With all the great vocal plugins Plugin Alliance offers, processing vocals is relatively straightforward if you know the right ones to use for the sound you want. In this blog post, you'll learn how to make a vocal chain that contains a preamp, EQ, two compressors, a saturator, a pitch correction plugin, and various creative effects. Whether you want to mix rap vocals, pop vocals, or rock vocals, this vocal plugin chain will help make your productions sound top-tier.
All of the primary plugins mentioned throughout this guide are available as part of the Plugin Alliance MEGA Plan. If you're a MEGA Plan subscriber, you can access every mixing plugin you need to produce professional-quality vocals.
Vocal Chain Workflow
A typical recording workflow for many modern bedroom producers involves plugging a microphone directly into their audio interface. Then, they set their audio levels and click the "Record" button in their DAW. This process is simple, straightforward, and generally gets the job done. However, the downside is that it overlooks some speedy workflow enhancements.
Professional recording engineers invest more time into recording to speed up mixing audio later. For example, a standard hardware vocal chain includes connecting a popular vocal microphone like a Neumann U87, into a colorful preamp like a Helios Type 69, and then a musical EQ like a Pultec EQP-1A, followed by a flavorful compressor like a Universal Audio 1176LN or a Teletronix LA-2A.
Purchasing this hardware will cost thousands of dollars, but you can create a comparable in-the-box vocal chain using Plugin Alliance's plugins. We'll briefly walk through each product in this plugin vocal chain. Although, it's more important to understand the intention behind each plugin in the chain, so let's focus on that.
1. Add Color to Your Vocal Recordings
Many audio interfaces include built-in preamps that aim to provide a clean, clear tone for general audio recording purposes. The problem is that you miss a coloration stage during the recording process if your audio interface includes neutral-sounding preamps. That's where an in-the-box preamp like the Lindell 69 Series comes into play.
The Lindell 69 Series includes a preamp that delivers warm, present, and character-rich tones when you drive its Gain knob. In moderation, it can add authentic flavor to any vocal recording. For example, when pushed hard, it can inject aggressive rock and hip-hop vocals with desirable grittiness.
The preamp built into the Lindell 69 Series also includes a THD knob that you can use to add harmonic distortion to vocals. If your vocals are sitting deep within your mix, turning up the THD knob can help subtly push them forward. You'll be able to hear this effect most noticeably on acoustic songs and other tracks that feature delicate vocals.
It's also worth noting that the preamp built into the Lindell 69 Series includes a "Unity" switch. This feature reduces the plugin's output level based on how hard you drive the Gain knob. The result is that loudness bias is removed from the equation, allowing you to accurately audition the tone imparted on your sound by driving the preamp.
2. EQ Vocals to Balance Levels
Based on the tone of the vocalist you're recording, the space you're recording in, and the frequency response of the microphone you're using, you likely need to balance vocal levels using an EQ. Many producers fall into a trap, thinking they need to surgically process their vocals at this point in a vocal chain. Surgical EQ processing has its place but not until later on.
Reach for a musical EQ like the Lindell Audio PEX-500 and start twisting knobs. I think the Lindell Audio PEX-500 is in the running for the best EQ for vocals. The beauty of using a semi-parametric EQ like this, without a built-in spectrum analyzer, is that you're forced to use your ears. Complex band interactions occur under the hood, meaning the PEX-500 produces a natural sound.
Some critical vocal frequency ranges include 100-200 Hz, where low-end rumble may occur. Low-end rumble manifests due to floor vibrations making their way up a vocalist's microphone stand. It can also result from a vocalist standing close to their microphone and breathing heavily into it.
Around 200-700 Hz, vocals can sometimes sound "boxy." Imagine the sound you hear when you smack the side of an empty cardboard box. Boxy vocals contain resonance around 400-700 Hz, resulting in the same tone as a cardboard box. The PEX-500 doesn't contain a midrange band since its purpose is to affect low-end and top-end frequency content. To fix "boxiness," applying a cut at 700 Hz with the EQ built into Lindell Audio's 69 Series should do the trick.
Adding top-end gloss and shimmer to vocals is where the PEX-500 shines. Boosting the High band around 3-5kHz is an excellent way to add clarity to vocals, help them cut through your mix, and provide a polished sound.
Making the audio running through this EQ sound bad is hard, so feel free to get carried away twisting knobs. Use a wide bandwidth and roll off frequency content around 15-20kHz to keep your sound under control. Once you're happy with the overall tone of your vocals, you can add a compressor to your vocal chain.
3. Control Dynamic Range With Vocal Compression
Consider the following situation: you've set the level of your vocal track so that the quiet sections sound balanced against the rest of your mix. Although, the sections where your vocalist uses more power stick out of the arrangement like a sore thumb.
