Vocal Smoothing: Part 1

One thing that brings a high level of professionalism to any mix is making your vocal sound smooth, understandable and natural. A compressor goes a long way to make this happen but it also brings the blemishes to the surface. As you limit dynamic range, you start to hear bad edits, hard syllables, sibilance and the difference in takes if you made a comp. Each one of these pimples takes a special skillset to make right.

Before I get into individual skills, let’s talk about the vocal chain. I’m going speak from my own perspective as a mixer so my gear may differ from yours, but the concepts remain the same. I have a hybrid setup with various analog tube gear and plugins from UAD, SoundToys, VSL, Slate, EastWest, Avid, Steinberg and more. My vocal chain plugins vary greatly depending on the singer, but I always end the chain by leaving my converters and going through a Millennia STT-1 and then into a Dangerous 2-Bus and BAX EQ before it splits back to a Dangerous Monitor ST and back to my Lynx converters for burning a 2 mix.

The STT-1 has tube or solid-state sections for the EQ and compressor and input section. I will choose more tube over SS if the vocal needs some taming down from any digital harshness and I generally use the four EQ bands as a way to balance the tone in the 100Hz range, at the fundamental (depends on the vocalist), 4k to 5kHz and 8Khz and up. The compressor is working between 5 to 8 dB of gain reduction depending on how dynamic the part is.

I’m also giving the vocal a lot of plugin and automation love before it gets out of the box. I’ll always tune before I process so that plugin is first in line. Lately I’ve been using Slate VCC plugins on all my channels and VCC bus plugins on various groups, or I’ll sometimes hit the track with a UAD ATR-102 plugin for some tape simulation – or both. Next comes a utility compressor such as the UAD Fairchild or if the track is especially dynamic, I’ll go deep with a FET/VCA style compressor like an 1176, DBX 160 or Fatso Jr. plugin. These can sound “pumpy” (with hard-knee and apparent gain changes) so you have to be wary of hitting the track too hard here. But with just the right setting, you can tame the peaks with a good amount of transparency. I’m often barely moving the needle here, just getting the peaks.

Next, I use at least one, and often two or three de-essers depending on what the track sounds like. I prefer the UAD Precision De-esser and UAD bx_digital V2 which lets you dial in the frequency to cut over the full range of audible frequencies. With the V2, you can use the Listen mode to find an offending tone by grabbing a frequency knob which solos just the frequency you set it to, boosting it at a very narrow bandwidth. You can then tune in on the harsh tone to get the frequency you need to plug in to the de-esser. I’ll then shut off that band so I’m not using the EQ, and plug the number into the de-esser (see V2 pic above with de-esser outlined in white.) Then you just dial out the amount to cut which is measured in -dB steps and is reflected by the GR meter. There is also a handy solo button so you can hear what’s going on when the GR meter kicks in. It’s very easy to use and sounds great.

We’re not done yet! Click here to see Part 2

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