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5 Vocal Sound Design Techniques You’ve Never Considered

Jun 18, 2024

Forget your vocal mix for a minute, let’s get creative with these unique vocal sound design ideas, perfect for adding the human touch to your productions.

5 Vocal Sound Design Techniques You’ve Never Considered

Vocals are arguably the most cardinal component of modern music, so it’s important to record and mix them to the highest quality possible. This ensures that listeners can hear, enjoy and understand the content of your lyrics. As well as providing a song’s meaning through lyrical content, vocals can also be used as an instrument when combined with some clever sound design tricks.

Sound design is an expansive subject that rewards experimentation and exploration, but is often neglected when it comes to vocals. In this article, we’re experimenting with some vocal sound design techniques that you’ve probably never considered.

1. Harmonizing a Vocal Pad

You might be familiar with the technique of creating a vocal pad or riser by applying a long reverb to a slice of your vocal recording, and then resampling it onto a new channel for use in other ways. Using Waves Harmony, we can take that a step further to create unique harmonic vocal layers.

Harmonize vocal pads

We’ve created a long vocal pad by placing R-Verb on a vowel from the end of a vocal phrase, setting the decay time to around 15 seconds and then resampling it to a new channel. On that new channel, we’ve placed an instance of Waves Harmony, a tool that lets you generate up to eight voices of harmonization in real time.

If you’re feeling experimental, now’s a good time to explore some of Harmony’s many presets within the Ensemble, Auto Harmony, Doubler and FX preset folders. There are a whole load of Artist presets to check out too. You can lock the plugin to your project’s key by selecting the key and mode at the top of the interface, and then clicking the small padlock icon to the right of the key section. You can then cycle through some of Harmony’s presets as your vocal pad plays to see what works well with your project.

Waves Harmony

After locking Harmony into our project’s key of G# Minor, we’ve scrolled through some presets and found one that we like. We can now resample our harmonized vocal pad to use as a bed of sound within our project, or we can reverse it to use as a riser.

2. Call and Response Vocoding with OVox

If you’re interested in vocoding and vocal resynthesis, then OVox is the right plugin for you. With eight voices, two synth engines, huge modulation options and inbuilt effects, OVox is a vocal transformation powerhouse.

In the video above, Andrew Huang shows us three ways to use and abuse OVox, but we’re going to do something slightly different in this technique. Instead of using OVox as an insert, we’re going to use it as a send effect so that we can blend it in with our dry vocal channel.

Waves OVox

Place OVox on a return channel and send your vocal to it. Then select from one of the 500+ presets or set up the parameters within ReSynthesis to your choosing. In our example, we’re using the default preset with synth engine one set to the Talk Vox algorithm. We’ve also slightly adjusted the oscillator shape within the XY pad of the synth engine.

Ensure your note source is set to MIDI, then set up a new MIDI track and MIDI clip to dictate the notes being played by OVox. If you’re a skilled keys player, you can play the MIDI notes in live if you prefer. With your basic OVox settings configured, you can now start to modulate various parameters to get a sense of call and response between phrases. This is not only a vocal sound design technique, but a songwriting technique too.

Waves OVox with MIDI

In this example, we’ve used the Sequencer Mode in the first modulation slot to modulate the Pan and Formant values. While this sounds quite extreme on its own, the benefit of applying this process in parallel is that we can dial back the effect to tuck it behind the dry vocal, so that the dry vocal remains prominent. We can even place the wet effect further back in the mix by applying some reverb within OVox’s inbuilt effects section.

Waves OVox sequencer

3. Trance Gating with OVox

Once again, we’re using OVox for this next technique. Didn’t we tell you it could do a lot? You can remove the Pan and Formant modulation from the last section, or you can start the technique again from the very beginning. Alternatively, you can apply this next technique in conjunction with the last one for a really advanced vocal sound design effect, which is what we’re going to do here.

Select the second modulation slot from the modulation section at the bottom of OVox, then choose the Sequence mode again. We want to assign M2 to the first synth engine’s Gain level by clicking and dragging the M2 tab onto the Gain dial. We can then adjust the modulation amount by clicking and dragging on the small M2 icon next to the Gain dial.

Wave OVox gain modulation

We’re now free to draw in our trance gate using OVox’s built-in modulation sequencer. A beat division of 1/32 enables us to draw in a pattern with a relatively high resolution. By applying this effect in parallel, we can add some unique rhythmic information to our dry vocal without affecting its clarity. We can even automate the level of the return channel to only introduce it during certain parts of the arrangement, such as at the end of a section or for specific words.

Waves OVox trance gate effect

4. Reverse, Reverb, then Re-reverse

When mixing vocals in the traditional sense, reverb is often used on a return channel to add some subtle space or depth, but is less commonly used as an insert effect, as this can affect the clarity of your vocals if the effect is overworked. But we’re not mixing vocals in the traditional sense, we’re exploring vocal sound design techniques, so let’s get creative.

Start by placing your favorite reverb plugin directly on your vocal channel, or a delay plugin with a feedback control can work just as well. We’re using Space Rider as it packs independent Chorus, Delay and Reverb sections, making it perfect for this technique. Now set up a relatively short time-based effect, as this helps to preserve the transparency of your vocal. Alternatively, you can choose one of the many presets that ship with Space Rider. We like Jean-Marie Horvat’s Loopliscious preset with the Reverb In turned up slightly, and the Reverb Decay turned down.

Waves SpaceRider

Whether you’re configuring your own settings or using a preset, the Dry/Wet control should be relatively low, as this allows the dry vocal to take precedence. Around 30% should be suitable. Once you’re happy with your effect, reverse your vocal recording and resample it onto a new channel, then reverse the new recording so that the vocal is back the right way round. This process reverses the reverb and creates a kind of swelling or sucking sound that leads into each word or phrase.

Reverse, Reverb then Re-serve Example

5. Create Stuttering Vocal Effects with CR8 Creative Sampler

As we’ve already established, vocal sound design techniques are all about creating bespoke and unique sounds from vocals, even if that renders the lyrics unintelligible. That’s certainly the case for this last trick, which can be used to add variation to your production or to create energy before a drop or chorus.

Start by loading CR8 Creative Sampler onto a new MIDI channel, setting the Scheme to Voice mode and then dragging a bar or phrase from your vocal track into CR8’s sample viewer. Now click and drag the Start and End playheads through your sample’s waveform until you find a syllable, word or phrase that you want to work with. Once you’ve isolated part of your sample, engage Loop Mode by clicking on the large Loop button until it lights up blue. You can also try putting the Loop in See Saw mode by clicking on the icon with the left and right arrows on top of one another.

CR8 loop mode

Now when you feed CR8 MIDI notes, it will play back the selected portion of your sample as a loop. Longer loops can create interesting rhythmic phrases, while miniscule loops can begin to take on tonal qualities making your sample sound like a synthesizer with a complex waveshape. Try experimenting with the Start and End points, playback modes and Loop Speed dial to enter truly glitchy territory.

Now we’ve primed you with 5 creative vocal sound design techniques, go and try one or two of them for yourself. You never know, anyone of these could be that creative element missing in a chorus or be that perfect decoration for a hook or vocal adlib.

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