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Creative Spot Processing for Vocals

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This post is part of a series called Recording Vocals.
10 Steps to Get the Most Out of a Vocal Session
Your Manual for Achieving Amazing Vocals

In some of my past tutorials I've delved into various vocal processing techniques. Most of these tutorials have looked at pretty traditional processing methods for solving everyday problems... So with this in mind I thought I'd take a look at some more creative techniques that can be used to brighten up your latest vocal phrase.

First up I thought I'd share a process I (and many others) like to use called 'spot' processing. This involves treating specific pats of an audio file. It's a great technique for adding emphasis or interest to specific parts of your vocal and also smoothing the transition between different sections of your projects.

Step 1: How to Apply Spot Processing

Ok, so we have established that spot processing is where we treat only a certain section of our vocal phrase—so one word or line, you get the picture. The real question is, what is the best way to achieve this sort of effect, well in reality there are really two routes. We can use parallel (or duplicate) tracks, or automation.

When using duplicate tracks the section you want to treat would be cut out of your vocal phrase and copied onto a new track. The new track can then be treated to create a completely alternative version of the newly copied section. This technique gives you a lot of freedom and allows you to completely re-edit the new section of your audio. It also works very well with tail based effects such as reverb and delay.

Using duplicate tracks to apply spot processing.

Another option is to use automation to create your spot effects. Plug-ins can be activated and sends can be cranked using a simple bit of automation data. This route tends to be much faster and tends to work really well for simple processing such as EQ, modulation or distortion based effects.

Automation can be extremely useful for processing small parts of your vocal.

Whichever method you use you should find you can get very useable results. So now we know how to set up our spot processing lets take a look at the different situations we can use it in.

Step 2: Creating Fills and Transitions

A great use for spot processing on vocals is to increase intensity when building to a new section of your project. Towards the end of a verse or middle eight you can apply heavy amounts of reverb of delay to signal the arrival of your new section.

A nice side-effect that comes with this sort of processing is the 'overlap' that occurs here. The reverb or delay should bleed into your new section, smoothing the transition further and creating a welcomed amount of continuity.

Try increasing any effect you use over time with automation, your reverb and delay effects should have even better impact if increased over a few bars.

Automation and delay are used to add intensity at the end of the phrase.

The dry vocal phrase we'll be using.

The end of the vocal is treated with delay.

Step 3: Adding Emphasis to Specific Sections of Your Phrase

By adding spot processing to single words or phrases within your vocal recording can be extremely effective. This technique will add emphasis and power to a specific section and break up the continuity of the track to keep the listeners' interest. This technique is extremely popular in modern pop and R&B productions.

A section of the phrase is treated with reverb and pan automation.

Also try more run of the mill effects here like volume and pan automation. These simple tweaks can make a huge difference. The audio clip below shows a single word in a phrase being treated with reverb and some simple panning but it really adds contrast and colour to the phrase.

The reverb used to treated the duplicate section.

Our vocal with a single section treated.

Step 4: Delay and Reverb

As mentioned earlier delay and reverb can be especially effective as spot effects. Treating single words with these effects can really make them shine and add extra space and dimension to a stripped down section of your track.

Try experimenting with different lengths and types of reverb for really varied effects here. Short reverbs are excellent for adding a simple alternative take to your vocal, while larger more expansive patches will grab the listeners' attention and transform your part.

Step 5: Modulation Based Effects

Another trick is to use modulation based effects for your spot processing. The more obvious mod effects such as phasers, flangers and ring modulators are great choices here and should really help any section of your vocal phrase to stand out from the crowd.

Logic's Ringshifter is great for use on vocals.

Try changing your plug-ins settings over the duration of the effect to create further interprets. This can work particularly well with more intense effects such as ring modulation. Logic's Ringshifter can be heard in action below and is a prime example of how sweeping mod effects can be used.

Some automation is added to spice things up

The Ringshifter is used to enhance the same section.

Step 6: Distortion and EQ Based Processing

It's not just the more obvious 'special' effects that can be used for this kind of processing, run of the mill plug-ins such as equalisers and distortions can also be put to work here. Adding high pass based EQs, tinny distortions and high gain overdrives can make any section of your vocal simply jump out of the mix, without even changing the sounds level.

The phrase is cut up and placed on different tracks.

Processing is added to each slice.

Our vocal with various sections treated with EQs, distortions and delay.

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