What is a Vocal Chain & How to Create One?

What is a Vocal Chain & How to Create One? What is a Vocal Chain & How to Create One?

From the first recording to the final export of the master track, there is a lot of work that goes into transforming raw tracks into balanced, final songs. The vocal sound lies at the helm of this operation, making vocal track processing one of the most important jobs of the recording and mixing engineer.

One of the engineer's responsibilities is to create a vocal chain or a special line of processing that transforms and enhances a raw vocal track over the course of the music production process. Every engineer may have his or her signature vocal sound, but there are some similarities across most vocal chains that are helpful to understand as a musician, producer, or engineer.

Below, we'll dive into the basic vocal chain and cover the essential elements so that you can build one of your own. Let's take a look!

What is a Vocal Chain?

A vocal chain refers to a specific set of processes applied to raw vocal tracks used to mix vocals into a finalized composition or track. Since vocals by nature vary from one singer to the next, the perfect chain will vary from one vocalist to the next, varying by genre, style, and track complexity. However, there are some key elements that most vocal chains share.

For instance, most vocal chains will include plugins to reign in harsh frequencies, apply pitch correction, compress the vocal and potentially blend in some common effects like reverb and delay. Note that order in vocal chain is extremely important: step B builds on top of step A, so on and so forth, so it's key to factor this into your mixing decisions.

Recording Vocal Chain

We'll be mainly discussing the vocal processing chain that's applied after a vocal has been recorded. The art of recording vocals is a science in itself, and many professional studios will utilize preamps and compressors to shape the sound going into a live microphone. A good starting point to any vocal processing chain is a clear, crisp recorded vocal.

Keep in mind that subtractive processes like tuning or transient shaping should only be used to give the raw vocal a bit more polish rather than overcompensate for poorly recorded vocals. When in doubt, get another vocal take before proceeding to mix vocals - start with a clean slate.

Key Elements of a Vocal Chain

Every vocal chain is different, but there are three main categories most vocal chain processors can fall under:

Vocal Cleanup and Tuning

Subtractive processing, or processes that are meant to take way imperfections in the recording come first in the vocal chain. It's important to remember that the order of processing in your vocal chain matters greatly since everything builds on top of the prior processing.

During this stage, you will likely see EQs or equalizers taming transients, reducing harsh frequencies or resonance, and any other noise reduction. You might also see a de-esser to reduce harsh sibilance, low or high pass filter tools to emphasize or de-emphasize certain parts of a vocal.

The goal is to clean up the vocal before it's amplified and further processed with effects further down in the chain.

Compression and Amplification

Compression and amplification is one of the most important parts of processing vocals. Most vocals have a wide dynamic range, meaning there's a hefty difference between the quietest and loudest parts of the vocal take. Compression can help even out this range, creating an overall "louder" and more consistent sound so that there isn't a huge disparity when you mix vocals.

Effects and Additive Processing

It's possible that some effects and additive processing may come before the compression stage, or lie before and after the compression stage depending on the vocal. This stage includes introducing new effects that may greatly shift the sculpted sound, for instance adding reverb that makes it sound as though the vocal is resting in a massive cathedral.

Other tools include delay, echo effect, subtle distortion, and more - just remember that adding other processors should always come after you fine tune and clean up your vocal. All processes are iterative, so you don't want to inadvertently amplify a vocal that hasn't been fixed up at the foundational level.

Your Vocal Chain Template: 8 Steps to Vocal Perfection

You can't build out a one-size-fits-all approach for a mix, and the same goes for vocal processing. However, these steps will give you the principles you need to build out a vocal chain that works for you or your clients.

This order is not finalized by any means-- in some cases, you may introduce a plugin that needs some subtractive EQ tweaks after the fact even though you already used similar processes earlier in the chain. The important thing to remember is that each processes builds on top of the prior one, and when in doubt trust your ears. Bypass your effects on and off across your chain to help evaluate what each plugin is doing.

