Vocals are the most important part of any song, but sometimes getting a good sound can take forever—so call up Lead Vocal 101, incl. chain preset with the free StudioRack, and you’ll have a mixed vocal in seconds.
By Craig Anderton
One of StudioRack’s strengths is consolidating multiple effects and parameters into a single, user-friendly control panel. The Lead Vocal 101 chain preset includes all the elements needed for a ready-to-go lead vocal sound: EQ, de-essing, dynamics control and ambiance. It’s a major time-saver when mixing—after you’ve nailed the vocal sound, then you can wrap the rest of the mix around it. We’ll also discuss substitute plugins for these critical lead vocal elements to give you different color options depending on the genre of the song and style of voice.
Also, consider that many vocalists want to hear at least reverb in their earphones while tracking so that they feel more comfortable about their vocal sound. With today’s fast computers and low-latency interfaces, vocalists can monitor through Lead Vocal 101 and hear a “produced” vocal sound. This can not only help their confidence but encourage them to sing a part that works well with Lead Vocal 101’s processing.
Lead Vocal 101 splits the vocal chain into two parallel paths. One provides control over dynamics and timbre, while the other adds ambiance. This makes it easy to edit your essential vocal sound first and then add “ear candy” delay and reverb to polish the part.
The chain starts with V-EQ3, a vintage Neve EQ emulation which shapes the low and high frequencies. The Bass knob controls a low-frequency shelving filter (with a 100 Hz corner frequency) over its full boost/cut range. The Air control does the same for a high-frequency shelving EQ; its corner frequency is 12 kHz.
Next, the DeEsser tames any annoying “ess” sounds. This is important because the next stage is the R-Compressor—you want compression to provide dynamics control for the vocal but not bring up excessive ess sounds in the process.
After covering these basic tweaks, the signal splits to create the parallel ambiance path. H-Delay provides delay effects, from a short, single slapback effect to long, lush delays. Finally, before the ambiance path rejoins the basic vocal processing, the IR-L Efficient adds convolution reverb with a fixed, 2.2 second decay time and a control for the dry/wet mix.
As with other StudioRack presets, the Macro controls and pre-selected plugins are what make the Lead Vocal 101 preset easy to use. However, it’s not difficult to “de-construct” this preset, substitute some different plugins, and customize the sound to your needs.
The V-EQ3 gives a notably vintage EQ timbre. For a more flexible option, consider the H-EQ Hybrid Equalizer. The wide selection of possible curves, from vintage to modern, offers multiple ways to shape the vocal timbre. If the main reason you want EQ is to process the low end, the Linear Phase EQ is an excellent (although more CPU-intensive) choice. Any low-frequency EQ modeled on analog technology will have phase characteristics that may affect frequencies above the cutoff frequency, whereas a linear-phase EQ will affect only frequencies below the cutoff.
As for the DeEsser, your main alternatives include Sibilance and the Renaissance DeEsser. You could also use a multiband compressor, like the C4, by compressing only the highest band. For any of these, you’d associate the threshold parameter with the Smooth Macro control.
R-Comp is a neutral compressor, so for a vintage character, try the CLA-2A Compressor/Limiter. Its creamy vocal sound owes much to modeling the original hardware’s optical-based control element, while the fixed attack lets consonants through so that vocals retain clarity. The CLA-3A, with its fast response, can add more compression without necessarily sounding more compressed. If you want a slamming, aggressive kind of compression, you can’t beat the dbx 160 Compressor/Limiter. For compression that isn’t just an effect but can also solve problems, the C4 Multiband Compressor is a good choice. You can alter how specific frequency ranges are compressed yet tie threshold and gain for each band to the Compress Macro control.
With Lead Vocal 101, the delay works in conjunction with the reverb, as we’ll discuss further later. If you want more of a doubling effect than discrete delays, replace the H-Delay Hybrid Delay with the Reel ADT or Doubler. For a cross between doubling and echo, insert the SuperTap and edit it for multiple short delays.
The IR-L Efficient used in Lead Vocal 101 delivers realistic convolution reverb sounds with a minimal hit on your CPU. However, realism isn’t always what you want. If you prefer the more “impressionistic” sound of algorithmic reverb, try R-Verb or H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb. For vintage reverb sounds that recall the 60s and 70s, Abbey Road Chambers or Abbey Road Reverb Plates are ideal.
Like most StudioRack presets, Lead Vocal 101 ties multiple parameters to an easy-to-adjust set of Macro controls. Reducing the Bass control can tame excessive bass from the proximity effect or tighten the overall sound by attenuating low-frequency artifacts like room rumble. Boosting adds depth and warmth to thin voices. This can be desirable for narration, commercials, and audiobook projects because the voice feels like it has more authority.
At the other end of the frequency spectrum, Air adds the high-frequency “fairy dust” that can make a vocal sound more defined—it’s like adding just the right amount of salt to bring out the taste of food.
The Compress knob controls the R-Compressor threshold and gain parameters but scales the ranges so that the output gain is relatively constant, regardless of the threshold setting.
Echo is a master wet/dry control for the ambiance path. Delay Time and Delay Feedback control their respective H-Delay parameters but note that there’s no wet/dry control for the delay. This is because it can interact with the IR-L Efficient’s Wet control. Increasing Wet adds more reverb, but it also means that you hear the echoes processed through the reverb. With less Wet, you’ll hear the delayed echoes with less reverb.
This is a “workhorse” StudioRack preset. For those who are new to recording, Lead Vocal 101 delivers a great vocal sound without having to spend time agonizing over control settings. But for pros, this is also a useful preset when tracking or pulling up a “mixed” vocal sound for a client on the fly. Within seconds, you can dress up a raw vocal so that it has a pleasing, “produced” sound as you continue tracking other instruments. Any musician will tell you it’s more inspiring to lay down a new part when you can hear a gorgeous lead vocal in your headphones.
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