The Engineer’s vocal toolbox is a collection of essential vocal production tools that help with pitch correction, vocal presence, and vocal mixing.
So it finally happened, you got your first big gig as a mixing engineer, so you download the files, open the session and low and behold there are 20 plus vocals parts, including doubles, harmonies and gang tracks. You know how to mix a song, so you start with your basics of EQs, compression, and leveling, but somethings off. The closer your mix gets to perfect, the more imperfect you realize the vocals are; in some cases, this is fine, in others, not so much. Welcome to the engineer’s vocal toolbox, a collection of singular focused items you probably knew you needed, but didn’t realize how much.
The following are the essentials for your vocal production toolbox:
The Best Pitch Correction for Vocal Production: Not Just Autotune
Autotune in the world of popular culture brings to mind T-Pain, pop princess’ and the inability to sing, culture journalists love to misplace its uses to oversimplify one of the most arduous tasks a that a mixing engineer has to go through, tuning vocals. If you’re new to tuning vocals, your instant thought of how this is done is with Antares Autotune, this is not always the case, Autotune may have made its mark on the industry, and as a tracking tool, it can be great to install more confidence in a vocalist, but it is no longer the industry’s only standard, nor is it the only option.
When it comes to choosing a tuner there are four things you should take into account.
- Is it lightweight – depending on how many vocal tracks you have in a session, your pitch correction plugin can make your mix harmonically shimmer or break your CPU? If the plugin is developed in a manner that it is bulky, you will end up dealing with latency issues, and generally less performance.
- Real-Time vs Capture – Autotune’s claim to fame is within its name, it chromatically “auto tunes” in real time, but heavy duty pitch correction software rarely autotunes. If you’re going for the Autotune sound, you want a pitch correction tool that allows for real-time, if you’re tuning doubles, you’re going to want to capture these notes and manipulate them in whatever available editing modes there are.
- Editing Modes – most professional pitch correction tools allow for surgical editing tools to slow notes into their proper place. The more options you have, the more detailed your pitch correction can be.
- Inherent Sound – Autotune gave rise to Melodyne because of its sound. Melodyne itself has a “sound,” all pitch correction plugins do, mainly due to the fact that they digitally manipulate the harmonic frequency to both change pitch, without changing the time. Unless being used as an effect or aesthetic choice, no artist wants to sound tuned.
Some people say technology takes the soul out of the music, but in a world where we are no longer bound to 8 – 16 tracks, gang vocals are all the rage, choirs have ever gone out of style, and a wall of vocalists is never passé. Though the slight inconsistencies make these performances great, sometimes things just need a nudge, but individually nudging all these tracks isn’t always in a clients budget, timeframe or otherwise, and that’s where Vocalign or ReVoice come in. Vocalign allows you to select on guide track and map the timing pattern to a like phrase. Audio alignment makes your doubles sharper, gives vocals a crisper presence and a cleaner mix overall in a few clicks of a button.
FX aren’t always necessary, but the can be an Engineers best friend. Sometimes a vocalist won’t cut it, or their takes don’t match the feel of effects a track, this is one of the places where a multi-effects engine can come in handy. Multi-FX are also a great way to bring alien elements into a song that are otherwise impossible to make in the real world.
Though sometimes one in the same, reverbs and delays can also reshape a vocal in new and unexpected ways, sometimes all you need to make a vocal fit a song is to make sure that vocal fits the room of the song it belongs to. When it comes to multi-effect engines, Sugar Bytes has it on lock and two of their offerings truly set them apart from the pack, but because of it’s limitless automation control, my recommendation is Turnado which features:
- 3 Delays
- 3 Modulation Effects
- 2 Reverbs
- 1 Vocoder
- 1 Ring Modulator
- 2 Amps
- 5 Loop Effects
- 1 Granulizer
- 1 Stutter
- 1 Vinyl Stop
- 4 Filters
- Step Sequencer
- Fully Automatable Functions
Vocal Processing Engine
While this might seem like overkill, I love pairing a vocal processing engine with all of the above, because they are first and foremost about everything vocals. Sure they may include every one of the elements previously listed, but there is no faster way to make a lead vocal pop than throwing on a vocal processor. Two of my personal favorite vocal processors are Izotope’s Nectar 2 and Waves’ Butch Vig Vocals.
When it comes to vocal processors, there is nothing that can really touch Nectar 2 or Butch Vig Vocals, and the two couldn’t be any more different.
Izotope’s second incarnation of their Nectar plugin amped up the sleekness, got rid of any of the original bugs and packed in a host of amazing vocal tools including a comprehensive pitch correction tool and a breath controller.
Inversely, where Izotope went for the kitchen sink, Waves went for the advanced necessities. Butch Big Vocals is a plug-in modeled after grunge-pioneer Butch Vig’s personal vocal signal chain. Though BVV is basically WYSIWYG, the plugin is deceivingly compact and filled with everything from saturation control, virtual tube and solid-state modeling, and a presence boost there not much more that you could want in an insert chain.
Much like a compressor or transient designer, an aural exciter raises and lowers harmonics based on threshold settings using harmonic distortion. This somewhat advanced mixing tool can really put that final touch on your almost perfect vocal. My personal favorite is Waves Vitamin Exciter, this multiband sonic enhancer allows for true tone shaping with its 5 band control. Other awesome aspects Vitamin that makes it the best aural exciter around is its 0 latency processing, band image control, and crossover control, which together allow you to sonically shape both the sound and stereo field of your vocal.
Of course, with time this will change, but having any set of these tools at your fingertips will push your vocals to the forefront.