Vocals are, in my opinion, the most expressive instrument we have. From singing to rapping, screaming to vocalise (singing without lyrics), vocals are prominent in much of our music, and often as the lead element in the mix. Therefore, it's worth understanding the tools and techniques available to produce better vocals, which is what we'll get into today!
Here are 12 tips for better vocal production:
- Recording dry
- Comping and multing
- Time-aligning background vocals
- Doubling harmonies
- Doubling lead vocals
- Vocal tuning
- Intricate volume/fader automation
- Parallel processing
- Adding space with delay and reverb
- Delay and reverb throws
In this article, I'll dive deeper into each of these tips and explain how to achieve better vocal production in your work.
If you prefer video content, I have an in-depth video on this very topic, which you can watch below:
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The best way to get professional-level vocals is to start with clean, “dry” recordings — that is, recordings that are not only free of vocal “artifacts” like excessive sibilance and plosives, but also recordings that don't have excessive environmental noise, mechanical noise, and room sound (the echo and reverb of the vocal sound waves within the room that are also picked up by the microphone).
Unless you're working in a top-end studio with rooms designed to have a specific, sought-after and, most importantly, wanted sound for your vocal in the context of the record, it's typically best to record dry.
With modern reverb and delay processing, we can achieve virtually any spatial sound we want on the dry vocal. It's easy to add and dial in the perfect delay or reverb for the vocals with these effects. It's a lot more difficult to remove this sense of space (to “de-reverb”) in the vocal without causing unwanted artifacts and ultimately worsening the sound.
That's why, even in the top-end studios, vocals are often recorded as overdubs (on top of pre-recorded material rather than along with such material) in carefully-designed vocal booths. These booths are typically designed to be acoustically “dead” with sufficient acoustic treatment and, in some cases, even isolation from the rest of the building (by means of being a floating room).
In some cases, it may be worth renting out such a studio to record vocals, even if just for the vocal booth.
That stated, in our own home studios, we can recording our vocals more dryly by investing in some acoustic treatment for our room. This could be as simple as adding some soft furniture and curtains (absorptive treatment) and bookshelves full of different sized books (diffusive treatment).
Proper acoustic treatment will reduce the amount of sound that will reflect/echo around the room, thereby helping to make the vocal sound drier when picked up by the microphone and recorded.
If you have the extra cash, there are professionally-designed acoustic treatment kits available. For example, in my ~150 square-foot room, I opted for the Primacoustic London 12 Bundle. It has 2 bass traps, 8 1'x4′ absorptive panels and 12 1'x1′ absorptive panels.
You can also opt to craft your own acoustic panels and diffusers to hang on your walls if you'd like.
For more help choosing the acoustic treatment for your needs, I'd encourage you to check out my article, The Ultimate Acoustic Treatment Buyer’s Guide.
In addition to treating the room as a whole, we can also opt to position the vocal microphone in a place with more treatment or at least less echo.
It's common, in home studios, to apply significant treatment (whether that's pro-level absorptive panel or even just blankets) to a closet and to record vocals there.
Another option is to invest in a vocal microphone isolation shield, which can be placed opposite side the microphone from vocalist to greatly reduce the strength and amount of vocal sound waves reaching the perimeters of the room.
For my opinion on the best vocal mic shields, check out my article Best Vocal Microphone Isolation Shields.
Beyond the acoustic treatment, we should also put some thought into the microphone type we opt to use for recording our vocals.
Large diaphragm condensers are commonly used for recording vocals because they tend to sound full-bodied while also capturing the top-end quite nicely.
A further generality worth mentioning is that, compared to dynamic microphones, condensers are more sensitive to the nuances of the human voice (and all other sound), allowing them to capture a more nuanced performance. However, the downside to that is that if you're dealing with issues of environmental and room noise, condensers are more apt to pick up such noise, which can be an issue in overall production.
So, if you aren't at a point where your room sounds dry enough (or the way your want it to sound), perhaps investing in a nice dynamic microphone like the Shure SM7B is the right choice for you.
And to avoid excessive plosives and sibilance, it's generally worthwhile to add a pop shield between the vocalist and the microphone (some microphones are designed with their own pop shields, like the aforementioned SM7B). Additionally, we may want to tilt the microphone slightly off-axis from the direct line of the vocalist's performance to help reduce plosives and, to a lesser extent, excessive sibilance.
