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Elements Of A Typical Pop Vocal Chain

Mixing vocals can be tricky; it can actually take time to get used to hearing certain nuances in the lead vocal, resonant frequencies that need to be removed and pleasant frequencies which can be enhanced to make the mix sound better. It is also important to make sure that the lead vocal and the music are not fighting with each other.

First things first, get the best recording possible because everything ahead will sound much much better if you have a great recording before you get into vocal production and mixing. Once you're happy with your recording, you could make a lead vocal bus and on the bus you can start adding various elements to create a vocal chain.

Before you start processing your vocals, you want to make sure its properly tuned and time aligned. Once that is done you can move on to working on shaping the vocal tone.

Inserts (EQ, Compression, Limiting)

1. EQ: To start with, you want to be making any corrective subtractive EQ moves to remove unwanted frequency buildups, resonances and room nodes. This is achieved by sweeping across the frequency spectrum, finding these frequencies and attenuating them. Once you're vocal sounds 'clean', you can work on the next steps. 

2. Volume automation: To make sure all the vocals are in the same ballpark in terms of their volume, you can adjust the clip gain of various parts of your vocal. This reduces some load off the compressor (which we will be adding ahead) and prevents the vocal from sounding lifeless. This step may take some time but it's worth it if you're looking for a great output. 

3. De-essing: A little bit of De-essing goes a long way. Solo the lead vocal and just loop the first bar of the song where there are lots of s's. Start around 5k or so then move around and find the sweet spot. Set your De-esser setting to wide since that is generally more transparent. You can really tame those S's  but you you don't want to be do too much since that will just make the artist sound like he/she has a lisp. Also keep in mind that you will loose a bit of higher frequencies of the voice but you can bring them back later.

4. Compression: Next, you could throw on a compressor plugin and get some light compression going on the voice and that will help the voice basically from a dynamic perspective feel and sound a little bit more uniform in terms of its volume levels. A medium attack and fast release works well for most purposes if you use a single compressor. 

However, It is often useful to use two compressors in series, the first to tame the transient peaks and the second to glue the voice together. On the first compressor, choose a fast attack and fast release (to tame the transients). On the second compressor, use a slower attack and slower release (to allow transients but make the vocal sound cohesive and balanced). Set the ratio to about 4:1. Experiment with different settings to see what works best for you. 

-> The objective of using two compressors is to catch all those loud peaks in the voice signal and compress them at the top to make sure that they aren't overpowering while also getting the softer parts to sort of feel like they're in the same place. Doing this with one compressor does not give you as much control and also increases the load on a single compressor. 

5. More EQ: Next, since you've lost a little bit of highs and need to boost the vocal a little bit , pull up is an EQ to basically bring back some of the highs lost in the De-essing and then clean up the low mids around 250-600 Hz. The vocal should be sounding pretty good already but we ain't done yet!

6. More De-essing: Next, get another de-seer going after you've done your compression and EQ moves. This de-ess is going to work very lightly around 7.5 KHz just to tame anything that may get past the EQ and compressors. This is needed to make sure absolutely no pointy frequencies exist in the higher end of the spectrum. 

7. Multi-band Compression: Now you may notice a slight excess of the low mids. Regardless of whether you do or not, there's a little trick to you can do here. Bring in a multi-band compressor. Select a band around 125Hz-250Hz and compress it a little bit. This helps you catch anything booming around that area. You can also control harshness in the upper mids by creating a band between 2KHz - 4 Khz. Occasionally you can activate the high band just to catch anything that is really high up over 10k. All that will sound really nice with just a fairly fast release.

8. Tape emulation: Tape emulators can add some warmth and brightness in a very pleasing way. This is often a form of saturation. Try adding it either at the beginning of the vocal chain or towards the end of the chain.

9. Limiting: The last thing you can do before getting into reverb and other send effects is to limit the vocal because limiting really just brings that vocal up front and in your face. It makes the sound consistent and makes it pop, just like the quality you hear on the radio. Make sure everything that's going on is audible nice and clear. A release of around about 60 ms generally works quite well on a lead vocal but experiment to find the sweet spot. And then pull the ceiling back to make up for some of the gain you may be losing.

-> When the very loud sounds come through the limiter, it grabs them and tames them. And as for the softer one's, it's also assisting there too by bringing them up so it's balancing out the whole lead vocal nicely and that is the great little trick you can do to your lead vocal to sound nice and present. It also helps you use slightly less compression from the compressors.

-> Now, that the track feels compressed you can tweak your EQ's and your compressors to make it fit and sit really nice.

Sends (Reverb, Delay, Saturation)

We can move on and start introducing some effects such as reverb, delay and saturation.

9. Reverb: Send your vocal to a reverb and adjust the dry/wet according to taste. Short plate reverbs work really well in most scenarios but depending on the BPM (tempo) and mood of your song you can choose an apt setting for the type of reverb you use, it's decay time, pre-delay time and room size. To learn about different types of reverbs, click here.

Tweak the pre-delay to get the reverb out of the way of the vocals so that your vocal doesn't lose its clarity. Lastly you can add a high pass filter just to clean up that lower end of the reverb since you don't want any rumbling lows in the reverb.

10. Slap Delay: Next, you can send the vocal to a slap delay, which can help widen the vocal and add some thickness. This basically delays the signal on both your right and your left just by a couple of milliseconds. This doesn't sound like an echo; it sounds like a wider or thicker vocal. If you'd like to add audible echos you can do that in the next step. 

11. More Delays: To add audible delays to your vocal, send your vocal to a delay and experiment with 1/4 note, 1/8 note and 1/2 note delays. Some delays such as Waves H-delay also have options for 1 bar and 2 bar delays. Once you've set your delay time you can also filter your delay so you are able to create some separation between the lead vocal and the delay ed signal. Set the dry-wet to taste and you're good to go. 

Pro Tip: One neat trick that pro mixers often do is to side-chain your delays and reverbs to your lead vocal. This makes the delays and reverbs more apparent in the gaps between the vocals and avoids the delays and reverbs from overlapping / interfering with the lead vocal. You can also experiment with further processing your sends with other effects such as saturation, compression, EQ, etc. 

12. Saturation: Saturation is all about adding harmonics and making the sound rich and full. It gives warmth and presence to your vocal and also makes it sound more 'dirty' which helps it become more prominent in the mix. It is especially useful if your vocal sounds thin or lacks depth. 

Bonus Tip: To make your vocal sound even more up front you can send it to a hard compressor and adjust the send level to taste. This is also called 'parallel compression'.

With a bit of levelling on the vocal bus the vocals will sit well in the mix.

In conclusion, the main points to note here are that vocals must be prominent and up front without taking up too much space in the mix. This is achieved by properly cleaning the vocals track (with subtractive EQ), compressing the vocals (especially in the low mids), de-essing, adding top end sheen (with EQ) and a calculated amount of compression and limiting. Reverb and delay sound a lot more consistent if your vocal tone is already good. 

Hope you found the post useful. Check out for more info and music production resources like sample packs, sound banks and templates to take your productions to the next level!