Vocal Dynamic Processing

Kenny's Tip of the Day - Vocal Dynamic Processing

For this tip I'm going to outline how I deal with vocals dynamically. In other words, how I handle controlling the volume of a vocal in a recording.

I should mention that when recording vocals (in most cases) you're going to want to keep the range of volume from quiet sections to louder ones pretty small. This seems backwards but really it makes for a better recording and mix as you will be able to hear each word sung and the lyric much more clearly. 

The audience will still hear the difference in the other variables. So while your vocal track will have very contained or restrained dynamic range, your singers intensity and emotion will still come thru despite the volume being very consistent.

Now years ago, before we had these great tools, an engineer would simply ride the fader. As the singer sang louder the engineer would bring down the fader. As the singer got quieter, the engineer would raise the fader. Then came compressors which did this for us. But nowadays with DAWs, we can perform all of these functions much more efficiently, in many more specialized steps.

For the recording process, I would argue that it’s best to start with a hardware compressor. This will limit the dynamics in the original recording before it even gets to the computer. But for this purpose, I’m going to assume you don’t have one and will be recording the vocal directly into your computer interface and into the computer.

While you’re recording, you can put a compressor plugin on the track but keep in mind that this result isn’t being recorded. So you can always change it after the fact. Which is a good thing as we’re going to process it very differently from how you’re monitoring it.

Now that the vocal is recorded, we’re going to start with adjusting it’s level with a Pre-Fader control. Remove the compressor or bypass it for now and look at the wavefile. I’ll bet it’s pretty dynamic. Many high and lows. Mountains and valleys. So the first step is to fix those to be less dynamic.

If you’re using Pro Tools you can use Clip Gain or in REAPER, I can use either Item Volume or a Pre-Fader Envelope to adjust this. I’m sure your DAW has something similar. So we’re going to work phrase by phrase making sure each section is at a very similar volume. The quiet parts will be made louder and the louder sections will be made lower. You don’t have to get super precise with this step. You don’t have to go word for word. Each phrase or group of words between breaths should be good enough. Just get it to look and, of course, sound similar to the section before and after it. We’ll do this until it is all mostly even in terms of volume.

Next we’re going to add that compressor back in. Or add one if you didn’t have one on while recording. Choose your favorite. I happen to like the ReaComp built into REAPER. Set this compressor to about 4:1 ratio, with a fast to medium attack to allow the compressor to grab each line gently. If it’s too fast it will create a pumping effect. If it’s too slow it won’t catch each note and control the dynamics musically.

Then we’ll set the release pretty fast. Too fast and it will also pump but too slow and it won’t correctly adjust the level of each phrase. As it will only slowly re-adjust itself. So you want to adjust the release musically also.
Going back a bit. Why did we manually adjust the volume BEFORE we used this compressor? It’s quite simple yet very important. A compressor controls dynamics but most compressors work best within a certain range. So if your vocal is at a whisper level, it will be too low for the compressor to even see it. Or react and adjust to it. So no compression will be happening unless you lower the threshold a lot to reach that quiet level. 

And what happens when the singer belts out some high notes? Now the threshold is being slammed. It’s going to compress way too much and it’s going to sound pretty bad too. So by adjusting all of your levels BEFORE the compressor even sees it, that compressor will always be working correctly. Compressing the quiet and loud sections equally with little to no artifacts. But this is also why you can work phrase by phrase instead of syllable by syllable. The compressor will smooth those things quite easily. Especially with a faster attack and release. 
Now if we have a bunch of P pops or SSS sounds coming thru, this is also the place to fix those. There’s no point in having your main compressor see these unwanted sounds and reacting to them. So you can draw out those P pops or fade them down and adjust those SSS using Clip Gain or a Pre-Fader Envelope as well. You also use a De-Esser plugin at this stage if you prefer. This way the main compressor can ignore these sounds and NOT react to them before compression occurs.

Throughout this whole process you should be adding EQ as well. I tend to do any cutting BEFORE the compressor. Whether it be rolling off the really low lows (rumble) with a High Pass Filter or cutting some mud in the lower midrange. Again, this helps to have it BEFORE the compressor as well as these sounds won’t be in the final product. There’s no reason for the compressor to be reacting to it.

After this compressor is where I would add an EQ that provides boosting. If we do this before the compressor, it’s just going to compress that result. So it will be fighting that EQ boost. So I find it best to add the boosting EQ after the compressor. This is where I add things like a slight upper mid range boost in the 3k area to make the vocal more forward and add a high shelving in the 5-6k area to make the vocal prettier or brighter.

All this time we should be adjusting our main fader to get the perfect blend in the mix. To see how it works with the other tracks and how easily we can hear every word or phrase being sung. We can go back and tweak our Pre Fader Envelope or the Clip Gain as needed until it sounds very close to perfect.

I say “close to perfect” because there’s always one last step I do to control the level or the dynamics of my vocal. And that’s to “ride” the Automation on that Track. Simply put that track into “Write” or “Touch” mode and play the song while adjusting the track’s fader. I usually give it at least one pass straight thru and listen back see if there’s any notes or phrases that can be re-tweaked and I punch in and fix those sections as I complete my final mix. 

Now this might seem like a lot of work to get that perfect dynamic vocal but I promise you that it’s worth it. Each step will be working at their peak efficiency and you can always re-adjust anything at the stage that makes the most sense for that adjustment.

You can learn more by watching any of my Mixing tutorials over at www.groove3.com

I hope this message finds you well. Kenny Gioia