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5 Great Vocal Effect Tips

Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:

The vocal is the most important thing to a hit song. It encompasses the melody, rhythm and structure of a track. If you took the vocals out of some of your favorite tracks, they would probably become a repetitive mass of kick, snare and the four chord trick. It's the vocal layered on top that gives the song soul and feel. That's not to say that you should get away with recording a melody, putting it on top and then just leaving it. As mixing engineers we have to be aware that however soulful the lyrics and performance are, there are many mixing tricks we can do to push the envelope even further. What follows are a few mixing tricks to try on your vocal tracks. They may not work on every track, but these vocal mixing tips can give an interesting edge to your vocal recordings.

You have probably heard these effects before in some of your favorite tracks. Maybe you have wondered about how to recreate them. I'm going to shed some light on some vocal tricks used in modern recordings, from simple delay effects to robotic vocoding.


1. The Megaphone Effect

First of all, lets start with the megaphone effect. We're trying to recreate the effect of a vocal as if it were being sung through a megaphone speaker. Megaphone speakers are of the lowest quality you can find in a speaker and therefore we can have a pretty interesting effect by putting a clean vocal through the same amount of EQ and distortion a megaphone creates.

Here is the clean vocal:

I actually found a megaphone and spoke into it to be sure of the accuracy of this part of the tutorial. I had a general idea of how to recreate it and then just to be sure, I borrowed one and had a listening test. Sure enough, the final sound is very accurate to a real megaphone.

Because the megaphone only generates a narrow frequency range we start by inserting an EQ plugin on our desired vocal track. I filter out most of the high and low frequencies and then put a boost on the mids for that boxy and nasal sound.


Then to give the voice that little distortion we need, I inserted Logic's amp plugin and put a little drive on it. I also chose a 1x12 speaker so it would try to sound smaller. But whatever DAW you are using, you can recreate the same thing with whatever amp simulator you have, or even just a normal gain or drive plugin.

Thus, we have created the megaphone effect:


2. 100 ms Delay Effect

Another widely used effect is a medium delay with only a little bit of feedback. It thickens up the voice in a different way than the 25 ms delay used in artificial double tracking and gives it a tiny bit of effect as well. This track has a 125 ms delay which is actually in tempo with the track. It's not a huge effect because it sometimes gets drowned out by the rest of the track. But that's something you want with effects sometimes. An effect that's not noticeable unless you turn it off.

It's easy to accomplish this effect because the only thing you need is a delay plugin. Send your vocal track to a delay plugin and start your delay at 100 ms. Then dial in a little more or less depending on the feel and tempo of your song.


Be sure to have the sent delay effect underneath the main vocal track, as to not overpower the main element.


A basic mono delay plugin with a 20% feedback rate and a 125 ms delay. I added a little depth to the modulation section but that isn't crucial if your delay plugin doesn't have one.

So we've taken the dry vocal:

and added a basic but useful effect.


3. Creepy Whisper Effect

Sometimes you have a specific section that you want to enhance but you want to keep the main vocal relatively clean. There might be small section of a song that need an extra punch, or a specific ambience to the voice, but only for certain phrases or a few seconds. I want to show you how you can make a creepy whispering effect using, you guessed it, whispers. But we're going to effect the whispers so severely that they don't even sound human anymore.

This is the break in the song I want to enhance with some whispers.

If you have the chance during the production and recording, and have an idea like this, make your singer whisper some lines. It's good to have some extra recorded things to fool around with during mixing, and even though you don't know if you'll use, you'll at least get the chance to try. I have my singer double-track the vocal line in a whisper. Even dry, it's a pretty creepy whisper, it's closeness and creepiness an added effect in itself. But we're going to take it even further.

Listen to the whisper here. The tiny reverb ambience that you hear on the track was added in the recording phase. Don't worry, it's not crucial for the effect.

I'm going to double the effect, and have two variations of the same whisper. So let's copy the recording onto two separate tracks. On the first one we're going to accentuate the telephony, raspy quality of the whisper. So let's take out all the low and high end, cutting everything until 1 kHz. Then filter everything out from 2-3 kHz onwards. Now we're left with only an octave or so of voice, which makes the whisper all the more whisper-like. ake a bell curve EQ and spike a desired area between the two filters.

Compress the vocal so it squashes down at a high ratio so it stays level, consistent and powerful.


Now for the final creepiness factor. We're going to modulate the voice for an added horror effect. We want it to almost sting to listen to, so I'm slapping on a ring shifter. The ring shifter in Logic is a modulation effect that shifts frequencies around and alters the harmonic relationship of the original signal. With a little fiddling around we can come up with a severe enhancement to our whisper effect.