Comping And Multing
The second tip I have for you when it comes to vocal production is to utilize the techniques of comping and multing.
Comping comes from the word “composite”, and creating a composite vocal tracks means to take the best parts of several vocal takes and create the best possible performance from them.
This assumes that you have multiple takes of each section that are similar in the way they were recorded (same room, same mic, same session, etc.), which I'd highly recommend doing for any overdub recordings. Once you have these multiple vocal takes, you can create a new “comp” track and audition each of the takes to find the best performances.
This can be done section-by-section, line-by-line, or even, in some cases, word-by-word or syllable-by-syllable, though these two latter options require much more editing finesse.
The result should be a single “best of” composite track that features the optimal vocal performance from what's been recorded. From there, we can mute/hide the multiple tracks from which the composite track was created and focus on processing and mixing our single, some track.
On the other hand, we can also utilize multing, which comes from the word “multiple”. Multing is to be done when we want to process different parts of a single vocal performance.
The technique of multing, then, is done by splitting the vocal take into two (or more) different tracks and processing those tracks differently to achieve the desired outcome. This is done instead of relying on automation to alter the processing on a single track, as it's often easier to simply mult the track.
As a small tangent, we also have the case where vocal lines may sound best when overlapped slightly (or even rather dramatically). In this case, we would have recorded them as such, and can have two (or more) vocal tracks interplaying with each other, often (but not always) with the same exact processing.
Time-Aligning Background Vocals
Background vocals are an excellent way to enhance your vocal production.
- They can be used to emphasize certain words, lines, or even sections of the song.
- They can add massive depth and width to the mix when used alone or in combination with the lead vocal(s).
- They can add “rounds” (multiple lyrical lines happening simultaneously) or counterpoint to the production for enhanced sonic interest.
Furthermore, we can harmonize the background vocals for awesome results. What's better than vocal harmony in music?
Beyond using background vocals, we can enhance the overall production value (if the song calls for it) by time-aligning the background vocals, either to themselves or to the lead vocal.
If we're working on a more laid back song with a “live-off-the-floor” vibe, we may want to avoid this technique — remember that all our music production endeavours are about serving the song!
However, if we want defined and/or massive background vocals, it's worth considering tightening up the timing.
Most vocalists will be capable of closely matching the timing of a pre-existing vocal or a simultaneous vocal, depending on whether you're recording overdubbed vocals or simultaneous vocals. However, the more background vocal takes we stack, the more we demand perfection in the timing department in order to have a solid, crisp set of background vocals.
There are effectively 4 methods we can use to time-align our vocals:
- Comping: if a particular word or line is out of time and we have an alternate take that fits the rhythm (and still sounds in tune and similar to the rest of the vocal track in question), we can introduce that section into a comp track in order to enhance timing.
- Cutting and nudging: digital audio workstations make it easy to slice and splice audio files. If a certain word or line is out of time compared to the other vocals, try cutting the audio file at a workable point (often between words or lines works best) and budge the part in question to better fit the rest of the vocals. Remember to always crossfade in order to eliminate digital clicks and to listen back to ensure the vocal still sounds natural.
- Time compression and expansion: as the name suggests, this tool allows us to stretch or compress and audio file along the time horizon by effectively stretching or compressing its digital samples. These tools do so without altering the sample rate of the audio (rather, they resample the elongated or compressed audio) and without altering the pitch. Of course, artifacts will be introduced to the signal, especially when time expansion or compression is taken too far, but overall, it can be an effective way to slightly alter the timing of a vocal to help align it to the other vocals in the session.
- SynchroArts VocAlign: If the above strategies sound like they'll take copious amounts of time and patience, I can assure you they do. Instead, I rely on VocAlign Ultra to do the bulk of the work for me. It records a “Guide” track via its sidechain input to act as the reference and a “Dub” track through the intended channel. Once both audio signals are recorded, it works to align the Dub track to the timing of the Guide track automatically — it's a major time saver.