Everything should have a clear purpose in terms of utility and placement within the chain. With that in mind, here are 8 steps to a bare bones vocal processing chain:

1. Start with a Good Recording

It goes without saying that an amazing vocal mix starts with a top-notch recording. Make sure your raw files are clear, crisp, and do not present any glaring issues like distortion, peaking, or less than preferable tone. If you're on the fence, it's best to go back to the drawing board and obtain another take - there is only so much you can do during the mixing process to ease the impact of a poorly recorded vocal.

2. Tuning and Pitch Correction

Believe it or not, everyone (even Beyonce) uses AutoTune, or at least some form of pitch correction to give vocals a polished sound. Tuning adjustments will either come before or after sculpting with the EQ, put they should come before any additional effects processing. Subtractive refers to processes involving taking away sound, while additive refers to building on top of a sound.

3. EQ Shaping

Next, use an EQ or equalizer to help scuplt your sound. For instance, maybe there are some low frequencies that are taking up too much space in your vocal. You might use a high pass filter to lessen their effect in the mix.

4. De-essing, Gate, and Additional Subtractive Processing

You can also cut back on harsh frequencies or use tools like de-essers to target sibilance, or those "p"s, "t"s, and "s" sounds that may pop out in a vocal mix. A gate can help take away the subtle ambiance of a noise floor, and give your vocals a clean start. Dynamic EQs and processors can be automated to provide clarity during particular points in the track as a "spot treatment".

5. Compression and Saturation

Compression can be used to reduce the dynamic range of your vocal takes, creating a more consistent vocal performance. You can also use tools like saturation and even subtle distortion to introduce warmth and color into your vocal takes. Add compression after you've cleaned up your vocal, as applied compression will amplify the sound its fed.

At this point, you may also consider taking on some additive EQ to emphasize favorable parts of the mix. In most cases, you shouldn't have to bump up sections more than 1-3 decibels, but as always, your ears are your greatest guides. You might also use an exciter to add in some harmonics and character to the top end of your vocal mix.

6. Widening

The main vocal usually lies towards the center of the mix, but with background vocals or additional harmonies, you may find yourself adding stereo width to your tracks. You can experiment with panning your vocals across the stereo field while playing with other mixing techniques. Just be sure to double check your vocal mix in several stereo settings to ensure you're creating the preferred effect.

7. Reverb and Delay

Time-based effects like reverb and delay should go towards the end of your vocal chain since they have a profound effect on the overall sound of your vocals. Make sure to test out these effects on both stereo and mono outputs to check for any phasing issues in your vocal mix. You can also use send and return tracks to blend your original vocal with the processed version.

8. Final EQ (Optional)

After working through several additive processes like compression, saturation, or mixing with time-based effects like reverb or delay, there is a chance you might have some cleanup to do. Some effects introduce new frequencies into the mix, so don't be afraid to add on another EQ to sculpted the post processed sound to your liking.

Vocal Chain FAQs

Still on your journey to build a top-notch vocal recording chain? Use these commonly asked questions and answers to help you kickstart your journey to the perfect vocal chain:

What is a vocal chain?

A vocal chain is a group of effects and processing used to transform vocal recordings to their final, radio-ready form. A typical vocal chain includes vocal processing plugins to remove unwanted background noise, frequencies, shape dynamic range, tune the vocal performance and effects to help the vocal sound more professional.

What is a good vocal chain?

A good vocal chain is one that removes unwanted frequencies and enhances the highlights of a particular vocal. A basic vocal chain usually includes elements like an equalizer, pitch correction plugins, compressor, saturation plugins and other effects like reverb and delay plugins to help the vocal mix achieve that final balance.

What is the best vocal chain for vocals?

Since every voice comes with its own set of nuances, there isn't one "right" vocal chain. The best vocal chain transforms raw vocal tracks into polished vocal tracks using tools like subtractive eq, compressors, fine tuning plugins, and effects like reverb.

What are the basic vocal chains?

Basic vocal chains for recording tend to have a preamp and in some cases, a compressor to drive up the vocals coming in. Processing vocal chains include equalizers, pitch correction plugins, compressors, and effects.

Crafting a vocal chain that's built for your voice or your clients all comes down to personal preference, but hopefully, this guide gave you a great starting point to jumpstart your vocal processing. Have fun transforming raw recordings into killer tracks!

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