You can get pro-sounding pop vocals with just a few, well-chosen tools and the right know-how. Here we give you 7 tips to get your pop vocals sounding crystal clear using plugins from the Waves Horizon bundle + F6.
By Charles Hoffman
Professional quality pop vocals are much easier to mix than you may think. This is something that can be done at home with just a handful of mixing tools. This guide will walk you through 7 processing techniques to mix clean pop vocals, and the plugins from the Waves Horizon bundle + F6 to get you there.
1. Pitch Correction
There’s no substitute for a skilled vocalist, but most singers will need a little pitch correction here and there. Trashing a perfectly good vocal take with a few minor imperfections is unnecessary if it’s possible to fix it while mixing. Having the ability to do this is crucial if you’re not able to get the vocalist back in the studio to re-record.
Waves Tune is specifically made for correcting the pitch of vocal performances. Within Waves Tune, set the key of your song, and then use the Speed, Note Transition, and Ratio knobs to apply varying degrees of pitch correction to your pop vocals. If necessary, Waves Tune offers an entire suite of parameters to further refine the pitch correction you’ve applied.
In addition to correcting vocal takes, Waves Tune and Waves Tune Real-Time can be used as a creative effect. T-Pain’s vocals are an extreme example of what’s possible with Waves Tune, but throttled back, this effect can help you achieve super smooth vocals like that of Post Malone. If you do use this creative effect, you may want to apply it later in the processing chain, after your initial EQ and compression stages.
In the song “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee, you can hear pitch correction being used in a way that sounds “smooth.” The effect hasn’t been applied excessively enough to sound robotic. If you get the settings right in Waves Tune, you can create this buttery pop vocal effect yourself.
Pro Tip: With pitch correction software, it’s possible to remove the vibrato from sustained notes and apply your own synthetic vibrato. Post Malone uses this effect on one of his other tracks, “Better Now,” which blurs the lines between pop and hip-hop.
2. Gain Automation
Pop vocals tend to have a very tight dynamic range, but trying to apply too much gain reduction at once can make your vocals sound like they’re slamming into a brick wall. To avoid this, you’ll want to use gain reduction in stages.
The first step is to apply gain automation to your raw vocal recording. I’ll typically perform this process in my DAW by either automating the level of a utility device or by automating audio clip gain. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you do it.
Following up on my manual gain automation, I use Waves Vocal Rider plugin to refine audio levels further. This device seeks to emulate a recording technique used back in the day by recording engineers; they would “ride” the level of a fader with their finger, as a vocalist sang, to attenuate loud vocal passages and amplify quiet ones.
Using Vocal Rider tightens up my manual gain automation to the point where the vocals I’ve recorded may be usable, dynamically, in a genre like folk. However, since the goal here is to create clean pop vocals, we’ll need to further reduce the dynamic range using compression.
3. Sibilance Control
Before you reach for a compressor, I suggest dealing with vocal sibilance. Sibilance is the high-end hissing sound picked up by your microphone when your vocalist pronounces sounds like “ess” or “shh”; it can prematurely trigger your compressor, and feel harsh through the speakers.
A pop filter doesn’t do much to help sibilance. It’s more attuned to deal with plosives, which are bursts of air produced by words using the letters B, P, T, and K. Some examples of plosive words include “bat,” “pet,” and “kettle.” A pop filter will absorb and disperse bursts of air created by your vocalist.
Put your hand in front of your mouth when you say a sibilant word like “skate”; there’s only a very minimal burst of air that comes from your mouth. Now, say a plosive word like “bop”; you’ll notice that there’s much more airflow due to the way you have to physically form the B with your mouth.
Vocal Rider may have helped diminish the effects of sibilance slightly, but you can take it further using a plugin like Waves DeEsser. This device targets the frequency range in which sibilance hangs out, usually between 6,000-9,000 Hz, and then applies gain reduction when content within this frequency range surpasses its threshold.
Watch this video to learn how to de-ess your vocals and clean other vocal noises and artifacts:
Another creative use for Waves DeEsser involves treating cymbals and guitars with excessive high end. It can be used on sources other than just vocals, which makes it an extremely versatile plugin.
4. Subtractive/Dynamic EQ
Subtractive EQ allows you to reduce the energy of frequencies within a specific range; this lets you remove many different types of “mud” that can shadow the clarity of your vocals.
For example, applying a high-pass filter with a gentle slope around 80-100 Hz can clear up space in the low-end of your mix for other instruments to shine. In pop music, there’s typically a dedicated bassline and kick, so this low-end frequency content won’t be missed.
Female pop vocals may even call for a high-pass filter set further up the frequency spectrum, around 150+ Hz. Don’t EQ your vocals when they’re soloed because you won’t be able to hear how they’re interacting with the rest of your mix.
It’s not uncommon for a vocal to contain some form of resonance; this can result from an unbalanced recording room, or the vocal interacting with another element in the mix. Due to the fact that the troublesome frequencies you’re trying to deal with may change based on the notes your vocalist is singing, you need an inventive solution.
