The Typical Pop Vocal Chain - Production Secrets

 A great vocal tone is a combination of a great performance, a great recording and a great vocal production chain. Lets explore these aspects one by one and see how you can get amazing results when you know how it all works.

Psychological Aspects

A lot of upcoming artists tend to be too conscious of the way they sound and therefore aren't able to give their best performance in the studio, so it is not uncommon for producers and engineers to make the artist feel comfortable before hitting the record button. The more comfortable the artist feels in the studio, the more natural the performance would be. And this aspect makes a world of difference.

Okay, so what's next?

Microphones & Their Placement

Having a great mic and room makes a tremendous difference in the tonal quality. Most people tend to focus only on post production to make things sound better and it works to a large extent, but fixing the room and the mic gets you a much much better signal at the source. 

Super small rooms tend to cause lots of undesirable nodes and comb filtering, which makes it almost impossible to fix in post production. Therefore, recording in a closet is never a good idea!

When you have a great signal to begin with, you can make it sound even better while processing it rather than just trying to fix issues.

The right way to do things is to use a microphone that gives out a balanced tone to begin with. You also need to train your singer to not "spit" S's and to pronounce words clearly without over-emphasizing them.

Placing the microphone lower down (at chest level) helps you get a deeper tone and placing it higher towards the nose lends a 'nasal' tone. Placing it near your mouth may lead to some extra plosives but choose the position based on the overall tone, since plosives can be reduced with a pop filter and moving a few inches back from the mic. 

You'll just need to try a bunch of microphones to see what works for you, or try slightly rotating or angling your current microphone off axis. If moving it to the side is too tinny but you like the clarity, aim it down at your chest for  a well rounded tone. Do some experiments with on-axis and off-axis placement and also the height and distance of the microphone in reference to your position. These should lead you in the right direction and very soon you will discover the sweet spot for your recordings. 

The Typical Pop Vocal Chain

When you have a pretty decent signal coming out of your microphone, you can set up a go-to vocal processing chain which you can apply every time and things should sound pretty good. If the chain is well designed, it will work well with a wide variety of vocalists, only requiring simple tweaks to end up with great results.

Of course, there will still be places that you can manually improve but a great recording + great vocal chain will be able to do 95% of the job.

Also worth mentioning is the large amount of compression and saturation used on pop vocals. This tames the recording and make it sound more up front. Saturation adds harmonics which make the vocals sound fatter or more prominent than they would otherwise. Of course you don't want to overdo it. 

A typical pop vocal chain consists of:


1. Pitch Correction (to tighten pitch inconsistencies which also makes the vocal blend with an instrumental more easily)

2. EQ 1 (to reduce undesirable resonances and a gentle high pass filter to clean up the rumble from the low end)

3. De-esser 1 (to reduce the excess S sounds just a tiny bit)

4. Compressor 1 (to reduce the transients in the vocal by using a fast attack and fast release, so that the compressor acts only on the sudden peaks)

5. EQ 2 (to add high end air or shimmer which is above 10 KHz  - An essential component of a 'polished' or modern sounding vocal)

5. Compressor 2 (to glue the entire vocal together by using a slow attack and slow release, which creates a sort of thickness and cohesion)

6. De-esser 2 (to reduce the S sounds which get exaggerated with compression)

7. Limiter (to tame the vocal and make it compact)


1. Saturation (to add thickness to the vocal and make it more prominent) 

2. Parallel compression (for more thickness - optional)

3. Reverb (Usually a hall or plate reverb for vocals, to give depth and a sense of space)

4. Delay (Usually 1/4 or 1/8 note delay with a slight low cut and high cut, to help the vocal cut through the mix and sound more like you need it to)

*Within your vocal chain you can also consider using dynamic EQ plugins like ProQ3 and dynamic volume automation plugins like Vocal Rider. Many producers also like to make use of multi-band compression to give the vocals a balanced tone. Although not absolutely necessary, it can do wonders in certain scenarios.

