We’ve been having a lot of discussions with other producers and mixing engineers of late and something that comes up a lot is the gear and plug-ins people use, and how they use them.
So we thought we’d share with you how we like to build our vocal chain at Kings Road Studio.
We took influence from the book, Your Mix Sucks and made a few amendments to suit the sounds we’re after. Essentially it can be broken down into five sections like this:
- Tone & Control
Once we have our vocal takes we’ll spend some time ironing them out, comping takes and tuning anything that may have gone astray. Melodyne is a great tuning tool, but we find that Logic Pro has some cool tools for this if you’re only making minor adjustments. Flex Pitch does a really good job and is also great at evening out the dynamics if you’re dealing with a vocalist that may not have the best mic technique.
So now we’ve prepped our vocal, lets get stuck in…!
The first thing we like to do with our vocal is remove any unnecessary sounds. A linear phase EQ is best for this job as we don’t want to impart any delays.
A high pass filter can be used to remove any low end rumble. Even if it’s only slight, by the time you build up your track with compression, reverb and effects, that rubble is going to muddy up your mix no end.
Here you can also cut any problem frequencies, if needed. Perhaps you recorded in a room that has an annoying resonant frequency? Using a narrow band filter find it, and get shot!
Next up is a De-Esser to deal with any sibilance. Typically you’ll be looking in the 5-12kHz region, depending on the vocalist. A neat trick we use is to pull up the analyser function in the linear phase EQ above to pinpoint the offending frequency. At a glance you’ll be able to see where the to set your De-Esser. But remember, always use your ears to ensure it’s correct.
At this point, pull your vocal down in volume so that it sits under the track to the point where you can just hear the words and make out the melody. By turning the vocal down we won’t get caught out by the louder = better trap.
We’re looking to add weight, starting at the low mids and working our way up. A broad boost around 200 – 500Hz with a Pultec MEQ 5 is great for this application with its very broad curve and its emulation of the original tube-based equipment.
Now to dial in some tone to that low mid boost by adding harmonics with a tube compressor. We’re not after heavy compression here, just something subtle that’ll add the right kind of harmonics. We like Waves LA-2A emulation, CLA-2A.
This is where we add the kind of frequencies that help a vocal to cut through a dense mix. We’re looking for a few between 1 – 10kHz. Typically we’ll pull up an SSL EQ and first look for “air” around 8 – 10kHz with a high shelf. We then add two further boosts around 4kHz with the HMF band and around 2kHz with the LMF.
You might find that you’ve now re-introduced too much of that sibilance. If so, lower the boost or go back and tweak your De-Esser. Don’t forget, adding no boost at all is always an option!
Now we need to tame those mid frequency boosts with a compressor capable of working hard and fast, but still musical. We love the LA-3A for this job.
Now by going back though the chain and tweaking your settings you’ll be able to achieve the desired balance of warmth and presence in your vocal tracks.
The 1176 compressor all day! We like to really slam it with around 10db of gain reduction. Not every vocal is going to need this kind of treatment so this stage might not be necessary, but if you want that massive in your face vocal that cuts through the mix go with the blue stripe for more harmonics and distortion, or the black face for something a bit mellower.
TONE & CONTROL
We add one last EQ here with a boost at 20Hz and a cut at 20kHz. The low-end boost adds a little extra weight and attenuating 20kHz smoothes out just the loudest top end energy, giving the vocal a more vintage sound. A Pultec EQP-1A is great for this.
The final processor in our chain is a limiter, usually the Waves L1. This is only catching very occasional peaks that will have been introduced if using the 1176 in the step before, so you might not need this if you didn’t use one.
So that’s it. There’s a lot going on here, often each processor is only effecting the signal by a small amount, but it all adds up! There will be some cases when you only need the warmth and tone control if you’re going for a more natural sound. But, if it’s a big in your face vocal capable of slicing through a thunderous drum kit and a wall of guitars, go at it and play with everything! We find this chain to be pretty flexible and it’s always a starting point for a vocal track at Kings Road Studio.