If you have a ring-shifter in your DAW try to copy these settings as well as you can. The most important things are which frequency you choose to shift, as going too low ends in a Darth Vader style shift, and going too high has a Chipmunk type effect. But we want to keep things creepy so we're just shifting the frequencies we still have after our EQ, or around 1 kHz. By skimming through the remaining frequencies you can find a sweet spot in your vocal track. Using the LFO section we can make a smooth frequency shift, as opposed to a more square wave one. As before, it adds more to the creepiness factor by having the shift as smooth as possible.

Listen to the first whisper effect here:

Now since we want to have an equal amount of creepiness on both sides of the stereo spectrum we're copying this whisper but putting a whole different type of effects on the other one. We're focusing more on the lower register, with a little vocal transforming, detuning and reverb.

Copy the whisper to a new track. This time we're not filtering anything out but using the whole tonal spectrum of the vocal. As before, compress the whisper pretty heavily to keep it consistent. Then insert a vocal transformer.


The vocal transformer in Logic let's you make subtle pitch changes to the voice, without changing the original value of the track. We're just putting a subtle Pitch and Formant Change on the voice, with the mix at around 50% or so. If you don't have Logic you can achieve a similar effect with a different type of plugin. Try using a subtle pitch shifter and enhance it with and Exciter or EQ, boosting the high frequencies.

Now insert a pitch shifter. We shifted up the whisper with the vocal transformer in the last step, so we got a more airy or breathy character to the sound. But now we're adding a pitch shifter and detuning the vocal down 5 semi tones. This way we keep the breathy quality of the vocal transformer (or exciter if you are using one) but with a detuned low end effect.


Keep the mix fairly low, or around 30-40%. We don't want it to sound harmonized, we want it to sound creepy. So we get a ghost-like detuned effect on the whisper.

This is what we've got so far.

For the final touch we're going to add some delay and reverb for ambiance.


I've synced this delay to the track and filtered out the low and high end, similar to what I did to the other whisper. Since I'm inserting this on the track as opposed to sending it like you normally do with delays, be aware that you need to keep your mix low so it won't overcrowd the original signal. We want to add a little bit of creepiness to the whisper, but we don't want grown men crying themselves to sleep over it. Finally, add a little reverb with your plugin of choice. Choose a small hall setting or a plate with a medium reverb time. Play with the dry and wet controls until you get just the right ambiance for the track.

Listen to the second whisper track:

Finally listen to it in context with
the main vocal, and the rest of the track.


4. Advanced Artificial Double Tracking

A.D.T. is a widely known mixing trick. It's used on anything that needs to be a little bigger, a little wider, a little better. It's the process of taking the main vocal and doubling it via a delay or a chorus. It's less expensive to double your singers track artificially than have him come in and waste precious studio time by singing the whole thing again. Thus, it's easier to just copy the vocal, process it a little bit, usually with a delay, and have an instantly doubled track without all the effort.

The normal double tracking is done with sending a vocal to an aux, adding a delay with about 20-30 ms and no repeats. That way we have the same vocal, note for note, but the subtle time shift makes the vocal sound much bigger. We're going to take things even further, sweetening it with more than just delay. We'll be adding slight pitch shifting as well as an exciter to add an extra layer or freshness.

Start by sending your vocal to two separate auxes. Insert a tape delay on both auxes, set to 23 ms without any feedback. Try to recreate the screenshot below in the DAW of your choosing.


By having no feedback we get the double tracking effect by using delay. If we were to have a little feedback we could get a type of slap echo, similar to the typical John Lennon vocal sound. Remember to have this on 100% wet since this is a send effect. Now repeat this on the second aux. You can add a different millisecond value if you want, but I'm using the same settings. Now pan both auxes 30% left and 30% right. We're widening it with manual panning as well.

Now we need to add a pitch shifter on both tracks. Since singers aren't robots they never sing with quite the same intonation and pitch. By adding a slight pitch shift to the vocal we get that extra nuance we need. Again, 100% wet and with a 12 cent pitch variation. On on aux I detune the vocal down -12 cents. On the other one I pitch it up +12 cents.


Now we should be getting pretty close to a sweet doubled vocal. The vocal you had before definitely sounds better now than before. But what if it still sounds kind of dull? What if we need just an extra bit of excitement to the dull sung vocal? Easy, let's pop an exciter on the auxes and give it some air.

Insert an exciter plugin on both aux sends. Exciters add artificial harmonics to the recorded tracks, giving them a little life in the treble department. So if you have a dull, lifeless recording you can try to see if an exciter can help you out. I have used it a few times on different instruments, guitar solos and vocals to name a few.