Turning down your entire vocal track won't solve the issue because the quiet sections will become too quiet. You're left wondering, "How do you make vocals sit in the mix?" This is where a compressor comes into play.
Set the level of your vocal track so that the quiet sections sound balanced against your mix. Then, reach for a highly responsive FET compressor like Purple Audio's MC77. This is perhaps the best vocal compressor plugin to use when you want to clamp down on transient audio material aggressively. Purple Audio's MC77 has a lightning-fast response to incoming audio material, making it a good choice for transient rock, punk, and rap vocals.
Select a Ratio value of "4" and adjust the MC77's Input knob to increase the amount of compression applied. Aim for 2-3dB of gain reduction for less dynamic vocals or upwards of 8dB for more dynamic performances.
One of people's biggest vocal processing mistakes is not compressing their vocals hard enough. It is possible to over-compress a vocal and suck the life out of it, but you can safely avoid this by ensuring the Purple Audio MC77's gain reduction meter is floating around 1 dB during quiet sections. Doing this ensures that you're only targeting loud sections with compression.
Fast attack and release times can produce creative vocal distortion effects when using Purple Audio's MC77. This side effect can also be applied to drums, adding crunch to kicks, grit to snares, and sizzle to hi-hats. Keep in mind that the Purple Audio MC77 is unique because high attack and release values result in fast attack and release times. The values surrounding the Attack and Release knobs are not time-based.
Following up your FET compressor with an optical compressor can help smooth out your vocal performance further. Rather than attempting to tame peaks with this optical compressor, the goal is to apply a general smoothing effect to your vocals. The Brainworx bx_opto is modeled based on the optical circuits of various world-famous compressors, making it the perfect tool for this task.
Optical compressors operate uniquely. As an audio signal runs through the device, a small light bulb is illuminated based on the signal's amplitude. Next to the light bulb, there's a light-dependent resistor that modifies the amount of compression applied to the audio signal. A high signal amplitude results in a brighter bulb and more compression being applied.
Details such as the physical anomalies of the light bulb and resistor can drastically affect how compression is applied. For example, a light bulb that illuminates slowly will result in a prolonged attack time, whereas a less sensitive resistor will lead to fast release times. Optical compressors deliver nonlinear attack and release times, producing a beautifully organic sound.
To use the Brainworx bx_opto, turn up the Peak Reduction knob and aim for 1-2 dB of gain reduction. Then, adjust the Speed knob to increase or decrease the release time. You'll want to use a moderate or slow release time to smooth out a vocal performance. The goal is to gently hug your vocals with a natural form of dynamic range reduction and softly tighten the performance.
4. Apply Saturation to Thicken Vocals
At this point, I recommend applying some gentle saturation to your vocals. Most vocals can benefit from a little bit of extra flavor. I typically reach for the Brainworx bx_saturator V2 when applying saturation to vocals. Turn up the Master XL knob to around 25-50%, depending on how thick you want your vocals to sound.
This saturator also provides multi-band and mid-side saturation control, delivering two extra dimensions of control if necessary. The mid-channel has a Mid Hi band and Mid Lo band. You can adjust the crossover point using a slider to select a frequency between 20-20,000 Hz; this is useful if you want to mellow out harsh high-frequency content while leaving your low-end unaffected. Alternatively, beef up the low end of a vocal while leaving high-end frequencies untouched.
Assuming you recorded your vocals in mono, the side channel won't affect your audio much. However, feel free to apply saturation to your vocal buss later on and take full advantage of the bx_saturator V2's side channel. Use it to add warmth to doubles and harmonies.
5. Pitch Correct Vocals
In an ideal world, your vocalist will nail their vocal performance every time without fail. However, realistically, even the most seasoned vocalists can benefit from gentle pitch correction. Rather than shelling out a monthly subscription for Auto-Tune or coughing up $649 on Melodyne, you can use Brainworx's bx_crispytuner.
bx_crispytuner is pitched as "the easiest vocal tuning plugin you'll ever use". There's a Simple mode that provides straightforward pitch adjustments, as well as an Advanced mode, and a Graphical mode that allows you to draw in detailed pitch changes.
Start by selecting the scale that your song uses. If you're unsure of the scale, you can use the bx_scalefinder to automatically identify it. In Simple mode, adjust the Tuning knob to dial in the amount of pitch correction applied.
Advanced mode provides you with more control over pitch transition time, tightness, and correction amount. This mode is best suited for confident mixing engineers that want full control over the way in which pitch correction is applied.
