Do you want your vocals to sound larger than life? Learn how to get your vocals to sound big, present, and in-your-face: whether you're working with a great recording or not. Regardless of the genre, learn to make them sound huge!
By Matthew Weiss
If you’re used to working in pop, rock, hip hop, EDM, even jazz, you’ve probably wanted that coveted “in your face” vocal sound. Either your client wanted it, or you wanted it for yourself. A big vocal sound is not necessarily easy to get. There isn’t one grand secret to doing it, but there are a number of techniques which can be used in the right set of circumstances to make it happen.
1. Start at the source
I know this is a bit of non-advice but I really cannot stress this enough. Starting with a very full capture makes this process infinitely easier. It’s possible to get away with cutting corners along any stretch of a production. However: the one place I would not want to do this is vocals. If you don’t have a ninja-warrior home setup, it may be worth renting out a great studio even if just for the vocals alone. This presumes you have control over the recording. If you don’t, we’ll be talking about mix techniques to help compensate in a moment.
2. Level up and cut in all the right places
Now let’s say the vocal was well-recorded. One of the easiest ways to get huge vocals is to simply turn that vox channel up until it starts to “sit above” the music bed. From there, grab a nice parametric EQ. An SSL emulation is a great choice here.
Odds are there are a couple specific bands of tone that are too built up; this is a natural effect of recording a human voice in a physical space. The mic, preamp, room, and voice itself are likely to lead to a few frequency bands in a few places that stack up.
Usually these frequency buildups will be fairly obvious. The usual culprits are room tone in the lower mids, and mic proximity buildup in the low end. But there can be a little too much anywhere in the frequency spectrum for one reason or another. Listen. A little attenuation in the right places can go a long way in smoothing the buildups and getting the vocal to sit back into the track, even while it’s loud in level.
3. Tame tonal inconsistencies
The trickier part to keeping your vocals full and upfront is when there is inconsistent tonal buildup over time. The vocalist is chugging along all happy and such, and then suddenly belts a note with too much tension in the neck, leans into the mic, or hits a particularly sibilant consonant. To the end listener, the vocal is nice and full and upfront, but then it’s suddenly leaping out of the record and is disconnected. This is where we reach for our power sander: the C6 multiband compressor.
'Multiband compression' can sometimes be a scare word, but it’s actually pretty easy to use if you just imagine it as something that balances out tonal inconsistency. If there’s too much 1.5 kHz hanging out in the sound, regular EQ is the way to go. But if the vocalist is changing proximity to the mic, at times there will be too much low end; that’s when we should reach for multiband processing.
Of course, we use multiband compression all the time in the form of a split band DeEsser. Split band DeEssing is just multiband that is focused on the treble range and designed to act very quickly. Regular multiband is a broader, more flexible use of the concept.
So if your vocal is nice and forward, but occasionally gets just a bit too edgy in those upper mids, grab your C6, isolate the offensive band, and set the compressor to trigger right on the sections where the tone hops out of the speakers.
Alternatively, you can try a dynamic EQ to smooth things out. The results will be somewhat similar, but the means of getting there are a bit different. The F6 Dynamic EQ has 6 floating EQ bands that you can set to engage as each of their thresholds are crossed. This way, instead of isolating the sound with crossover points like in the C6, you'll be implementing parametric EQ curves. But hey, which ever floats your boat. Again, similar results, different means of control.
4. Compress with love: 3 stages
Now, some of you may be thinking “why is compression number four on this list”? Well some of you, it’s because compression is not really the be-all-end-all solution to in-your-face vocals. The most important part in my book is the tone curve: if you don’t get the EQ right, no compression will help. Once we have the EQ curve working, there’s a fair deal of flexibility in terms of how we can compress things.
I like to approach dynamics in stages:
- The first stage for me is manual level editing. In most vocal performances there will be a moment or two when the vocalist just lets out a burst of energy. Those are most efficiently tamed by grabbing that moment and attenuating it appropriately, pre-insert.