I have a detailed video on time-aligning vocals with and without VocAlign that you can check out below:
This seemingly simple process can add tremendous dimension and interest to a vocal harmony line while simultaneously making more room for the lead vocal to shine.
When a vocalist sings a harmony part and then records it again, the slight variations in pitch, timing, and tone between the takes create a fuller sound. This is not just about adding volume (in fact, we'll generally mix doubled harmonies so they would be at the same level as a single track). Rather, it's about adding depth and dimension to the music.
Doubling can be done naturally by recording the same harmony twice on separate tracks and then mixing them together. We can often pan the two takes away from the centre in order to make the harmony more dimensional and give the lead vocal (assuming it's panned to the middle) more room to shine in the mix.
Alternatively, we can utilize doubler plugins. My favourite is the Waves Doubler (an apt name). These plugins work by copying the input signal and generally combine detuning, delay, panning and modulation to approximate the effect of real double-tracking — that is, to create subtle differences in phase by slightly altering the time, pitch and even tone of the vocal copies.
In my experience, doubler effects work perfectly well on background element (including vocals) because they aren't typically mixed to draw the most attention to themselves. Actual recorded double-tracking, when the musician can perform the same take with precision, is nearly always better because there's more variation in the differences between the original and doubled tracks.
Taking a step back, we can use harmonies in the vocal production to emphasize certain phrases, words, or entire sections, helping to guide the listener's emotional journey through the song.
We can utilize doubled harmonies along with single harmonies at different parts of the song, or any technique for recording and mixing harmonies. I chose to share the doubling technique because it's one of my favourite ways to enhance the use of vocal harmonies in our productions.
Doubling Lead Vocals
Doubling isn't only a technique for harmonies, it's also a valuable tool for lead vocals.
We've already covered how to double vocals, and again, I'd strongly recommend doubling lead vocals at the tracking stage rather than relying on doubler effect, though they can also be effective.
Doubling creates a thicker, richer sound that adds depth and presence to a lead vocal track. The slight variations in the two performances, in terms of timing, pitch, and expression, contribute to a fuller, more dynamic sound.
The use of this technique can be dispersed throughout the song as necessary to enhance certain words, phrases and even entire sections.
Generally speaking, doubling the lead vocal will act to enhance the emotional weight of the song. The human voice is incredibly expressive, and with proper doubling, producers can amplify the emotional nuances of a performance. This technique can make a chorus more powerful or a verse more intimate, depending on how it's used.
When I use doubling, I'll often mix one version lower in level, though that's not a necessity of this vocal production technique. The reason I like doing this is that it adds to the dimensionality of the lead vocal while still have a single strong, defined vocal track at the forefront of the mix.
Vocal tuning is an essential tool in the modern world of music production. It's one that I regard as indispensable for crafting polished vocal tracks. This technique, far beyond mere correction, is a creative asset in the production process.
I didn't always feel this way, and in the broader context of my career, I've only been using tuning correction software for a relatively small percentage of my work. Don't be put off by the excessive use of this technology. I guarantee the current options can sound perfectly natural when used subtly while also offering us tuning perfection.
One of the primary reasons for the importance of vocal tuning is the competitive nature of the music industry. Listeners and industry professionals alike have grown accustomed to hearing perfectly pitched vocals in recordings. This level of perfection, often unattainable in live performances, has become the norm in recorded music. Vocal tuning helps artists meet these expectations, ensuring their work stands up against others in the market.
Of course, the amount of tuning will largely be dependent on the song, the genre, the vocalist's ability, and the overall aesthetic of the production. Some tracks will demand more heavy-handed tuning while others may not warrant any.
As an aside, beyond its use as a corrective tool; vocal tuning software can be manipulated for creative use as well. It allows producers and artists to experiment with vocal textures and harmonies, creating sounds that might be impossible to achieve naturally. This creative aspect opens up new possibilities in music production, enabling unique and innovative vocal arrangements.
I've used most of the top-of-the-line vocal tuning plugins on the market and my personal favourite is, by far, Celemony Melodyne. I put together the following video to demonstrate how to use this powerful tool for vocal tuning:
Compression is an indispensable tool in mixing and is especially important in vocal production. It can shape the tone of our vocals, bring them closer to the listener (or further away), and help us to produce a more polished, professional sounding vocal mix.
