Processing vocals is a complex task. There are as many different vocal styles as there are vocalists, and each vocalist will benefit from processing that enhances the subtle nuances of their voice. To this end, as a producer you have a range of tools available to help with this process. The most important of these being EQ, compression and delay or reverb. Not surprisingly these are the same tools that you might use in processing other midrange elements in your track, be these a guitar, a lead synth or similar elements. As a result you could also use the following tips on similar such elements, scratching if you are making Hip Hop is an example that comes to mind.
1. EQ to Remove Clashing and Enhance Tonal Characteristics
The most important frequency range with vocals is the 1kHz to 4kHz region. This is the presence region and will be the region that cuts through the mix most. In most circumstances you'd leave this region intact, the exception might be if you have vocals at the same time as another instrument in your arrangement and both of these elements occupy parts of the presence region. In this case it might be of benefit to notch out certain frequencies in the vocals to allow room for this other instrument.
On either side of the presence region you should roll off frequencies at wherever you think sounds best. The aim is to narrow down the frequency range that the vocals are occupying without altering the tonal characteristics too greatly. This will allow you more space to fit other elements above and below the vocals, because this frequency information has been removed. You may also want to add a boost in the high end of the vocals to brighten them if they need it, or similarly a boost in the low end of the vocals if they need more body.
2. Even Out the Performance
Next add a compressor. Be selective in your choice of compressor as well as what settings you are using. Different compressors will sound good on different vocalists. Different attack, release, knee and lookahead settings will enhance different subtelties of a vocalist's performance. Spend some time getting this right because the right compressor will go a long way to making the vocals sound proffesionally produced. It will even out the differences in dynamic range (the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the signal) bringing up it's average volume as a result, making the vocals sound thicker, and more powerful.
3. Choose the Right Reverb or Delay
Depending on the style of the track and how cluttered your mix is, you will want to add a reverb or delay to suit. A delay can be a useful tool for adding depth without diffusing and blurring the vocals too much, this can be useful if you have a lot of wet (reverb affected) elements in your track already. Conversely if you have quite a sparse mix you may want to diffuse the vocals a fair bit to help them fill out your mix. Bear in mind that again, different reverbs will sound better on some vocals than others. brighter reverbs may sound better on male vocals because they typically occupy a lower frequency range, whereas a duller and more subtle reverb might suit female vocals more for the same reason. I am generalising here, it really depends on the context and what you want to acheive as well as the vocalist and vocal style. Use your ears as the final judge of what sounds right.
4. Be Creative
There are any number of creative effects you can add to a vocal performance to enhance certain aspects of it. here are a few that I have learned that you may want to try out individually or in combination:
- Add overdubs to emphasise certain words or phrases;
- Use the telephone effect as shown here;
- Add some light distortion for extra grit and to simulate a lo-fi sound;
- Reverse reverb as shown here;
- Use a flanger for a futuristic AI type sound;
- Creative gating, edits and other glitchy stutter type effects.
Hope you found this somewhat useful. I will not be writing an article next week as I will be overseas in Cambodia, so see you in a couple of weeks.