Vocal Smoothing: Part 2

In part 1 of my vocal smoothing feature, I outlined the initial steps you can take to make a lead vocal track sound smooth, understandable and natural. Once I apply the plugins and get my hardware sounding great, I move on to automation to put the finishing touches on the track. I’m using Pro Tools but the techniques here can be used in any DAW.

For starters, I’ll write an automation pass with the vocal track’s fader at a fixed level that works as a starting point. Do this by opening the Automation Window (Command + 4 on the numeric keypad), Select VOL under Write Enable and WRITE ON STOP with the arrow pointing in both directions. Set the vocal track’s automation selector to WRITE then use the space bar to start and immediately stop the playhead. You’ve just written the volume of that fader at that level for the entire song. With this done, if you make automation moves in TOUCH, the fader will always pop back to this level when you let go – very handy.

Once I flatline the fader, I’ll manually write in dips and tucks on problem areas in the track’s Volume View. For example, I’ll listen to the track and find any problem areas (remaining sibilance, plosives) and dip those at least -3dB (sometimes more) with V cut in the Volume line. Do this with the grabber tool (Command + 4). Hover over the Volume line with the Grabber and click to create break points. I’ll break the line bit before and a bit after the area, then put another break dead center between them and drag it down paying attention to the -dB amount as I go. Depending on how much you have zoomed in on the track, you’ll get a hang of the overall size of the dip after you do a few and listen back. I’ll use this technique throughout the entire vocal writing in dips wherever sibilance, unpleasant volume shifts, or large breaths need to be reduced. This can take a while but it’s worth it.

For me, this manual approach is preferred to addressing the dips with a controller because of the delay caused by the plugins. Plugin latency is handled automatically by Delay Compensation so it’s correct to your ear, but if you make fader moves in real time, they’ll be late. For this reason I stick to manual writing with the mouse for the first pass and keep the fader moves for more global trimming.

Once all my cuts are in, I’ll make a VCA Master fader to do my final moves. You could make moves on the vocal track itself in Touch/Trim, but I’d rather leave my dips untouched for fine tuning and have the more global fader moves on another track.

To get the VCA to control the vocal fader, you’ll have to group it. Select the Vocal track, push Command + G, then name the group anything you’d like. Then go to the VCA Master fader and select that group. Now the VCA master is controlling your vocal fader and you can write automation. Write the VCA flat at unity gain (0) for the entire song as above, then put the VCA Master in TOUCH and start making your moves. Here’s where you have to be aware of the delay caused by the plugins. I’ll listen to the track and find spots that need smoothing, then I’ll make the move early to compensate. It will take a few passes to get this right but once you have a feel for it, you’ll be making moves with minimal re-dos. Once you go through the entire song, you should really start hearing the vocal sit down in the mix, sounding very smooth and natural with each word being heard. Happy Smoothing and ping me on Facebook with your own mixing tips.

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August 2012
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