Dynamic range compression (better known simply as “compression”) works by reducing the dynamic range of a vocal track. In other words, it lessens the gap between the loudest and quietest parts of the performance.
This is crucial in modern music production, where vocals need to cut through the mix, which can often be rather dense with various instruments and effects. The quieter parts of a vocal performance can often get lost or overshadowed in the overall sound, leading to poor impact and clarity.
Compression helps to enhance the consistency of the vocal by smoothing out the dynamic range and effectively raising the level of the quietest parts so that they can be heard above the rest of the mix.
With the proper use of compression, every word and phrase can become audible and impactful. This consistency is vital across nearly all genres where the vocal is a central element, ensuring the listener's attention remains focused on the lyrical content and emotional expression of the song.
Moreover, compression adds a certain character and warmth to vocals, which can be particularly appealing in digital recordings that may otherwise sound too pristine or sterile. Different compressors impart varying sonic qualities, allowing producers to choose one that complements the vocalist's tone and the song's style.
So from both a balancing and a tonal standpoint, compression is a key tool for our vocal production efforts.
I've written an ebook dedicated entirely to mixing with compression as part of my “Mixing With Series”. If you'd like to learn everything you need to know about compression, you can check out ‘Mixing With Compression' here!
Intricate Volume/Fader Automation
Let's stay on the aforementioned topic of compression as a primer here. At its simplest, dynamic range compression effectively reduces the dynamic range of a signal by automatically reducing its output as its input surpasses a set level. In other words, compression acts as a sort of automatic level control, helping to keep a signal from going too high.
Automatic processing is great, but intricate manual control over our vocal levels gives us so much more potential for shaping the vocals to optimally fit the song. Vocals are naturally dynamic, and volume/fader automation can improve upon or reduce these dynamics to best suit the song.
Maybe we want certain words or phrases to stand out a bit more or maybe we need them to be a bit louder to cut through a certain denser section of the song.
Maybe the doubled tracks we had discussed could benefit from varied levels in the mix.
Maybe the compression (or lack thereof) can't create the exact consistency we need from the vocal, and therefore some additional fader automation is required.
As an aside, be aware of the signal flow when adjusting levels and whether you're adjusting before or after the compression — if you're only dealing with a single track with an inserted compressor, the fader will be after the compression stage.
Parallel processing, in the context of audio and music production, refers to a technique where an audio signal is split into two or more paths, processed separately, and then recombined. This approach allows for the blending of different processed signals with the original, unprocessed signal, creating a more complex and rich sound.
Compression and saturation or distortion are common “parallel processes” to utilize with the vocal. In either case, we end up with independent mix control over the dry, often dynamic vocal and the processes, often compressed and harmonically-richer version of the signal (often called the “wet” signal).
That's powerful, as we can drive our parallel auxiliary channel pretty hard before mixing it underneath the dry vocal.
Parallel compression, also known as New York or Manhattan compression, involves blending a heavily compressed version of a vocal track with the original, uncompressed track. This technique allows for the best of both worlds: the natural dynamics of the original vocal and the consistent intensity of the compressed version. The result is a vocal track that maintains its natural feel and expressiveness while gaining the richness and fullness that compression provides.
Parallel saturation involves blending a saturated or distorted version of a vocal track with the original. This technique allows us to drive the parallel channel pretty hard to get a rich tone, and then blend it underneath the original for added texture and timbre.
I have a video going into detail about parallel processing that you can watch below:
De-essing And De-Plosives
The sibilance range is required for speech intelligibility. It's the frequency range (often around 4-8 kHz) where most of the energy resided when “s” sounds are produced by humans.
However, too much sibilant energy in vocal tracks can be distracting and uncomfortable for listeners. These sharp, high-frequency sounds can pierce through a mix, drawing unwanted attention and disrupting the overall balance.
De-essing is a dynamics processor (like the aforementioned compression) that tactfully attenuates these frequencies, ensuring a smoother and more pleasant listening experience. My go-to is the Waves DeEsser.
Additionally, we should keep a keen ear for plosive energy, the bursts of air produced by humans making hard consonant sounds like “b”, “d”, “g”, “k”, “p” and “t”.