A dynamic EQ, like the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ, will help you target resonant frequencies when they’re a problem, and leave your vocals unaffected when they’re not.
In contrast, static EQs don’t work in the same way; they apply gain reduction regardless of their input level. This makes a dynamic EQ a much more transparent sounding processing solution when it comes to vocal resonance.
5. Peak Compression
Compressors reduce the dynamic range of audio signals using a threshold-focused design. They can be used in many different ways, but when it comes to handling raw vocals, peak compression is a go-to processing choice for many engineers. When set up correctly, a peak compressor will clamp down on transient material, and leave the rest of the audio signal relatively unaffected.
Lights is a pop artist, but she just released an acoustic version of her album Skin and Earth, in which her vocals aren’t compressed very heavily; this contributes to the live sound in her song “Until the Light.” While the song is beautiful, it doesn’t sound like a pop recording.
In the original, non-acoustic version of “Until the Light,” you can hear that the vocals aren’t as dynamic, due to a more substantial application of peak compression. The vocals in this version of the song undoubtedly sound more like they belong in a pop mix.
The concept of peak compression is simple enough, but there are a couple of factors that come into play that can make your vocals end up sounding worse. If you use an attack time that’s too slow and a release time that’s too slow, you risk missing the transient material. Not only that, but you’ll end up compressing the tail end of your transients, distinguishing the initial part of each transient even more.
Depending on the compressor you’re using, you may not be able to set a fast enough attack time to effectively deal with transients. Selecting a compressor with an ultrafast attack time like the CLA-76 Compressor / Limiter is a safe way to ensure that you’re able to apply peak compression properly.
I recommend starting with an attack time of 5 and a release time of 7 on the CLA-76. Keep in mind that the higher you set these values, the faster the CLA-76 reacts. You can slowly increase the attack time to keep your vocals punchy and increase the release time to round off the tail end of transients. Be careful not to increase the release time too much, or you risk adding unwanted pumping effects. Be mindful as well of the input level into the compressor to make sure it’s not sucking all the life out of the vocals.
6. Top-End Air
Most pop vocals are upfront and present in the mix. They float above other elements in the song and tend to be “airy.” Other adjectives used to describe pop vocals may include “shiny,” “bright,” or “lush.” To infuse your pop vocals with these characteristics, an excellent place to start is with the application of a high-shelf filter that boosts the top end of your vocals.
Not all equalizers (EQs) are created equal. Some sound more musical than others due to the filter designs. The PuigTec EQ has filters that interact with one another. For example, when you load the plugin onto a track, it applies a 1 dB top-end boost by default, but when you set the low-cut filter’s frequency to 100 Hz, there will be top-end attenuation instead.
The thing I like about the EQP-1A is that due to the way the filters interact with one another, I’m able to brighten my pop vocals without making them too crispy. If I need to bring out extra top end, I can modify the high shelf frequency. Make sure you listen to how this EQ affects the entire frequency response of your vocals, and you’ll be well on your way to producing vocals that gracefully ride above your mix.
7. Vocal Doubles and Harmonies
If you haven’t recorded vocal doubles and harmonies, now is a great time to create them. They’ll provide your vocals with that full, ultra-wide sound found on hit pop records.
You can create doubles by duplicating your main vocal, panning the duplicates left and right, delaying each one of them by a different value (10-20ms), and then applying pitch modulation. To create more separation, you can also filter the duplicate signals.
Vocal doubles for Pop music tend to be quite tight when it comes to how they’re lined up with one another. The doubles are usually offset in time using a delay that’s barely large enough to breach the listener’s echo threshold. This means that listeners will often perceive the main vocal and doubles as one wide vocal instead of 3+ separate ones. In the track “Bon Appétit feat. YA-LE!” by Shaun Frank, you can hear this effect.
Doubler is a plugin that does all of this dirty work for you. Apply it to your main vocal and select a preset, or fine-tune the settings yourself. You can create up to 4 distinct doubles. It allows you to create exceptionally wide pop vocals that fill out the stereo image of your mix.
For even more control, you can use a plugin like UltraPitch to create vocal harmonies spanning two octaves, one above and one below unison. This plugin allows you to select 1 of 7 different processing modes to ensure that you achieve the cleanest vocal harmonies possible. Pop vocal arrangements that use long sustained notes with an apparent pitch can benefit tremendously from UltraPitch.
Plenty of vocal harmonies are present in Taylor Swift’s song “You Need to Calm Down.” By applying automation to various parameters within UltraPitch, you can create stacked vocal harmonies in your own pop songs.
At this point in the production process, your pop vocals should sound crystal clear. You can now have fun experimenting with different delay plugins and reverb plugins, or by taking a more creative approach and running your vocals through an amp emulation like PRS SuperModels or GTR3 Amps.
Whichever direction you decide to head with your vocals, you can rest easy knowing that the base product is of a high quality. If you start to take a creative idea too far, you can always revert back to the clean version of your vocals. Achieve clean vocals first, and apply creative processing afterward.
Want more on mixing vocals? Learn how to give vocals a smooth console tone.
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.