For the most demanding pitch correction applications, you can use Graphical mode to modify how pitch correction is applied to notes individually. If your vocalist sings a wrong note, you can quantize the note to a pitch that's 1, 2, or 3+ semitones away.
It's also worth mentioning that bx_crispytuner can apply classic robotic-style pitch correction effects. If that's the sound you're aiming for, crank up the Tuning knob to 100% and let the T-Pain-style pitch correction begin.
6. Add Creative Vocal Effects Plugins
With your vocals now standing on their own two feet, you can apply creative effects. Perhaps you want to create a telephone filter effect using an EQ, run your vocals through a flanger, or use a more comprehensive effects suite like Unfiltered Audio's BYOME, which includes 40 effects. For even more control, consider using Unfiltered Audio's TRIAD, which allows you to apply the same processing provided by BYOME, split amongst three frequency bands.
An exciting addition to your vocal chain that you may want to consider is a harmony plugin like iZotope's Nectar 3 that generates vocal doubles. It does this by duplicating the vocal, then panning one double to the left and one to the right. Slight variations in pitch and time are introduced to each double, making it possible for your ears to distinguish the doubles from the main vocal.
As part of Native Instruments celebration of 20th years of KOMPLETE you can download Necter Elements completely free here.
You typically want to apply all your weird and wacky processing before loading spatial effects plugins, like delay and reverb; this is because spatial effects plugins can quickly start to sound messy if you apply them early on in your vocal processing chain. To build on that, you'll have a more controlled sound if you apply delay before reverb. Otherwise, reverb tails will multiply, stack on each other, and quickly become a washed-out mess.
I favor simplicity when it comes to vocal delay plugins and reverb plugins. Generally, my goal is to create a cohesive sense of space without bells and whistles getting in the way. As such, Unfiltered Audio's Instant Delay and Unfiltered Audio's TAILS reverb are my go-to selections.
Setting up a 1/8th note or 1/4 note delay using Instant Delay is a classic vocal processing trick. Use a small Feedback value, cut away the lows and highs from the delayed vocal using a band-pass filter, and reduce the Mix knob to below 45%. The goal is to use the delayed signal to fill space; this can help sparse sections of your arrangement sound fuller without adding additional instruments. This effect also works during the chorus of songs, adding an extra layer of robustness.
TAILS keeps your reverb tails clean by automatically removing transients and dissonance. This reverb plugin is essential when applying reverb directly to a vocal track rather than on an aux track. It provides an abundance of control that would otherwise require you to set up a parallel track and apply a reverb followed by a transient shaper.
The Decay knob found within TAILS's GUI affects the length of the reverb tail. Rap vocals typically call for a short decay time that allows listeners to focus on the wordplay. Pop vocals and rock vocals may lean more toward a moderate or long decay time. Factors like the section of your song, the emotion behind your music, and personal preference all come into play when setting decay time.
To effectively dial in the Ducking feature within TAILS, turn the Mix knob to 100% adjust the Speed knob to apply the intended pumping effect. Afterward, dial back the Mix knob to blend the processed signal with the dry signal.
Having a go-to vocal processing chain containing all the plugins you need to process vocals is alluring but unrealistic for every song. Often, you'll want to use aux effects to quickly apply parallel compression, delay, and reverb to your tracks.
Aux tracks simplify the mixing process and limit your computer's CPU load. Rather than applying the same reverb to 10 different tracks, you can send signal from each track to a single reverb placed on an aux track. You may choose to apply a delay or reverb directly to a track because no other tracks share the same effect, you plan to apply additional processing afterward, or you want a portable vocal chain that you can drag and drop between project sessions.
Why Your Vocal Chain Order Matters
The order in which you apply the plugins in your vocal chain is critical. For example, EQing before compression is best for making broad tonal changes, while EQing after compression allows you to make surgical processing adjustments. If you apply EQ and compression using the Lindell 69, insert the EQ before or after the compressor by toggling the Post-Pre switch.
Traditionally, pitch correction is one of the first audio effects in your signal chain order. However, in the spirit of recreating an analog hardware chain that includes a preamp, EQ, compressors, and a saturator, bx_crispytuner is one of the last plugins in this vocal chain.
Committing to a hardware-style workflow is fun, but let's pay attention to the benefits of mixing in the box. If you're having issues achieving natural-sounding pitch correction, applying pitch correction closer to the sound source can sometimes provide a solution. Experiment with the placement of bx_crispytuner to fine-tune your sound.
A vocal chain is only useful when you understand the intention behind each plugin. Not only do you understand what each plugin in this vocal chain does, you now have a solid understanding of how to process vocals in general. Experiment with this vocal processing chain, swap in different hardware emulations, and adapt it to fit your workflow.
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