Vocal processing is the secret sauce that brings every track together, providing that final, polished touch that separates beginner's work from polished, professional releases. It's an essential skill for every budding producer and engineer - but where should you begin if you have no idea where to start?
Not to worry! We'll break down the importance of vocal processing below and provide some recommendations on how to process different types of vocal performances to help your track shine.
What Is Vocal Processing?
The vocal is the heart of every song. Vocal processing helps sit a recorded performance within the world of a polished track by cleaning the vocal and adding effects to help it sit well within a mix. To create a radio-ready vocal, engineers need to commit to two main types of processes:
Subtractive processes are vocal processes used to take away unwanted sounds. For instance, subtractive EQ takes away unwanted frequencies.
Additive processes are used to add on effects to a cleaned vocal. Remember that additive processing should come after subtractive processes since all effects build on top of one another within a signal chain.
How To Process A Clean Lead Vocal
Preferred vocal chains will vary greatly based on an engineer's preferences. However, generally speaking, there are some commonalities: Main vocals are usually fairly clear, upfront in the mix, sometimes with a short delay or reverb tail.
The process of tracking a strong lead vocal starts with the recording process. Make sure your singer is in a suitable recording room, preferably utilizing a clean preamp to record into your interface.
During the mixing process, a lead vocal is usually EQed to remove any unwanted frequencies or imperfections. Next, it's processed with tuning and finally polished with some form of compression to glue the take together. When in doubt - this is a great starting point for your lead vocal processing.
How To Process Backing Vocals
So how does one process backing vocals? Here are some common methods for processing backing vocals in your mix:
Having two or more takes can create a choir-like effect, creating a backdrop effect amongst your lead vocal.
Backing vocals can be processed with heavy compression since they're not meant to be the star of the show like the lead.
Spatial effects like reverbs and delays can help create needed distance or add atmosphere between the main vocal and backing vocals.
7 Creative Ways To Process Vocal Tracks
Vocal tracks cleaned with EQ, pitch correction and light compression make a great starting point for creative vocal processing. As a reminder, it's key to clean your tracks up with any subtractive processing before adding on to them with the following:
Out of all of the possible vocal effects, reverb is arguably the most popular form of processing used on any type of vocal. Reverb is used to create artificial space, giving your music more presence.
Chopping, resampling, and playing around with bits and pieces of your vocal is a great way to help your vocals stand out amongst a dense mix, or even build a strong hook in your chorus as showcased in the hit Stay by Alessia Cara and Zedd :
Widening and Panning
Simply playing with the position of your vocals or vocal effects within the stereo field can have a huge impact on your mix. Typically, vocals are housed in the center of a mix, so any deviation from this can have a profound creative effect. For instance, take a listen to the intro of Reckless Abandon by Blink 182:
Reversing your vocal track certainly captures the listener's ears and doesn't take a lot of processing. You can even hear tracks with parts of the entire song reversed, like in Iron Maiden's Still Life .
Quick tip: If you take the first syllable of your main vocal, isolate it, add reverb, record it and reverse it, you'll get a cool effect that can serve as the perfect transition from one part of your song to the next! Take a look at this processing in action:
Delays are another spatial effect that can transform vocals tracked in an ultra dry recording room. You can add delay throws to transition from one section to another, or using delays across your main vocal as heard in Yes' The Gates of Delirum :
Some songs, especially those in alternative genres take to a crunchier vocal sound, rather typical straightforward vocal. Distortion is a great way to take your clean vocal signal and transform it to something with its own sound packed with color. If you take a listen to the classic Midnight City by M83, the earworm hook is a vocal that's been distorted and resampled:
Basic pitch correction is standard practice for polishing any vocal sound. Today, it can be so much more! From the popularization of auto tune in emerging genres like hyperpop, cloud rap, and otherwise, pitch correction can be as much of a creative process as it is a technical one.
Take a listen to a creative tuning plugin, Little Alterboy by SoundToys at work:
Vocal Processing FAQ
Still have questions about vocal processing? Consider these commonly asked questions and answers to help expand your understanding:
What does vocal processing do?
Vocal processing helps the human voice sit neatly within a polished recording. Without proper vocal processing, the raw human voice wouldn't sound professional inside of a typical mix.
How do I process a lead vocal track?
When you process lead vocals, you're usually going for a forward, clear sound that feels in the center of the mix as a good starting point to reference. To process a lead vocal, you'll want to EQ, apply pitch correction, add compression, and finally, any effects like reverb, delay or distortion.
What is the processing order of vocal effects?
The processing order of vocal effects is additive. Each effect builds on top of itself. Therefore, anything that cleans or simplifies the vocal should come before any processing like reverb or delay that completely shifts the vocal sound.
What is the vocal mixing process like?
The vocal mixing process varies based on what you're going for - however, with most vocal track processing, you can count on EQing, compressing, sometimes tuning, and applying a few spatial effects like reverb or delay to help a vocal sit well within a mix.
Vocal processing is an essential part of the recording, production, and mixing process. Hopefully, this guide makes it easier for you to process your vocal tracks from start to finish. Have fun experimenting with these classic processing techniques!