Producing Great Vocals

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NekujaK
Posts: 370
Joined: 09 Oct 2016
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Post 16 Sep 2018

The following tips and techniques are gleaned from nearly 20 years of working closely with a professional singer and vocal producer. We first met when I hired her to produce my very first CD, and I've gone on to engineer projects for many of her production clients. I've learned an incredible amount about recording and mixing vocals by having a front row seat as she works with her clients, both amateurs and professionals, to extract the best possible vocal performances and recordings.

But this is hardly a definitive document on vocal production. I'm still learning how to do it better every day, and there are many different approaches to getting great results. These are just techniques I've learned over the years that work for me. If you've got additional tips and techniques, please contribute to this thread - the sharing of knowledge is one of the great things about our Reason community.

Okay, here goes...

THE IMPORTANCE OF VOCALS

For most musical genres, vocals are by far the most important element in a track. They carry the song's melody, deliver it's meaning through lyrics, and convey the performer's unique style. As producers/sound designers/engineers, we tend to obsess over technical aspects of our tracks and mixes, and sometimes lose sight of the fact that nothing has the power to move and connect with an audience like a great vocal. Listeners can easily look past a mediocre musical track if the vocal is stellar. But if the vocal sucks, it doesn't matter how great the musical production is, the audience will likely lose interest and turn away.

So let's look at how we can get the best possible vocal performances into our tracks. I'm going to start with the singer's perspective, and talk about the things you should be doing before you even step up to a microphone. The vocal instrument is not an external device like a guitar or keyboard, but is very personal and intimate. Knowing how to leverage what it can offer requires special attention and preparation.

WORK WITHIN YOUR VOCAL LIMITATIONS

Most of us can't sing like Jason Mraz or Adele - we don't have the range, intonation, groove, or tonal qualities to be Grammy-winning singers. But that doesn't mean our voices don't deserve to be heard. Fortunately, we're blessed with amazing tools these days to correct pitch, adjust timing, and enhance tone, but nothing beats a great NATURAL vocal performance. As a singer, you want to harness as much of your natural talent, however small it may be, before you start throwing tech at your vocal track. This means learning to work within your limitations, no matter how narrow they are. Here are some things you should consider before you even start the recording process:

FIND THE RIGHT MATERIAL: Just because you can sing, doesn't mean you can sing everything. Tony Bennett's a great singer, but I wouldn't hire him to sing a heavy metal track. Write songs, or find songs, that match the natural qualities of your voice, so you sound authentic and convincing.

FIND THE RIGHT KEY: There's nothing more excruciating than listening to a singer straining to sing beyond their range. I have a low voice, but I always used to sing at the upper limits of my range because that's where all my favorite vocalists sing. Needless to say, it was unnatural and bad for my voice, and my audience wasn't having a very good time listening to me. It took me quite a while to realize it was perfectly okay to sing in a lower register - I'm much more comfortable, and my voice sounds natural and relaxed, and suddenly people were a lot more willing to hear me sing. So make sure the songs you sing are in a key that is compatible with your voice. Try transposing your songs up and down a few steps to zero in on the ideal key that maximizes the sweet spot in your natural vocal range.

SING OFTEN: Sing as much as you can - in the shower, in the car, at gigs, wherever... The more you sing, the more you'll learn what your vocal instrument is capable of and how to control it, and the more comfortable and confident you'll be when you eventually step up to the microphone to record.

PREPARING TO RECORD

Because it emerges directly from our being, it seems like singing should be as natural as speaking. We should just be able to step up to a microphone, open our mouths, and the magic should instantly happen, right? According to Paul McCartney, that's how it works for him. But sadly, for the rest of us mere mortals, it takes hard work and preparation to achieve a good vocal performance.

VOCAL EXERCISES: I absolutely despise doing vocal exercises and warmups, but deep down I know they're good for me. Our vocal cords and vocal passage are basically a collection of muscles. When those muscles are weak and stiff, it's difficult to sustain notes and sing on pitch, our range is limited, and we run the risk of damaging our voice. Vocal exercises safely strengthen and stretch those muscles (just like situps build up our abs), enabling us to have more control over our voice. Look up Seth Riggs' Speech Level Singing on YouTube for a source of good vocal exercises. Do your vocal exercises every day (while driving is a great time), and especially before you perform or record.

KNOW YOUR MATERIAL: If you're like me, you often record a song the same day you write it, but there's something to be said for recording a vocal after you've been singing the song for weeks, months, or even years. In that time, you've refined the phrasing, developed melodic variations, and internalized the lyrics. You've had a chance to discover where the song's secret treasures lie and how best to expose them. Do as much of this as you can before you step up to the microphone and press record.

