Many producers just starting off assume they need to add lots of processing to their audio signal to get a CD quality recording when mastering vocals, however this isn’t always true. Today i will give a rough guide to a basic vocal signal mixing chain. So what is a signal chain. Its the path the audio follows from recording to the final output.
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The best way to get a great vocal is to begin with as clean of a signal as possible to begin with. See my guide to setting up a home studio here. To help you with the mixing and mastering process its always good to try and get a good clean recording. That means making sure the signal isn’t peaking, that parts of your recording aren’t too quiet etc. Once you have a good recording, now you can start making adjustments to suite you.
Alot of DAW’s will have built in plug ins the majority of time that are worth trying, especially the ones built into Logic Pro X. Sometimes before the vocal kicks in there is alot of dead noise which will be picked up on a good condenser microphone. This can add white noise to the rest of your composition without noticing. Adding a noise gate will cut off any signal below a certain decibel level. This means you won’t get that extra noise that affects how clean the rest of the mix is.
My first step is adding a touch of compression. The idea behind compression is to bring some of the quieter elements of your vocal up to mix with the rest. This will give you a more consistent vocal with less dips in volume etc. This is a way of increasing the volume or bring out parts of your vocal without having to raise the volume of individual tracks. A compressor can be added to anything, whether its vocal or just a drum kick. I prefer to add just a subtle amount of compression on my vocal chains however this can be adjusted to suite your needs. If you want a more in your face, present vocal you can crank up a compressor and bring down the threshold and this will give you that effect.Mastering vocals doesn’t mean it should always sound the same, sometimes its good to experiment to see what other sounds you can produce.
Now you want to mould the audio to fit the track and also to bring out the best transients of someones voice. My first tip is to apply a low pass filter. By cutting out unnecessary lower frequencies its will clean up the vocal. These lower frequencies can make a mix muddy and even though they may not be completely noticeable, once removed, it is clear that something has changed.
Once this is done its time to tweak the signal to suit the singer. Subtractive EQ’ing is a process where you look for sudden peaks in the recording or undesirable frequencies and instead of adding EQ to bring out a certain frequency, you take away from other channels instead to bring the most desirable tones and sounds to the forefront.
If a vocal is particularly harsh it may be necessary to add a de-esser which will soften the sharp sound S noises in the recording. This means it will take away from higher frequencies so its always a good shout to EQ again to make sure you don’t dull your vocal too much.
There is no set rules for mastering vocals so many might choose to add another level of compression before this final stage. Some people may prefer to EQ first and then add compression which will give a different sound so its worth experimenting to see what you like best. My last stage is reverb and delay effects. These can help bring the vocal into the mix more. It will also create room effects so the recording doesn’t sound so clinical and more natural.
There is no right or wrong way to master vocals however there are a few stages that i would put into all my vocal signal chains. Also recording a good source to begin with means you will spend less time having to make adjustments or fixing parts of the vocal. Start with a good canvas and the rest of the art will follow. For the best start why not check out our production section on www.djtechdirect.com
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