We're just going to add a little air, setting the exciter on a high frequency. I have mine on about 13 kHz, but you can experiement with a higher or lower frequency, depending on the type of track you are enhancing. Of course, add a second exciter on the other aux and vary the frequencies a little bit.

Now we have a thick, wide and deep double vocal. These simple ADT tricks have definitely transformed my vocal track, prompting me to think that I should maybe mix the song again.

We've turned this:

into this:

Incredible difference!


5. The Vocoder Effect

The vocoder, or VOice enCODER has been around for a while. Since the seventies it's been used in a wide variety of musical and cinematic projects. Prog rock and early electronica took an instant liking to the vocoder and it was used in many tracks from the seventies onwards to present day. Pink Floys, The Alan Parsons Projects, ELO and many more used the vocoder in some of their songs. Vocoders in modern music programs combine the classic voice encoder with a synthesizer. Effectively combining a polyphonic synthesizer with a voice encoder, enabling you to play along with the audio you want encoded. In modern music one of their more famous version of recent years is Imogen Heap's Hide & Seek.

As amazing as this song is, the good thing is that we can recreate this song pretty realistically using a few DAW tricks.

Vocoders work by listening to an incoming audio signal, in this case a vocal track. By combining this vocal track with the MIDI information we put onto the vocoder track we get this robotic vocoder effect. So we need a vocal track and a MIDI track. I am using the original piano track that was recorded as the MIDI information. Be aware that you will have to have MIDI information that is in key with the rest of the song, otherwise you might get undesirable results. The piano track in my example are just simple chords that are accompanying the vocal, and thus makes for a great example for our vocoder trick.

Take a listen to the original track.

Let's start by creating a software instrument track or a MIDI track. Depending on your DAW there are different ways for you to insert a vocoder. I'm using Logic and they have a pretty powerful Vocoder synth. In Reason the Vocoder works a little differently as you need to patch things yourself on the backside. Whatever vocoder you are using, there should be a simple way for you to get the hang of it. But lets focus on the one in Logic for this particular example. Insert it onto the empty software instrument track.


If you have a MIDI track that you want to use as the basis for the vocoder, copy it onto the vocoder track. This MIDI data is what will give us the pitches of the end result, but with the singing characteristic of the vocal track.


Insert your vocal on the sidechain of the vocoder. This way the vocoder listens to the vocal track and sings it back after processing. You will get the harmonic content of the piano chords with the articulations of the vocal. Now the only thing left to do is tweak your vocoder settings until you are happy with the results.


Now there are a few things to keep in mind when working with the vocoder. Be sure that your vocoder understands that your incoming signal is a voice by checking the Voc at the top right. Sometimes this isn't needed but as the EVOC 20 doubles as a synthesizer as well you are able to select what type of signal you are taking in.

Being that this is the voice and keyboard combo you want it to be in poly mode. That way it analyzes all the MIDI notes and plays them back at the same time, resulting in a more harmonically rich effect. You also want the side-chain analysis to be quite fast so it robotizes the voice faster. With a longer attack the voice seems to come through more. But that can also be an effect you are looking for. We're going for a full on effect, not a subtle mixing technique. You might want to filter out the lower frequencies as robotic bass doesn't really sound good. I have a cutoff at 130 Hz but you might want to go higher, depending on your track. Play along with the various knobs and parameters until you find a good sound. Use the screenshot above for a good starting point, but by tweaking you can get some radically different results. A bigger stereo width, a more fluctuating LFO or a different frequency modulation are all things you can experiment with.

Then you have to decide if you want it as an effect underneath both instruments, or if you want to have either one complimenting the vocoded effect.

Here's the effect underneath both the main voice and piano.

Here I've taken out the original vocal track and put the piano and vocoder together.

And here is the vocoded effect soloed.

Let's do one more thing and give the effect some ambiance and depth. Send the vocoder track to an aux buss. Insert a chorus and try for a shimmering wide setting. That's usually accomplished with a low rate and a high depth or intensity, like in the screenshot below.


And let's throw a reverb after the chorus filling out the space even more. We're getting close to the super produced Imogen Heap sound of Hide & Seek. Choose a medium to large hall setting for a bigger sound.


Listen to the final result, a big wide and shimmering robot singing effect.


Conclusion

Sometimes you struggle with trying to recreate effects heard on records without knowing where to start. You end up going through all your plugins in hope to find a preset that says “that-cool-vocal-effect” without any luck. At least you can tick all these vocal tricks off your list on things to learn, keeping them in mind when you want a special effect to go with your main vocal sound. Of course, a badly recorded vocal can't be salvaged by piling effects on top of it. The vocal has to have its special character before you start dressing it up. So be sure you have something to work with before you start enhancing it with effects.

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