In any piece of music that features voice, the vocals take front and center. The words and sounds of the singer tie together the other pieces of the musical landscape. Every voice is different, with different note and dynamic ranges and in a recording setting require a broad variety of approaches to vocal editing and modification, from opera and chamber music to hard rock and hip hop.
The options available for vocal effects are broad. They include reverb, delay, choir, distortion, compression, gain automation, de-essing, EQ, pitch shift, and echo.
The bread and butter of vocal effects, reverb and delay, help establish the voice in a very specific kind of space. Reverb is what a voice sounds like in a particular room or chamber. Some spaces make a voice sound more “dry” or “wet” depending on the kind of effect the audio producer wants, especially for the overall mix. Be careful when mixing reverb, as the vocals might sound either out of place or too far behind the rest of the instruments.
Delay is a repetition of the beat or note or a phrase and, like reverb, it can be mixed to make the voice sound as though it is present in a particular kind of space. However, audio producers should be careful with delay as well to ensure a proper balance, and also make sure they are not confusing it with vocal echo, another type of effect altogether.
The choir effect is a less often used tool in the audio producer’s arsenal but can be very valuable. Every digital audio workstation has a different approach to the choir effect, but there’s multiple ways to apply it.
The choir effect makes a single voice sound like multiple voices, or a group of voices sound like a much larger group. The choir effect can be applied to just one vocal track, or multiple harmonies can be recorded and have the choir effect applied to each voice. Overuse of the choir effect can overwhelm the mix, however, so the audio producer should be mindful of how it’s used and carefully monitor other effects to avoid clipping or blanking out the other instruments in the piece.
Distortion is an interesting effect often heard in musical genres like metal, punk, and rock. Essentially what distortion does is add noise or muddiness to a particular note or phrase in order to increase the impact of the emotion or idea being conveyed. Distortion makes singing less tonal and more raspy sounding, with the tonality decreasing as the more distortion is added. Distortion is usually used in tandem with compression and delay.
Compression can be a difficult vocal effect to master because it is used differently across the various genres of music. Compression, distinct from EQ, is a method of introducing dynamic control into the voice. The peaks can be more carefully lowered to avoid clipping, and sections that are too quiet can be brought up to be clearly heard in the mix.
Compression is used in different ways depending on the genre. Some genres, like pop, require more uniform compression to keep dynamics fully consistent, whereas genres like rock and metal will have greater dynamic range even after use of compression. Compression is best used in combination with gain automation.
Gain Automation Effects
Gain automation is a valuable effect that audio producers can use to prevent vocals from clipping in the mix, straight out of the gate. This kind of automation essentially sets a cap on how loud a signal can get in the mix, thus making less work on EQ and recording takes for the audio producer.
Audio producers can also automate compression thresholds and manually alter the volume controls on each vocal track, but the majority of the time gain automation can be used saving work and time in the studio.
De-essing is a vocal effect that reduces the impact of sibilant consonants like “s”, “t” and “sh” in the mix. These “hissing” consonants create harsh sounds that can stand out from the rest of the vocal mix. De-essing effects are basically mini compressors that turn the volume down in very specific places where these sibilants are heard, and subsequently evening out the overall vocal dynamics in the broader context of a vocal phrase.
Using de-essers can be tricky at first because they require almost surgical-level attention to where the sibilants are and then careful attention to how much or little the volume on each should be reduced (if at all). With a bit of time and practice, using de-essers can become second nature to the audio producer.
EQ, or equalization, helps to create a more appropriate sound context for vocals within a larger ensemble or band. EQ helps ensure that the vocals stand out appropriately from the instrumental groupings, as well as making the vocals sound natural and appropriate within the sound environment the audio engineer is working to produce.
EQ is easier when the audio producer decides early on what kind of tone they want the piece to take and choosing the right kind of recording equipment and other audio effects suitable to that tone. EQ involves frequency monitoring and alterations, and each vocal track should use specific kilohertz levels that can vary widely depending on genre and individual voicing.
Pitch Shift Effects
Even the best singers occasionally hit a sour note, and that’s where pitch shifting comes in handy. If the rest of a take is good or near perfect, it makes no sense for the audio producer to discard the entire take to re-record one or even half a dozen off-key notes.
Pitch shifting requires careful attention to detail, isolating the note, and applying the pitch shift either within the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or using physical equipment to get the note to where it needs to be within the broader context of the music. Isolating notes for pitch shift correction takes practice but is an invaluable tool to the pro audio producer.
For audio producers looking for an especially wet and luscious vocal take, the echo vocal effect is absolutely indispensable. This effect can be especially powerful with spoken word, rap, experimental music, or voice acting work in film or television.
While the echo audio effect may sound eerily similar to reverb, it’s vitally important that the audio producer not confuse the two. Echo produces different effects and may also require very different types of compression and other effects to truly bring out the sound of the voice and amplify its mystique. Like reverb, echo must be used carefully to avoid overwhelming the mix or unnecessarily distorting the voice the effect is applied to.
Because the voice has such an incredible range of tone and dynamics, different combinations of effects are required to ensure the voice is heard as the artist and producer intended, or as near as possible. Choosing vocal effects wisely is of vital importance, using too many can throw the mix off completely.
Audio producers, especially if they are just starting out, should take the time to experiment and practice with their DAWs and equipment to get a solid feel for each vocal effect and take note of how different combinations make the vocals sound. It’s especially important to remember that a good recording take is critical from the start, as a bad recording can’t be remedied with effects.
Generally speaking, while some vocal effects will always be used, like EQ or de-essing, other effects should be used carefully and conservatively to ensure a great sound. Audio producers should decide on their desired tone and then choose three or four vocal effects to apply to achieve that sound. Overuse of vocal effects can make the vocals sound incredibly unnatural, and rarely are unnatural-sounding vocals desirable in a mix.
Each of these vocal effects is part of the essential toolbox of every professional audio producer. Even for audio producers who don’t specialize in vocals or vocal effects should learn how to use them to fair proficiency, and those that do will be much in demand as audio producers, now and for the length of their career in music and audio production.
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