Knowing your tools as a mix engineer is the only way that you will get great sounding results. In this blog, we're going to take a look at the tools of your trade, and I’m going to walk you through some tools you will need to get great, clean sounding Pop Vocals.
The best professional advice from years of experience I can give you with regard to pop vocals is to ensure that you clean up our vocal recording first; and then apply any creative processing.
The main tools for cleaning the vocal performance are:-
Sibilance control via a dedicated de-esser (or if you like, you can create your own using a compressor and EQ)..
So here's how we get started
#1. Clean up the vocals & Strip silence
Some DAWs offer this as an automatic or intelligent process; and it’s a great way to remove all the silence between sections and phrases of the vocal performance. However, I suggest that you manually go through the vocal performance; in solo mode; have a close look at the breath noises any clips and clicks as well. You may need to zoom in a bit on the waveform to really get to them to properly clean up. Then, use the fade and gain tools to tame or even remove those breaths that are distracting.
However, sometimes it is necessary to leave a few noises in just to make the performance sound ‘human’. This really will depend on your project and probably personal or even professional preference.
#2. Gain Automation
When I worked on the large format SSL & NEVE mixing consoles; we’d always ‘ride’ the vocal. This is a really good mix and recording habit to get into; as you basically become a part of the performance and as the vocal part is playing in real-time, you move the fader up and down (ride) to get the vocal to ‘sit’ in the mix. In this modern era, technology has made it possible to not only automate those functions, but also to refine them. In order to get good, clean vocals (not only for the Pop genre, but other genres too) you have to clean up your original vocal recorded performance by automating the gain to get a nice consistent level. You can either automate this using your faders or your automation tools in your DAW. Whatever method works well for you.
I have a nice controller so I have the ‘feel’ of the channel fader ‘old school’ style and it’s my preferred method to ‘ride’ levels, rather than the mouse, but hey, there are great options out there!
Typically the dynamic range in pop vocals is small; so you’re going to have to use a compressor to reduce the dynamic range further, but if you use compression without first making your vocal take a bit more consistent in level, you could land up applying too much gain reduction form the compressor and the vocals will be lifeless. More on Pop vocal compression as you read on!
#3. Pitch Correction
Those who have worked with me as a producer or engineer will know that I don’t really like pitch correctors; although they can be very useful. This is probably from my analogue days and working on more jazz and rock genres; and yep in the days when pitch correctors weren’t an easily available option! In the modern Pop genre, it’s pretty much a standard requirement; as well as a great production tool for meshing different genres together and creating some special effects.
Yes, even the very best vocalists sometimes need a little help with their pitching here and there. Discarding a whole vocal take with a few minor bloopers isn’t necessary; especially if you have tools available to help you adjust those minor imperfections in the mix.
If you are going to be working on pop tracks, then invest in a pitch corrector plugin. A high quality plugin. Having the ability to do pitch correction especially crucial if you’re not able to get the vocalist back in the studio to re-record. Not only will you be able to subtly refine the vocalists performance, but also use the pitch correction tool as a creative effect. With the higher end pitch correction plugins, you can remove a bit of vibrato from sustained notes; and introduce your own synthetic vibrato.
The placement of the pitch corrector is important and I like to place pitch correction tools further down the processing chain; after my initial compression and EQ stages.
#4. Sibilance Control via a de-esser
Pop filters are fantastic and necessary in a studio session, it’s just good professional practice for managing plosives. Those ‘bs’ , ‘ps’ , ‘ts’ and ‘ks’. The pop filter however, does very little, if anything, to tame sibilance. Where you place the de-esser in the processor chain is important, as those ‘ssss’; ‘tt’ and soft ‘chh’ sounds can trigger compressors early if they slip through unfiltered; and can really make a vocal sound harsh.
Place your de-esser before the compressor in the processor chain.
I like the de-esser as a first in the processor chain. That’s just a personal preference.
Although this section is about vocals and specifically Pop vocals, de-essers can be used to help tame harsh cymbals, string noise on bass guitars and other instruments with excessive high end.
Subtractive EQ/ Top End
There are some nasty resonances that can appear in any vocal performance. These are typically due to the recording environment, sound of the vocal itself; the microphone used and possibly clashes with other instruments in the mix itself. These artifacts and resonances can muddy the sound and reduce clarity. So, you need a really great EQ tool; preferably one that has a spectrum analyser for you to be able to see the frequency content of the vocal performance.
The technique here is to use a Frequency Sweep to find the frequency or resonance you want to deal with; and then use Subtractive EQ. This means you cut the level of the frequencies specified, and this will help you reduce that resonance and mud that could be shadowing your vocal performance.
As a rule, don’t solo the vocal track when you are making EQ adjustments, as you won’t be able to hear how that vocal is working in context with the other elements of the mix.
A general starting point to clear up the vocals and create room for other low end content in the mix, is to try using a high pass filter with a gradual/gentle slope somewhere around 100Hz.
If you are working with a female pop vocal then you may even be able to move that high pass filter to around 150Hz.
There are two types of EQ to think about here. Static or dynamic EQ. Static EQ will apply gain reduction regardless of input level. Dynamic EQ is a lot more transparent, as it can target resonant frequencies when they become problematic or cross a set level, and leave the rest of the vocal unprocessed when they are not.
Typically pop vocals are mixed to be upfront and present. This is described in engineering terms as ‘lush’ ‘ bright’ and ‘airy’. In order to achieve this, select an EQ that will add some ‘colour’ or character to your track; and use a high-shelf filter that boosts the top end of your vocals, some where in the 8-15KHz range. Keep checking your vocals. Make sure that the top end isn’t too ‘crisp’ or ‘bright’. Spending some time to set this will get your pop vocal to really ‘sit on top of the mix.
#6. Peak Compression
Compressors are used to manage the dynamic range of your audio signal. They can be used in many different ways, but when it comes to handling pop vocals, peak compression is a popular choice for many engineers.
The trick here is to use a compressor with really fast attack and release time options. If the attack and release times are set too slow, you will risk missing dealing with the transient material and rather land up compressing the tail end of the transient. When set up correctly, a peak compressor will clamp down on transient material, and leave the rest of the audio signal relatively unaffected. Also, watch the input meter on the compressor, don’t squash the dynamic range of the vocals too much, even though it is a pop vocal performance.
7. Vocal Doubles and Harmonies
Pop songs are defined by full, wide vocals that fill the stereo image of the mix.
There are quite a few ways to achieve this.
1. Use a chorus effect; and really make that effect width as wide as possible.
2. Duplicate the main vocal track and then pan them each hard left and hard right, delaying each of them slightly (maybe around 8 to 15ms). You don’t want the delay to be easily identifiable by the listener. Check out the Haas Effect blog & tutorial video.
3. Applying some pitch modulation will also add some depth and width to the vocals. If you need to create a bit more separation, try filtering the duplicate signals. EQ them slightly differently.
Probably one of my favourite techniques for Pop tracks and creating vocal doubles and harmonies is to use a vocoder synth. Check out the blog on how to make your synth sing here!
So, these are the basics to creating good, clean, clear pop vocals. Once you’ve gone through these techniques; it’s time to start having some fun with delays and reverbs. The basic professional approach to mixing pop vocals is: clean first; process creatively later.