Over the last year I have been working on a new project called Silkdrop. After New Years I was honored to have the chance to work with Heather Christie, aka Cheraki, to record vocals. During our time in the studio I was able to experiment with a lot of techniques in vocal treatment. In this article I am going to share some of the techniques and tips I use for working with vocals and getting them to sound crisp, clear, and upfront.
This article is going to be looking at creating a very natural and professional vocal sound from your recordings. We are not going to look into the more creative ways of modulating and morphing vocals(pitching, reverse vocals, and so on). Our objective is for a clean and beautiful mix. After that we can get creative with chorusing and so on.
Riding the Volume:
There are a few key components that make a really good vocal. One of them is a smooth control of volume. If your singer has great mic technique, like Heather did, then it should be a pretty smooth vocal to start. There might be instances where you want to accentuate a tail, or lower a plosives. (p, t, k and so on) It’s a great idea to listen through the track and do micro edits in the gain to fix these subtle problems.
To do this, add an instance of Utility to the track. Then use the Gain knob to make those fine adjustments in gain. There are a few reasons that using a Utility is better than the volume fader. First of all it lets you change the overall volume of the track easily, but keep the fine adjustment.s It also means the volume changes will happen at the beginning of your effect chain. If you have a compressor or de-esser those effects will happen after your gain automation and make for a much better vocal quality.
Ableton Live Compressor as a De-esser:
A de-esser is a very important tool to have in editing vocals. For the particular recording I did with Heather we used a very sensitive mic (Miktek c5). This mic was bright and picked up the S’s and breaths pretty strongly. The easiest way to deal with this is by using a de-esser. A de-esser is like a type of compression that happens around a certain frequency range. You can use it to just lower the higher frequencies found in S’s.
I personally love the Fabfiler Pro-DS. This plugin is an amazing and clear De-Esser. You don’t, however, need a third party plugin and you can do it directly in Live with a compressor.
Here is a great video by AfroDjMac on setting up a De-esser in Ableton:
EQ it out:
Once we got the subtle volume gains and take out the S’s we might want to add a little EQ. The key to EQing vocals is to try and keep it as natural as possible. Here are some basic tips and techniques to keep in mind.
1. Get rid of the excess low end.
Vocal recordings do not generally need anything below 60hz. The lower frequencies can sometimes add mud or hum. It’s best to eq out the low end from the vocal recording using an EQ8. This will also give more room for deep pads or bass.
With Heather’s Vocal I even went to 120hz. Her vocals started around 200-300hz. It’s best to just look at the frequencies of the voice and adjust it to take out the low end, but not disrupt the natural quality of the voice.
2. Remove problem frequencies rather than boosting other frequencies.
EQing can allow us to take out problem frequencies in our recordings. Like maybe the room has a slight ring to it or is boomier then you would like. It’s a good idea to find the trouble frequencies and use Subtractive EQing. In other words, take an EQ band and set the filter mode to Bell. Then lower Gain and have a high Filter Q. This will take out just that frequency out and leave the other aspects of the sound more natural.
3. Do subtle boost of frequencies
If you are going to add a boost, it is best to do this subtlety with a very low Filter Q. In other words, it’s more of a mound than it is a sharp peak. The reason we do this is to keep a more natural sounding harmonics then really cranking only one frequency in the harmonic and having it seem fake or sounding like computer music.
The real difference between an amateur engineer and a pro is understanding that subtlety goes a long way and less is always more.
4. EQ before Compression.
When dealing with vocals it is usually a good idea to put your EQ before your compressor. This will take out any trouble frequencies and get them out of the way before the disrupt the threshold of the compressor.
Compression on vocals:
After our EQ we might want to add a compressor. There is a lot to know about using a compressor, so if you are new to using a compressor make sure you check out my article on Ableton Live’s compressor.
To start you need to understand why you are adding a compressor. Are you trying to make it just pop and sound front and center? Well, why is it not doing that already. Maybe there is a pad in the way, or maybe it’s just the volume. I find that a lot of issues you are trying to fix with compression can be fixed by changing settings on other aspects of the mix.
One thing compression is good at is evening out the overall volume of the recording. When I was in the studio with Heather I found that she has an amazing soulful vocal that plays with the dynamics and intonation a lot. Because of this, some of her consonants might have been a little lower in the mix and needed to be brought up. I could do that by hand, or use a compressor to bring down the loudest peaks and even out the volume for more clarity. This is a great example of why you might use a compressor.
As a good starting point, here is the setting I might use for a vocal compressor:
Set the threshold just below where the louder portions happen.
Use a relatively high ratio, maybe 4:1.
Keep the attack under 10 ms
You can see that this is only compressing the peaks of the vocals and rounding the overall volume out. Just like EQing, less is more, so don’t over do it with the compressor.
Clear and Present Vocals:
Once you set up the vocal chain and tweaked the settings you will have a very clear and clean recording to work from. Here is an example of what the order of audio effects might look like in Live:
We have the utility to fix any gain issues, the EQ8 to clean up some frequencies, then a de-esser, and finally a compressor. After this you should have a very professional and clean vocal. From here you can start adding effects like chorusing, delay, and reverb knowing that the original source is gorgeous in its own right.
Hopefully that will inspire you in your own recordings and give you some techniques to add to your mix. I hope to release this music I recorded with Heather Christie, but in the meantime, check out her music at: https://soundcloud.com/cheraki