Controlling Excessive Sibilance

How do you control excessive sibilance in vocal production? Most people would say ‘just use a De-esser plugin’ but if you’re struggling to get a well balanced tone, using a De-esser is only part of the answer. Although a pair of de-essers embedded in a well crafted vocal chain as per the description above would do 95% of the job, you can still go one step further.

To work on that last 5% and to make sure no S's pop out at all, you want to work on precise clip gain and start adjusting the volume of the offending S's and other consonants or plosives which appear to stick out. Now you want to make sure you don't overdo this as your recording can feel stale and lack punch if you make everything sound way too smooth.

Some engineers also like to isolate the S sounds and place them on another track so they can process them separately. And sometimes you may even benefit from having the 'breaths' on a separate track! This gives you yet another dimension of control when it comes to offending sibilants.

Controlling Excessive Harshness

Now how do you control excessive harshness in vocals? When you've got harshness to deal with, you should be looking at frequencies between 1KHz and 5 KHz. Even within this range, a more honky kind of resonance is between 1KHz and 2 KHz, while an ear piercing harshness usually lies in the 2KHz-4KHz range.

Now reducing the frequencies between 2KHz and 4KHz with an EQ can sometimes make the vocals sound fine, but reducing this frequency range too much can cause your vocal to sound blunt or dull. So a great way to counter this problem is to use a multi-band compressor.

In the multi-band compressor, create a high mid band from 2KHz-4KHz in the compressor and with a threshold set to act only when these frequencies cross it and not all the time. This way you have a lot more control and can dial in the settings with great precision. You could also use a dynamic EQ for this purpose and get amazing results. 

Increasing Clarity Of the Vocals

Clarity of the vocals comes predominantly from the 'presence' or frequency range of 4KHz-8KHz. Increasing that frequency range usually does not lead to harshness when EQ is applied with a wide Q and you have a typical pop vocal chain as described above. In rare cases of harshness stemming from this move, you may need to use another multi-band compressor to tame these frequencies.

Be wary of the fact that within this range also lie the sibilants. The sibilants include S, Sh, Th, Kh and other such sounds. These sounds usually lie in the range of 5KHz-7KHz. Read the section of this post about controlling excessive sibilance to learn how to tame these frequencies. 

However, if you need to do too much at this frequency range, it probably implies that your vocal is already quite clear and all you need is some top end air. This gives the vocal a kind of polish or high end sheen that makes it sound 'expensive'. To give your vocals this kind of air, add a top end boost (High shelf) in your EQ so that it boosts all the frequencies above 10 KHz. 

Taming The Low Mids 

The low mids give depth and body to the vocals. However, it is important to tame them because otherwise they make the vocals occupy too much space in the mix. Since they must be tamed without making them sound thin, multi-band compression or dynamic EQ is the clearly the best option here because these tools will not permanently attenuate the low mids. Rather they will attenuate them only when they exceed the threshold of the compressor. 

The body of the vocals comes from the low mids, i.e 150 Hz - 300 Hz. If this is too much, your vocal has the chance of sounding boxy. If it is too little, it sounds thin.

The honky resonant character comes from 400 Hz - 800 Hz, while nasality occurs somewhere around 900 Hz - 1500 Hz. In any vocal you would benefit greatly by having a great recording so that it is easy to enhance it with minimal need of surgical EQ moves. 

In modern pop records you may often notice that the 600-800 Hz range is scooped and the 200-300 Hz area is very full but well tamed. The nasal resonance around 1 KHz is also crafted to balance the tonal aspects of the overall vocal. This delicate balance comes from precision with regard to the multi-band compression, EQ and limiter.

Final Thoughts

Everything in the production process plays a role in getting your vocal production to sound professional. This includes not just the vocal chain used during the mixing process but also the recording room, recording gear and most importantly the artist. 


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