BECOME THE LYRICS: Audiences listen to lyrics - they cling to every word, even when it seems like they're not paying attention. Don't sell the lyrics short. Become them, believe them, live them, then deliver their message to your audience with emotional sincerity. Get out of your comfort zone, be outrageous, be emotional, be vulnerable, be crazy, be funny, be sad. Whatever it takes to convince the listener your lyrics are the most important thing they'll ever hear. One of my favorite vocal performances is "Disarm" by the Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan uses every facet of his voice to convey anger, sadness, vulnerability, rage, longing. His performance puts it all out there, from plaintive whisper to anguished snarl. I loved that song for months before I even knew the actual meaning of the lyrics because Corgan's performance so convincingly communicated the potent emotion contained within the words. That's what you're after.

RECORDING THE VOCAL (SINGER'S GUIDE)

When the time comes to record your vocal, there are several things you can do as the singer to achieve the best possible performance.

STAY HYDRATED: Keep that vocal passage well lubricated at all times! Have plenty of water on hand during the vocal session. Many singers swear by warm water and honey. Avoid liquids that can dry out your throat, like coffee or alcohol.

STRETCH: Vocals aren't just about your throat. Your entire body is part of your vocal instrument. You want to be loose, limber, and able to breathe freely. Take time to stretch your body every 30 minutes during the vocal session. If you feel your energy sagging, jump around, shake your arms out, take a walk outside. You want to be energized when you record vocals, even if you're recording a mellow song.

HAVE THE LYRICS AVAILABLE: Print them, put 'em on your iPad, project them on the wall, whatever... just make sure you can see the lyrics clearly while recording. Not only will they guide you through the song, they will also serve as a reference if you're working with an engineer, producer, or other musicians. Beware of simply "reading" the lyrics while you sing, or that's exactly what your vocal will sound like. Use the lyrics as a guide, but don't forget to infuse your vocal with feel, emotion, and intent.

HEAR YOURSELF: Take time to get a good mix in your headphones so you can adequately hear yourself while you're singing. This is especially important for intonation. If you're having difficulty staying on pitch, try slipping the headphones off one ear so you can hear your voice in the room while you sing.

USE GOOD MIC TECHNIQUE: The closer you sing to the mic, the more low frequency content will be introduced into the recording. This is known as "proximity effect" and should be avoided. For a condenser mic, your mouth should be at least 5-7" from the mic and you should be singing through a pop filter. For louder vocal passages, pull back from the mic.

CONVEY EMOTION: The emotional honesty of your vocals is what will reach your audience, so don't hold back. You want your vocals to be larger than life! Whether the emotion is joy, sadness, falling in love, nostalgia, whatever... make sure the listener can hear it in your voice and feel it in your performance. Make the lyrics believable and relateable.

BE MINDFUL OF THE BEAT: Pay close attention to the timing of the vocal. If you're recording your own vocals and don't have another set of ears monitoring your performance, it can be difficult to stay on top of this. Make sure the song's pulse is clearly heard through your headphones - increase the monitoring volume of the drums or another rhythmic instrument if necessary. Tap your foot or quietly slap your thigh while singing, to physically reinforce the beat. After you've recorded some solid vocal takes, play around with the timing/phrasing on subsequent takes. Think about ways to deliver the vocal that will enhance the song's groove, emphasize the meaning of the lyrics, and possibly surprise the listener.

WEAK SINGERS KEEP NOTES SHORTER: This is a technique my vocal producing partner frequently resorts to when a singer doesn't have a lot of control and can't hold a long note without wavering and drifting off pitch. Yes, some of that can be fixed with pitch correction, but you really don't want to have to fix every sustained note in a song. Instead, when singing, keep notes short and avoid long sustains. It will go a long way to improving the overall vocal performance.

RECORD IN SECTIONS: You can try a couple of takes singing the entire song all the way through, but ultimately, it's best to record the song in sections. Go line by line, phrase by phrase, stanza by stanza, whatever makes sense in the context of the song, and record multiple takes of each section before moving to the next. With each take, try to do better than the previous take - make adjustments as you go. The idea is to generate a selection of viable takes for the comping process, which will come later.

EXPERIMENT: Once you've recorded some decent initial takes for the entire song, feel free to experiment with additional takes. Try some different vocal approaches. Assume a different persona. Try being overly expressive. Try speaking the lyrics instead of singing them (this can be useful for a bridge, or to add variety among verses. Don't be afraid to sound ridiculous - just have fun. Most of your experiments will probably be discarded, but you may unexpectedly strike gold along the way.

