Mixing a One-Man Vocal Choir – Tutorial with Devin Townsend

126,410 Views

Musician/producer Devin Townsend shows how he creates giant vocal choirs using only his own voice and clever mixing tricks. In this video, you'll learn how he stacks and blends dozens of vocal tracks and creates unique sonic textures with delay, clever panning and reverb.

We asked Devin to share some more insights on his creative process, mixing workflow and production techniques – and how he handles producing and often even mixing his own work:

Devin, many of your songs have that huge atmospheric wall of sound. How do you create that, in particular for vocals?

Echo has been instrumental in my writing process since the beginning. I often visualize complex orchestrations even at the start of the process, while writing with just a guitar. I tend to layer effects as I go. The idea of wet/dry/wet – in terms of a signal chain to achieve a certain sound or feeling, is present throughout many creative decisions in my mixes.

For vocals, some of these layers are created with the H-Delay, Enigma, V-Comp and Renaissance Reverb plugins, and simple dynamic manipulation tools like Waves Renaissance DeEsser, to do small textural modifications to my source tracks. By that I mean: I typically stack upwards of two dozen tracks during a background vocal session and also run them all through a delay and reverb chain. If the transients of consonants on the tracks are not tamed by a slight -5db or so, I DeEss at around 10k. That frequency builds up and tends to hit the delays in a very unmusical way. By putting an instance of the Renaissance DeEsser plugin on each vocal track, I can really sculpt those transients, and additionally, the plugin is not CPU intensive, so I can be very liberal with how many instances I choose to use.

For vocal compression, Waves V-Comp is one plugin I add to all vocal tracks and vocal busses. The default adds a color and warmth to the tracks that has become indispensable to me.

I often use deceptively simple plugin chains to achieve complex textures, as I’m not a fan of too many options when I'm in the heat of battle. For example, my auxiliary bus for my vocal effects is a simple ping pong delay that I do with H-Delay, which has a 1/4 and 1/8 interval, with a low-pass filter and hi-pass filter to tame the frequency range as not to interfere with my source sounds, with a repeat rate of maybe 72%. (I sometimes will engage the lo-fi parameter as well, but that is personal preference on a song-to-song basis.) I then follow this with the Renaissance Reverb, set to a hall, with maybe 9 seconds of decay. I sculpt a fair amount of low frequencies out of the reverb and set the density high, with no pre-delay. While the H-Delay is at 100% mix, the reverb maybe sits at about 30% mix, the effect is that again, it softens the transients of the delay, and gives an ethereal spread.

I follow all of this with the Waves API 560 EQ, to carve out any frequencies that start to build up, and in extreme cases, I will put another instance of the Ren DeEsser in front of the delay to help tame any additional hard transients. This effect, though a few individual plugins, is really two very basic, quality effects that I have full control over. I have used this chain on every record I’ve done from Ki up to Transcendence.

In addition, I use the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor on my master bus and I am constantly shocked at how well it pulls off the color and effect of the true hardware version. I keep a relatively fast attack and release at about 4:1, and just touch the input at around -1 or 2 dB. This softens the transients of digital workstations and gives me a more pleasing high end and cohesiveness to my mixes.

You play several roles in your own productions – vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and often even mixing and recording engineer. What’s been your motivation to spread out so much?

More than an internal need to do everything myself, it was initially more about necessity. In the early days, I simply didn’t have access to much in terms of personal or practical resources. As a result, I had to learn how to achieve the end results of my specific and rather singular visions by any means necessary. By no means was I under the assumption that I was, say, a qualified mastering engineer. But at the time, it needed to be done; so, I found a way to do it. If anything, I’m adept at finding solutions to practical problems.

Given your multiple roles, is there any kind of separation between composing, recording, production and mixing, or do they all blend?

I believe that I wear different hats for different roles. I spent many years doing manual labor or working in restaurants etc., so I am no stranger to repetitive ‘menial’ (as some may call them) tasks. I’m not a big fan of hierarchy in the workplace, and in many ways, I feel that each role in the creative process that I’m meant to assume require simply getting into the frame of mind, and surrendering to the task at hand. Being a singer is a fundamentally different task and psychology from editing drums, yet neither are of more or less significance to me, so learning what the parameters of each task is, and then submitting to the workflow and their pitfalls makes it all basically the same mental state. Different roles we play I guess, maybe I’m just fundamentally acting.

Do you mix everything yourself, or do you send it out at some point for someone else to mix?

Both. I have mixed the majority of my work, not necessarily because it was the best move, especially years ago, but more out of necessity. I either couldn't afford someone, or the attempts others made to interpret a very singular vision were simply incorrect. I forced myself to learn, and it’s all trial and error. I have made some terrible-sounding records while learning, but I believe allowing that to happen really helped me conquer the fear of failing as a mixer. I am now at a level where time permitting, I prefer to mix my own music. I have mixed with many others though – Daniel Bergstrand, Mike Fraser, Mike Plotnikoff, Jens Bogren, Adam “Nolly” Getgood, Shaun Thingvold, just to name a few.

My problems with other mix engineers usually have to do with compression: with the layering I use, too much compression, even if it gets ‘that sound’, strangles the vibe of my work. Also, my use of echo and layers is very idiosyncratic and often others don't see the point of it, and I arm-wrestle over intangible things with them. I have learned a lot through the experiences though, and as always, compromise can be your best friend if you can put yourself aside and try to listen. We listen for a living, so I guess it’s not a stretch!

Are there challenges in producing and mixing yourself? How do you deal with the issue of internal/external perspective?

There are challenges in every way of doing things. Each situation provides unique advantages and drawbacks. I am fortunate to be a ‘vision-oriented’ artist, meaning that I have from very early on in the creative process, a very specific goal I am trying to achieve. Therefore, self-producing and mixing tends to be a very efficient way of going about my business. I have a 'point B' in mind that I want to get to, and the tools and lack of distractions to achieve it. I can see that being a liability to people who do not function like that, so I consider myself fortunate. However, if the music or project includes other opinions and perspectives, I solicit that early and often, and I rely on deadlines imposed by label and management to help me curb my obsessions.

With such elaborate productions and mixes – when do you decide that a mix is done?

I like the quote: ‘A mix is never finished, you just have to abandon it at some point'! Again, deadlines are my best friend. If you give me a week, I’ll finish in a week, if you give me a year, I’ll take a year. The point is the same, you need to be willing and ready to let things go. Ultimately, family, friends, health and mind are more important that any art to me, so life in general does a pretty good job of keeping that in check.

"Truth" composed by Devin Townsend, from the album Transcendence by the Devin Townsend Project. Live performance from the DVD Ocean Machine – Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv courtesy of Devin Townsend.