, we’re talking about a huge amount of unknown variables. Add to this list genre, style, and frequency of the surrounding instrumental accompaniment, and you will begin to understand why every mix should be handled with a clean slate and fresh approach. If one vocal treatment worked all of the time, mix engineering would be a piece of cake, and I would be out of a job.
For the sake of this discussion, I am going to suggest a chain that sometimes works well for me. I am always modifying my chain and trying new things. Keep in mind that simply changing the order of the plug-ins in your chain yields drastically different outcomes. Ultimately, experimentation is the key and will help you not only develop your ear, but also find the plug-ins that work best for your particular song. I believe that being open to change and constantly learning are two necessary traits of a good engineer. On that note, I would like to hear some of your favorite plug-ins and techniques, so please leave comments and share those with me.
In This Order:
Waves Renaissance DeEsser:
This deEsser is widely acclaimed by industry greats and is a powerful tool in gaining control of the high frequencies of your vocal performance. Usually I start with one of two presets, either “male DeEss split” or “female DeEss split,” depending on gender and frequency of the artist. From there, I lower the threshold until I see -6db in the attenuation (is it called attenuation in window). I like to DeEss at the beginning of my chain. But in some situations, I place it elsewhere. You may not hear a huge difference when you first start, but as you get further along in your mix, and apply additional compression and equalizers, deEssing becomes more vital.
The C4 by Waves is a great multi-band compressor. The idea here is to gently compress the frequency that is most “out of control” in your artists voice. For males, this is usually around 250hz, and for females it is usually around 500hz, generally, but don’t hold me to these estimates. Compressing the right frequency will give your vocals enough control to sit right with the music, without losing the important power that comes from the lower mid-range. I usually bypass all but one of the bands, and set the “Q” as high as possible to carve out a nice tight notch. Then I drop the attack to be moderately fast, and lower the threshold and reduction parameters to taste.
Next, it is time for more compression. I usually chose two out of three of the following plug-ins. Again, experimentation is crucial:
Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B
The CL 1B by softube is an emulator of the popular hardware compressor that shares the same name. It sounds great on vocals. I usually start by lowering the threshold until I see 3db of reduction in the meter, then set the attack and release according to what works. Usually, if its a rapper, I use a slower attack and faster release. If it is a singer, I use a faster attack and slower release. Keep in mind that as you change the attack and release, you may need to re-adjust your threshold. Once everything is set, I usually give it 3db of gain to compensate for the reduction.
This Waves product is another emulator of an industry classic. I usually start with the “Sibilant Vox” preset, then raise the “peak reduction” parameter until I see 3db of reduction on the meter. Pay attention to the “analog” buttons at the bottom. They create subtle noises of air that you may or may not like in your mix. This air can easily be turned off.
Waves Kramer PIE
This is one of my favorite synthetic analog compressors. It provides a warm sound that is difficult to achieve in the digital world. I begin by setting the decay time as low as possible, then lower the threshold until I see 3db of reduction. Next, I put the gain around 3db to compensate for the reduction. Lastly, I play with the analog noise switch, similar to the CLA-3A. Typically, I use the noise from one of these compressors, but not both.
Waves Renaissance EQ
I mostly use the R-EQ for surgical cuts in my vocal. It is a transparent EQ that does not add much color. At this point, I may just clean up the low end by switching the slope to a hi-pass filter, turning the Q as high as possible, then setting the frequency to around 60hz. Sometimes I apply this before compressing.
Waves Puigtec EQP1A
This is another emulator of a classic piece of gear. It adds an interesting color that extends beyond simple frequency equalizing. I find that it gives vocals a character that is hard to replicate with any other equalizer that I have used. It is pretty straight forward, so I suggest giving it a try. It sounds great from the moment you open it, before even making any adjustments. The top end and low end on this particular EQ are incredible.
This limiter is very transparent and I use it like glue that levels and controls everything, without over doing it. I start by lowering the threshold and gain simultaneously. Usually I lower the threshold until I see 3 to 5 db of reduction, then bring the gain back up until the vocal is sitting right with the music. We are, for the first time in our mix, adjusting gain relative to the surrounding tracks. Until now, I was simply adjusting gain to compensate for the compressor reduction. I should also mention that I leave my fader on the lead vocal track at zero, and adjust volume entirely with the R-Vox and my next plug-in.
The L2 by Waves is one of the most widely used and also widely misused plug-ins on the market. First, it is important to switch “dither” and “noise shaping” to “off,” unless you are using it for mastering. Secondly, use the arrows in between the threshold and ceiling parameter to lower both simultaneously. I see a lot of people make the mistake of lowering only the threshold, which is going to do too much limiting. Once I see 3db of reduction, I bring the ceiling up a little bit, like 1 to 2db. If your vocal is too loud or quiet at this point, revisit the gain output on your RVox.
There you have it. Hopefully this post isn’t too obscure for the general public to soak in, but as I say in my blog “catering to a niche vs. appealing to the masses,” sometimes it is important to take risk and dive into specifics. That being said, I am interested in hearing what you think. Let me know what you are using. And if there is a subject you would like to see me cover in the future, I will gladly tackle it in an upcoming post.