RECORDING THE VOCAL (ENGINEER'S GUIDE)

I'm guessing most of us Reasonites are a one-man show. We wear many hats and do it all - write, perform, record, produce, and engineer. If you're recording your own vocals, you want to be able to focus on the vocal performance and not get distracted by the engineering stuff. The best way to do this is to get as many of the engineering tasks out of the way before you record, so the only thing you need to do in Reason while recording is to press record, stop, occasionally move the cursor and loop markers, and save.

PREPARE THE PROJECT: Get your Reason project ready for vocal recording. Mute any non-essential instruments that may distract you while singing. Increase the level of instruments that will help you as a singer (typically guitar, keyboards, drums). Prepare some empty tracks ahead of time in case you need them, so you don't have to bother creating them while you're in the middle of the session. You can certainly record all vocal takes on a single sequencer track, but I often find it convenient to record alternate or experimental takes on different tracks. If you're going to be recording harmonies, you'll definitely need additional tracks.

PREPARE THE ENVIRONMENT: Ideally, you want to record the vocal in a space that generates as few sonic reflections as possible - what's referred to as a "dead space". If you're recording at home on the cheap, you can try using a closet, or hang blankets on the walls of a small room, or invest in one of those small sound baffles that mount on your mic stand and surround the mic. A step up would be to put up foam sound treatment on your walls.

GET A MUSIC STAND: And place the lyrics on it.

PREPARE THE MIC: If you're using a condenser mic, secure it in a shock mount and use a pop filter. Make sure it's supplied with phantom power. Adjust the mic stand to place the mic at the right height for the singer.

PREPARE THE VOCAL INPUT CHAIN: If you have outboard gear like a compressor, EQ, or preamp that you use when recording vocals, make sure they're connected and working. If you've developed favorite settings, dial them in.

SET INPUT LEVELS: Sing into the mic and check the input level on Reason's sequencer track. When your vocal is at its loudest, the meter should be in the yellow. Make adjustments as necessary on your audio interface and/or outboard gear.

SET MONITORING LEVELS: Put on headphones and practice singing to the track. Make sure you can hear both the track and your singing. Adjust levels accordingly. If your audio interface supports direct monitoring, you can use it to monitor without latency.

KNOW YOUR KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS: The essential shortcuts while recording are in the area of the numeric keypad - to start and stop recording, and to move the cursor. Refer to the Reason manual, but don't get overwhelmed by all the keyboard shortcuts. Just know the ones you'll need while recording.

SAVE OFTEN: Make a habit of saving (CTRL-S on the keyboard) after completing each take or section of the recording.

LOOP FOR MULTIPLE TAKES: When you're recording yourself, one simple technique for recording multiple takes is to loop a section and let the recording run, singing a new vocal take with each loop. Be mindful not to record too many takes. Unless the vocal passage is particularly problematic, 4-7 takes should be enough. Although I read somewhere that Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" was comped together from 14 takes, so YMMV.

POST PRODUCTION

Once all the vocals have been recorded, it's time to prep them for mixing. This involves comping, pitch correction, timing correction, and levelling. Fortunately for us, Reason provides a nice set of tools to help accomplish these tasks.

COMPING: Comping is the process of extracting the best parts from all the vocal take to create a single composite vocal take. For maximum flexibility, try to comp nothing longer than a phrase. Sometimes, you may be comping a single word, especially if it's set apart from other lyrics. When comping, pay attention to the overall vocal flow. Avoid splices that obviously sound like different takes were joined. Don't worry about intonation during the comping phase - you will pitch correct after you've assembled the final vocal take. It can help to have another set of trustworthy ears on hand while you comp, especially if you're working with your own vocal. We tend to lose objectivity when it comes to our own voice, and focus on things that audiences don't care about or won't ever notice, so an outside opinion can be invaluable. Comping can be a very time-consuming process, especially if you have a lot of vocal takes to sift through or if the song is long, so take breaks to keep your head and your ears clear.

*WORD OF WARNING: Make sure you're thoroughly satisfied with the comped vocal, because if later on you decide to go back and make additional changes to the comp, Reason will discard all pitch corrections you made to that clip, and you'll need to go through the pitch correction process again.