These bursts of energy can often overload the mic and lead to an excess of low-end energy.
High-pass filtering can be a useful tool for reducing plosive energy in a vocal track, and there are specialty tool, such as the iZotope RX De-Plosive that can help as well.
Of course, the best option is always to get it right at the source, but if we don't have pristine vocal tracks in our session, these are processes worth considering.
To help you get the best out of your vocal recordings in terms of sibilants and plosives, I put together the two following articles:
• Top 7 Tips To Reduce Sibilance In Microphones & Audio Mixes
• Top 10 Tips For Eliminating Microphone Pops And Plosives
Adding Space With Delay And Reverb
Another part of modern recording for vocals is the emphasis on dry recordings — those are, recordings that don't have excessive environmental or room noise baked into them.
However, it's still important for our mixes to have dimensionality. Since the vocal is most often the most prominent part of a mix, it's critical that we offer some sort of dimensional effects to it.
Note that, in achieving dry vocal tracks, we can process them to our liking from a “clean slate” rather than having to work with whatever natural spatial information is recorded along with the vocal. That's the major benefit of recording dry vocals in a proper vocal booth.
So from this clean slate, we can add time-based effects, namely delay and reverb, to evoke a sense of dimensionality to the vocal and its place in the overall mix.
These effects don't have to draw much attention to themselves. They're often more about being felt than being heard.
I always recommend setting up auxiliary tracks as “effects returns” for your time-based effects (essentially the same as parallel processing. That way you'll have independent control over the sound of the delay and/or reverb in the mix versus the dry vocal.
Personally, for vocal delay I generally reach for a digital stereo delay (I like a little bit of feedback and delay times of roughly 180 ms to one side and 220 ms to the other). I'll also sometimes utilize a mono “anchor delay” set to a 1/4 note to help anchor the vocal to the rhythm of the song. Subtly is almost always king here.
In terms of reverb, if my mix isn't overly dense, I'll often reach for a plate reverb for vocals. Of course, this largely depends on the mix, but in many cases, I like a plate reverb for vocals. Again, subtlety is the key here.
Delay And Reverb Throws
An effects throw is a momentary triggering of a desired effect, generally for emphasis of certain passages.
There are a few different ways to set these up, but the most effective, by far, is to unmute an effects send being sent to the desired effects return to open the effect (“throw to it”) and re-mute it after you no longer want the effect. You could also automate the send level from negative infinite to some value before bring it back down again.
The idea is to produce an effect for a short period of time. You “throw to the effect”, it “throws the effect back at you (to the mix)” and then it's done.
Vocal delay and reverb throws are fantastic ways to add excitement to the mix and accentuate certain words or phrases.
Here are the basic instructions for performing a vocal effects throw:
- Choose a vocal you want “thrown” to an effect (this is most often the lead vocal).
- Create a send from that vocal track to an effects return.
- Insert a delay or reverb on that return and adjust to taste (the effect and the level of the effect).
- Mute the send path.
- Create an automation lane and unmute the send path for the vocal passage you want to throw.
- Automate the send path so that it mutes right after the vocal passage.
- Make further adjustments to taste.
I hope that helps!
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Pick one of these techniques you've never tried before (or, if you have tried them all, pick you one you've used the least) and use it to its fullest advantage in your next production. Go overboard and see how far you can push it before it no longer works for you. Develop an understanding of using that technique tastefully.
Once you're satisfied, consider the technique next-in-line in terms of your experience or curiosity.
Does a microphone change your voice? Microphones, like all audio equipment, will alter the sound of your voice. Some microphones capture voice more accurately than others, but all mics alter sound in one way or another. On top of that, how you hear your own voice is different from how your voice actually sounds.
Related article: Does A Microphone Change Your Voice? (Natural Hearing Vs. Playback)
What are the best microphones for recording vocals? The best microphone for recording vocals, in practice, depends on the vocalist, the room, and the budget. That's why I put together the following budget-tiered articles to give my opinion on the best vocal microphones for recording:
- Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocals
- Top 10 Best Microphones Under $500 for Recording Vocals
- Top 12 Best Microphones Under $1,000 for Recording Vocals
- Top 11 Best Microphones For Recording Vocals (No Budget)
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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