- From there, I’m going to look to the style of performance. If the vocal is smooth in delivery, I probably want something that’s going to gently even things out—so I’m going for slower, more transparent compression. A CLA-2A is a great go-to, or Vocal Rider (though this is technically not a compressor). If the vocal is choppy or percussive, I want something that can saddle those consonants in without over swinging. A CLA-76 or Renaissance Compressor is a good choice here.
- My last stage on the inserts is a subtle amount of “brute force” compression. This is compression that’s literally only being used to subtly push the vocal forward. For my personal taste and style, I love the MV2, particularly the Low Level slider. I can’t even say exactly what the mechanism is behind it, but it just works for me. R-Vox can be great for a vocal that needs a little extra weight in the low mids and can be used in a similar way. Even a traditional limiter like the L2 can be good as a “finisher.” The key to all of the above is to use it in subtle amounts. 1 to 2 dB of attenuation is usually where the magic happens.
In this video, Graham from the Recording Revolution offers how he likes to double-stack compressors, using the SSL E Channel and the CLA-2A:
5. Add some parallel magic
Here’s where things get a bit more in-depth. Once the tone and dynamics of the voice itself are worked out, we can move on to our special sauce. Now, here is my take on special sauce: The special sauce is what makes a tasty sandwich. However, if the contents are there without the sauce, you still have food. Great. But if the sauce is there without the food, you'll only have a soupy mess. No one wants that. Special sauce works in subtle amounts to add flavor to an already existent vocal.
I like parallel processing for my special sauce. Parallel processing is when you take an existent sound, 'mult' it (meaning create a copy, whether on a new channel or by adding a send to a dedicated aux channel), then process the mult signal and blend it back in with the original.
With parallel compression, traditionally the goal is to shmash the living bejeezus out of the vocal using a fast attack and release. Then we blend in just enough level from the compressed vocal as is needed to make the overall vocal sound really pop. I spent many years exclusively using the CLA-76 Bluey for this technique, and literally nothing else.
Of course, sometimes you might want to do something a little more aggressive. Creating a “super-smile” EQ curve with the bottom and top ends really hyped, and putting that through a distortion plugin can do amazing things to a vocal. Try the Manny Marroquin Distortion plugin, used just enough to break up the signal a touch. Blend that back in with the main vocal and it acts like a really cool exciter.
6. But what if my vocal sound sucks?
Everything I mentioned is a bit contingent on having a good capture to begin with, but we’re not always that lucky. What do we do if the vocal capture is thin? Well, we have options.
I like to create what I call “false harmonics.” (Meaning: they're real harmonics, but they weren't there in the original recording.) More simply, I use distortion to create the impression of a full capture by adding harmonic energy. The Manny Distortion plugin can do the job, but you have to be extremely judicious with your settings; a little bit goes a very long way. Try this plugin with almost no audible distortion at all and just A/B the before and after.
Another option is the Manny Tone Shaper. This incorporates saturation along with compression in a split band processor. Even if you just activate the bands without actually turning them up, the source will fill out a bit. From there you can target any deficient ranges by adjusting the sliders.
Lastly, you could use a plugin like Vitamin and make the low-mid band as wide as possible.
While the mechanisms are all a bit different, the idea is essentially the same: add harmonic content to fill out the source!
Quick tip: do this right at the beginning of your chain. Some extra tonal buildups may occur; it’s okay, work it out with an EQ.
7. Mix around the vocal
After all is said and done and you’ve got a big vocal, you still have one more opportunity to ruin it! If you push other elements of the mix too forward, you’ll still dwarf your sound. All of that work you've done on the vocal by now should allow you to move other elements forward in your mix, but if you go nuts you’ll still sink your vocals back. As cool as that 700 Hz boost in your acoustic guitar might sound, you may have to leave it out for the sake of the vocals. The guitar player might be mad, but we've gotta look at the bigger picture here. Don’t over-carve space for your vocals—you’ll thin your mix—but don’t fluff up every other element to the point of masking the vocals either.
From there you can choose how to define your sound stage, automate your levels, get creative and go nuts.
Now that your vocals are front and center in the mix, get 10 valuable tips for adding delay to vocals.
Do you have any big vocal mixing tips that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.