PITCH CORRECTION: The importance of intonation can't be overstated - nobody likes to listen to an out of tune singer. Prior to the digital age, pitch correction didn't exist, and singers had to rely on their own talent to sing in tune - imagine that! But pitch correction technology became the great equalizer, enabling those of us with less than perfect intonation to be at least somewhat listenable as singers. The Pitch Editor in Reason actually enables us to manipulate the vocal in several ways:

Pitch: If you're working with a skilled singer, you may only need to selectively adjust the most eggregiously out of tune notes. But with less talented singers, myself included, I start by selecting all the notes in the current clip (CTRL-A) and clicking the Correct button, which snaps the notes to the nearest pitch on the grid. This alone can do wonders for the vocal, but you still need to listen through the entire clip and manually adjust notes that invariably got snapped to the wrong pitch. Be sure to use your ears, and don't just rely on grid position. The most common situation that requires extra scrutiny is when Reason mistakenly treats two notes as one block, so even though the block is aligned to the pitch grid, one of the notes contained in the block is at the wrong pitch. In this situation you need to split the block and adjust further.

Stability: The thin wavy line that runs thru the note grid is a more detailed representation of what the voice is doing. We are not robots, so fluctuations are natural and desirable. However, sometimes the line wavers too much, especially with weaker singers, causing notes to drift out of tune. In these situations, you should adjust the most offending notes by slightly flattening the line. Be careful not to overdo it, or the vocal will start to sound mechanical. As always, rely on your ears and not just the grid, to tell you when an adjustment is necessary. Some natural fluctuation is not a bad thing.

Volume: An often overlooked feature of Reason's Pitch Editor is the ability to adjust the volume of individual notes. The control is not as fine as I'd like it to be, so I only use this feature to adjust notes that are excessively loud or quiet. I'll perform additional volume adjustments at the sequencer level (see below).

Timing: It's possible to stretch and slide notes in the Pitch Editor, but quite honestly, I prefer to do this in the Slice Editor, which we'll look at next.

TIMING CORRECTION: The timing of the vocal performance is just as important as intonation. If the vocal is out of step with the beat and doesn't compliment the song's groove, it can ruin the listening experience and sabotage the song. But a good vocal performance is more than just singing on the beat. A talented singer intuitively knows how weave the vocal in and around the beat, pushing and pulling the timing to emphasize the meaning of the lyrics and enhance the song's groove. It's important to get this as right as possible during recording, because while we can adjust the timing in post, there's no substitute for the feel of a great natural performance. Use Reason's handy Slice Editor to make timing adjustments to the vocal - but don't overdo it! Just address the most obvious timing issues and keep the changes small and subtle. It's very easy to get carried away and tweak too many notes, which will end up ruining the vocal. After each adjustment, listen back, starting a few bars earlier, to make sure the vocal still flows naturally. It's also a good idea to check back the next day to ensure your timing adjustments still make sense.

LEVELING: You want the overall volume of the vocal to be consistent across the entire performance. Excessively loud notes should be tamed, and excessively quiet notes may need to be boosted. There are plugins that can help automate this process, such as Selig Leveler, Waves Vocal Rider, or HoRNet Auto Gain Pro. But for ultimate control, I like to do this manually. I usually take a two-pronged approach: first I address any glaring problem notes by either adjusting note volume in the Pitch Editor, or by isolating the notes in the sequencer lane and adjusting clip volume. Once the worst offenders are tamed, I'll use volume fader automation to even out additional areas of the vocal track.

VOCAL CLEANUP

Before mixing, it's a good idea to clean up any unwanted noise and/or artifacts in the vocal track.

EQ CLEANUP: Use a parametric EQ to remove any sonic problems in the vocal recording. First, remove any low end rumble, which is often caused by foot-tapping or contact with the mic stand. A simple high pass filter will do. Try to avoid cutting into the vocal's lower frequencies, which will result in a thin-sounding vocal. Next, reduce any unwanted resonances that may have been caused by the recording environment or equipment. You're looking only for offending frequencies that are consistently present throughout the recording.

GATE CLEANUP: I hardly ever use a gate on vocals, but it can be handy if there is a high noise floor on the recording. A gate can also be used to remove or reduce breaths - but a word of caution about that. When I was starting out, I recorded a singer for a jazz project that was being mixed at another studio. After delivering the final comped vocal, the mix engineer contacted me and said, "Where are the breaths!?" I had used a gate to remove the breaths thinking this was a good thing, but the engineer admonished me, saying breaths were an important part of the vocal and helped it sound natural. Lesson learned. For jazz and other acoustic genres, keeping the voice as natural as possible is very important. But for other more heavily produced genres, excessive breaths can sometimes be undesirable. Use your judgment, but don't get too hung up on breaths unless they are obviously distracting.

