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Doubling Live Vocals with Reel ADT

Feb 10, 2015

One of my favorite plugins released within the last year has to be the Waves/Abbey Road Reel ADT. In many ways, it’s something I’ve waited for my entire career.

I first learned about ADT, or automatic double-tracking, while taking a college course on the Beatles many years ago, and I've been wanting to play with this effect ever since. As a live sound engineer, my hopes and desires for a way to automatically double-track increased, because until we are able to literally clone a lead singer, this is the closest we’re going to get to an actually doubled live vocal.

But why would anyone even want a doubled vocal in the first place?

Double-tracking vocals is a studio trick that dates back to the 1950s, when it was discovered that doubling the vocal could give it a richer sound. It’s a very common technique today and is often used to thicken the vocal. Bringing a double in on a chorus or even just a line here and there can also help give the vocal a lift within the song. These days, the process of double-tracking in the studio often extends beyond vocals to instruments as well.

There are many different techniques out there for getting close to the sound of double-tracking, but in my opinion none of them quite nails the effect because they all tend to revolve around the processing of a single performance. What makes a double-tracked vocal work, however, is in fact the difference between multiple performances.

When a vocalist double-tracks his vocal, it is absolutely impossible for him to exactly mimic what he’s already sung. There are some truly amazing vocalists in the world that can get very close, but they will never exactly duplicate their performance. There will always be timing and pitch differences in the doubled performance. When these differences are combined with the original vocal, we get the doubled effect we love. Simply processing a single performance may be effective in some ways, but it usually misses the various parts of the equation that happens with a truly doubled performance.

What made the original Abbey Road ADT process so special, by contrast, is that it used an LFO to alter both the pitch and the timing of a performance. The Reel ADT plugin does the same thing. Setting Reel ADT’s LFO to “random” changes the timing of the performance by randomly speeding it up and slowing it down, and these speed changes in turn raise and lower the pitch of the performance.

I believe that automatic double-tracking is as close to real doubling as you can get outside of an actual double. And now, with the Waves/Abbey Road Reel ADT in my arsenal, I can finally do automatic doubling in live sound and not just in the studio.

From a technical standpoint, Reel ADT is not compatible with the VENUE platform I've been mixing on for the last ten years, but I never saw that as a problem. Fortunately, I have a Pro Tools rig connected at all times, and it has served as an excellent host for my live Reel ADT endeavors over the last year. I simply route an Aux Send or Direct Out from my console to Pro Tools, where Reel ADT is loaded on an Aux track that returns to my console on a stereo FX return. I assigned my FX return’s mute control to a foot pedal so I can add a double whenever I want without ever taking my hands off the faders.

One of my favorite uses for Reel ADT right now is to create an instant gang vocal on the fly. On an average week I have two or three vocalists on stage, and since I usually route all my vocals to a single Aux send for reverbs, that Aux also makes a great send for Reel ADT. After I bring Reel ADT up on my console, I send it to another medium to longish reverb — halls seem to work nicely for this — and blend that in. The effect is a wall of vocals, which in worship can help give the feeling of the entire room taking things up a notch.

I love having useful yet unique tools, and I believe the Waves/Abbey Road Reel ADT plugin fits that mold. Plus the new live components make this an even better fit for live use. If you haven’t already added this to your collection, give the demo a shot.