If you’re working in any genre of electronic music, you’ll need a few vocal processing tricks up your sleeve. Learn to produce these 3 sampled-voice styles for whatever you’re making – EDM, IDM, glitch, house, ambient techno.
By DJ Pangburn
If you’re an artist working on the frontiers of electronic music, whether it’s ambient techno, IDM, glitch, or numerous other sub-genres, you’ll know that the vocal track usually isn’t the musical focal point. Indeed, they often don’t exist.
Some experimental electronic artists, on the other hand, do incorporate vocals into their music. Holly Herndon is one such musician who comes to mind. Others, like Björk, who is always musically and vocally adventurous, are known to drop warped vocals onto their genre-pushing tunes. Arca, particularly on “Reverie,” is another electronic artist who really plays with vocals in his IDM-meets-avant-garde pop stylings.
Our task is to demonstrate 3 unique vocal processing styles for electronic tracks where there’s no “lead vocal,” but there still is the human voice. For each of the 3 recordings below, we took a dry vocal sample, each time processing it differently with Waves OVox, a powerful vocal resynthesis and vocoder plugin. Listen to the breadth of sounds we managed to create with this single plugin.
1. Futuristic Vocals
Artists like The Knife, Holly Herndon and FKA Twigs regularly warp their vocals in experimental ways. Sure, the voice is an instrument in and of itself, but these artists use music software editing and effects to radically reimagine what the human voice can sound like when the machines get ahold of it.
A good early example of this is Autechre’s 1999 remix of D'Breez’s “Crazy for Love.” It’s a track that sits somewhere between classic electro and then modern techno, but the vocal is almost a template for how The Knife’s Karin Dreijer would modulate her voice to sound futuristic, synthetic and foreboding.
For our audio clip, we combined two samples. One sample features the vocal lyric “Open up your eyes,” while the other says “to another place.” After making them into one larger sample, we used OVox to augment the vocal, giving it a futuristic sound.
Opening up Waves OVox, we set the Note Mapper to D - Maj Yesterday. Then we set OVox 1 to Hollow with a Formant Filter of 4.17, and OVox 2 to Comby with the Formant Filter pegged to -3.98, giving the vocal sample some formant range. To make it seem as if it’s in some type of synthetic flux, we also activated OVox’s arpeggiator, with a Rate of ¼ across three octaves.
In the FX module, we added some Distortion, Chorus and Reverb, giving the vocoded vocals some more grit and spaciousness. However, on this audio clip, we didn’t use and EQ to shape our sample’s frequencies.
Heard altogether, these tweaks inside OVox gave our vocal something fairly typical of electronic dance music vocal samples—a simultaneous melodic and rhythmic character. Immediately you have a futuristic vocal sound on which you could add beats and synths to come up with something unique and off-kilter.
2. Vocals as Experimental Textures
For this style, we wanted to create an experimental, synthetic texture using vocal loops—something ambient but also a little glitchy. As you can hear, the vocal sample we chose isn’t exactly remarkable.
To alter it slightly, we pitched the full dry vocal sample down a semitone. But even this slight detuning wasn’t enough to stop the vocal from sounding like a fairy singing in a bad fantasy film.
In Ableton, we selected three different loops in the sample. Each loop has a different length and occurs at a different point of the sample. Because the vocalist sang in various pitches throughout the sample’s duration, the loop points have distinct pitches.
Listen to loops 1, 2, 3 in the audio recording below, which plays them in sequence. Nothing special… yet.
Next, we layered these loops to create a multi-tracked vocal sample with different notes and glitchy tonal qualities. The result is still not pleasant to the ears.
To give it some experimental musicality and color, we turned to OVox. We played around with settings until we got something that was synthetic, but still on some level, human.
We set OVox 1 to Comby and OVox 2 to Classic. Next, we set the Formant to 8.32 on OVox 1 and to 9.82 on OVox 2, and the Gain is fairly high on both sides. In the FX module, we applied some Delay and Reverb. We also tinkered with the EQ section in the first loop to cut out some of the higher frequencies, and gave it some more low end for overall sonic depth.
For each loop, we set Focus (in the Formant Filter module) between 2800 and 3750. In the same module, we set Q between 4.000 and 5.000. We did this to make it sound creamier but also to give it more of a floating quality. This tinkering also helped eliminate some subtle clicking from one of our sample loops.
The multiple loops and three instances of OVox result in a vocal sample that has transformed from something basic into an experimental ambient texture. It’s now something that can be, for example, used as a vocal-based pad throughout a song or placed at either the beginning or end of a track—or both.
3. Burial-Style Vocals
Inspired by Burial, we wanted to create some pitched, and reverb-laden vocals that could be used in the variety of experimental sounds heard in electronic music, especially future garage/UK dubstep and ambient techno.
In the audio clips below, you can hear two different samples. The first says, “Something is missing,” while the second says, “It won’t be long”—both by the same female vocalist. These vocals are the type of samples an artist like Burial might use.
To start, we pitched Sample 1 (“Something is missing”) down -7 semitones. We then pitched Sample 2 (“It won’t be long”) up +3 semitones. As you can hear in the audio clips below, this alone won’t give you that distinctly phantom Burial vocal texture.
To achieve this ghostly tone, we applied some reverb and chorus in OVox. The chorus is on the tame side, but our reverb has a long tail. The reverb is also set to “Dark,” which fits the desired style.
While spacious and somewhat haunting, the results are still too clean. To give it a more degraded tonality without letting it slip into highly vocoded territory, we set OVox 1 to “Glass” and OVox 2 to “Hollow.” We then played around with the Formant Filter in both modules, setting OVox 1’s formant to +0.53 and OVox 2’s to -0.24.
OVox can have extremely drastic effects on vocal samples, but here we wanted something more subtle. It’s almost as if OVox is a hybrid vocoder and bit crusher, giving it the quality of an old sample or a slightly warped tape recording.
While we like the aesthetic, the vocals do sound a bit buried (pun intended). To make them more intelligible but still maintain that ghostly Burial quality, we turned the Voice Correction knob to the right, settling at -13.4. We also experimented with the Tone knob, finding a good tonality at 18.4. Again, this makes the vocal samples more intelligible without eliminating all of the work we did to create the effect.
Some Final Thoughts
Whatever type of electronic music you want to make—and it truly can be anything, as it’s a wide-open musical sandbox—the music and vocal sample or recorded vocal track will dictate how you use OVox, and what character of FX you’ll want to conjure.
One song might require the futuristic-sounding strategies used in our first vocal sample. Another tune might demand more experimental textures, like in our second audio clip. And other tracks could benefit from the degraded and ghostly sound of our third recording, which is a nod to Burial.
But remember, even though you may have a goal in mind when processing your vocal samples with OVox, remain open to the possibilities of happy accidents. Keep an open mind and experimental spirit when processing your electronic vocal samples, and you just might end up surprising yourself.
Want to get familiar with OVox in your workflow? Watch how to get started using OVox here.
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