MIXING THE VOCAL

Finally we're ready to mix the vocal! Mixing vocals is actually fairly straightforward. A basic mixing chain often looks like this: Compressor -> EQ -> De-Esser -> Reverb/Delay. Generally speaking, unless you're going for a specific effect, you'll always want to preserve the natural characteristics of the voice, which is after all, what makes the singer unique. You can find plenty of vocal mixing tutorials on the web to guide you through this process, so I'm just going to outline the basics here. And as always, let your ears be your ultimate guide and don't be afraid to experiment.

COMPRESSION: The goal of vocal compression is be even out the performance and give it some urgency or punch. You've already done some levelling in the prep phase, but compression helps to tighten things up and bring the vocal forward. In some situations, you may want to use two compressors - the first with a fast attack to tame unruly peaks, and a second slower compressor to even out the overall vocal. Try not to over-compress the vocal, unless you're going for a specific effect.

EQ: The goal of vocal EQ is simply to enhance the performance. If the vocal is too dark, you may want to add a high shelf boost to give it some air. If the vocal is lifeless or the lyrics not clear, you may need to add some presence with a gentle boost in the 2-3K range. If the vocal is too "woofy", or was recorded too close to the mic (proximity effect), you may need to gently cut the low-mids. Typically, you're not looking to make drastic EQ moves, just some tasteful adjustments to bring out the best in the vocal.

DE-ESSER: Sibilance can be tricky, because once we start listening for it, we tend to over-hear it, turning it into a bigger issue than it really is. But if it's truly distracting, it needs to be addressed. A good de-esser is your best friend, just be careful not to go overboard or the singer will sound like they have a lisp. In really problematic situations, I make manual volume adjustments to "ss" and hard consonant sounds in the audio clips. This always works well.

REVERB/DELAY: Depending on the musical genre, vocals will benefit from some amount of reverb and/or delay. How much and what kind is a creative choice that needs to be made within the context of the song. Try not to overdo reverb, and play with pre-delay settings to separate the vocal from the reverb. When using delay, an effective technique is to ride the delay with automation, keeping it to a minimum in the middle of lines (ducking) and boosting it on the last word or two of a vocal line. This keeps the lyrics understandable and provides a nice underscore to the end of each line.

HEARING THE VOCAL: As we now know, the vocal is the most important part of the song, so one of the goals in mixing is to make sure it can be heard.
Make room in the mix: Carve out ample space for the vocal in the mix. Figure out where the singer's fundamental tones lie (using your ears, sweeping an EQ band, and/or looking at a spectrum analyzer), and cut that range in the backing instruments. Better yet, before you even record the song, create an instrumental arrangement that doesn't interfere with the vocal.
Pump up the volume: Unless you're going for a specialized mix, make sure the vocal is the most prominent element in the mix. I've seen too many producers/engineers bury vocals among all the other instruments in an effort to get the vocal to "sit in the mix", robbing the song of the very thing that will catch and keep the listeners attention. Put the vocal out front where it belongs and don't apologize for it. Here are a couple of well known tricks to help zero in on an appropriate vocal level:
  1. While playing the track, pull the master fader all the way down to zero, then very slowly bring it up. The first sound you should hear are the vocals. There are a few genre-dependent exceptions to this, such as dance music, where the drums might be the loudest element, but in most situations, you want to hear the vocal first.
  2. When you play the track at very low volumes, it should seem like the vocal is too loud and needs to be brought down, and when you play the track at very loud volumes, it should seem like the vocal isn't quite loud enough and needs to be brought up.
VOCAL PLUGINS: If you don't feel like getting into the details of vocal mixing, there are plugins specifically designed to easily dial in a good vocal sound. iZotope Nectar and Voxengo Voxformer offer self-contained mixing chains with presets for various vocal styles, and Waves has several specialized vocal plugins in their signature series.

SPECIAL PROCESSING

Everything above pertains to basic vocal recording and mixing. But there are many additional techniques, from subtle to extreme, that can be applied to vocals to achieve specific effects. Without going into details, here's a quick rundown of some of the more common techniques: vocal doubling, chorus effects, vocal thickening using micro-delays and micro-pitch shifts, bandpass filter effects like telephone or megaphone vocals, saturation and distortion, vocoding, and extreme pitch shifting and formant deformation.

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I hope this has been somewhat helpful. Please feel free to contribute your own vocal tips and techniques, and most importantly, go record some amazing vocals!
Last edited by NekujaK on 16 Sep 2018, edited 1 time in total.
wreaking havoc with :reason: since 2.5

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selig
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Post 16 Sep 2018

Don't know what I'd add (other than making this a "sticky"), as you've pretty much covered everything here!

:)
Selig Audio, LLC

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Post 08 Oct 2018

A guide to daily living!

Excellent.

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