Processing the vocals is one of those over-mystified phenomena that keeps rearing its ugly head quite often. Beginners who want to look more professional throw the term around like robot vacuum the cat feces. Pros on the other hand just go ahead and do their thing, paying no attention to what it’s being called. And that’s the way you should do as well, but not before we sink a bit deeper into what this whole thing really means.
Vocal chain – tight around your neck
If you ever got the n00b request of “sounds good, but could you process it more?!”, you know how tiring it can be to imitate things you haven’t really planned to do. It’s pretty much the case about vocal chains in general. Because in reality, what you really need is well recorded vocal tracks, and well thought out arrangement. That will ensure that you have to do precious little processing afterward. More like spicing up and cook what good you already have in a raw state.
That being said, there are a couple of things you do need to do, in the majority of cases. First of all, If you are lazy to edit the vocal track by hand to get rid of every obtrusive breath, noise, fly swapping and whatnot, you might want to use a noise gate as well. It’s not my preferred method, but if there’s a constant hiss going on or a fan that shouldn’t have been there, you can use it. Noise suppressor/eliminator plugins can do an even better job in this role. Make sure though that you don’t get rid every single breath, for it can render your vocal sound completely unnatural. Unless that’s exactly what you’re going for, of course.
As far as the processing goes, you might also need to de-ess the vocals. If the sibilance is unbearably strong and if you can’t simply tame it with EQ, you have to soften those spitting sounds with it just enough that the track sits into the high end of the music perfectly.
Put under pressure
The next step is usually a compressor, though if you have anything you don’t want to hit the compressor hard with, you might need to EQ it out first. With the compressor, you can make sure the vocals are as in your face as you want them to. And man, vocals can take a lot of compression. You can be somewhat conservative with the ratio (4:1 is about my go-to number), but you can get close to or reach limiting as well, if that’s what the track needs. Don’t be light handed, squeeze the sucker until it sounds exactly the way you need it to. Make sure that every word is intelligible, and that you achieved as much throatiness and aggressive edge as you wanted. We are doing this for the listeners, not just for ourselves, after all. Whatever you choose to do, try to preserve some precious transients, so the vocals don’t come off as overly flat and lifeless squirrel farts. Play around with the attack and release (if the compressor you are using has these) until you find the right balance. If you want to be really gentle and transparent, try parallel compression.
Then comes our good friend, the EQ. You might need to roll off some of the low end on the vocals. While many microphones offer such a roll off, generally it’s one of those things that you can wait with until the mixing process. This way, you can judge better and easier how much has to be removed. It all depends on the actual track. A denser, thicker arrangement will require smaller vocals, thus you’re going to remove more of the lows. Use either a high-pass filter or a low shelf, or the combination of both. With the high-pass you can set the absolute low end that still allowed through. Then with the low shelf you can cut and shape what’s left down there better, blending the lower end of the vocals perfectly into the rest of the music.
The fun part
Once the corrective part of the equalization is done, you can look for the so called “money” frequencies, and boost them. These usually lie somewhere in the (high) mids (bell filter – 3-5kHz), and of course the top end of the spectrum (high shelf from about 8-10kHz). You don’t want to overdo this, or the vocal tracks will not be able to fit into the music naturally. They can develop nasty resonant peaks too, which can render the performance and the listening experience uneven. Keep the bandwidths fairly wide (low Q numbers), and look for small 1-3dB boosts. By all means if it needs more, the heck with it and give ’em hell.
Put it out in space
Vocal ambience – reverb and delay – is worth making an entirely new topic. You can use about any kind of these, whichever the music calls for. In general, you want to roll of as much of the ambience as needed to make them sound natural. I suggest you to set them full wet and use them on an aux send, so you can set up the exact amount you need. The most important parameters to look for during processing the singing voice are tail length and pre-delay. With the former, you can place the vocal track between the gaps of the groove the rest of the music generates. With the latter, you can make sure the singer’s voice stands out and placed in front of the music.
If it’s still lacking, or you have concrete plans, it’s time to reach for those effects. Modulation like chorus, pitch shift or flanger are usual culprits, and lately, auto-tune as well. About the best thing you can do to plain vocal tracks is to distort them. By this, I don’t mean hard and well audible distortion. What you need is all kinds of subtle saturation processes. Even if you can’t hear it, just dial it in, and trust the subconscious to create something good out of it in your mind, for trust me, it will.