OCTOBER 23, 2023

Vocal Production: Guide to Professional Sounding Vocals

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Mastering vocal production is key to creating music that engages listeners. It’s a pivotal component in the broader journey of music production where the unique texture and tone of a voice can be either preserved or creatively transformed to achieve a specific sound. This guide will navigate you through the essentials of vocal production, offering step-by-step guidance on preparing the vocalist for a performance, selecting and setting up gear, editing, and mixing to ensure the vocals truly stand out in the mix.

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What is Vocal Production?

Vocal production is the art of capturing and enhancing vocals to achieve a sonically pleasing and emotionally impactful presence within a song, involving processes like writing, recording, editing, and mixing. This multifaceted process plays a key role in creating professional sounding vocals; it’s where producers can record the best vocal takes, accentuate the unique qualities of a voice, sculpt its tone, and situate it perfectly within the mix. The end goal: to create cohesion between the vocals and the instrumental components of a track.

How to Produce Vocals That Shine

Each stage of vocal production plays an essential role in transforming a raw vocal recording into a polished musical instrument that enhances a song. In this section, we'll guide you through the essential steps to produce vocals that truly shine, covering the nuances of preparation, recording techniques, gear selection, editing, and mixing. Let’s explore each step in more detail.

  1. Select and set up your gear

    Vocal production requires a few essential pieces of equipment to capture and refine your sound. To get started producing your own vocals, you'll need the right gear:

    • Audio Interface: An audio interface is the bridge between your microphone and computer, converting the analog signal from the mic into a digital signal your DAW can capture manipulate. Look for one with high-quality preamps and adequate inputs/outputs for your recording needs, like the Avid MBOX Studio.
    • Microphone: The critical tool for capturing your voice, microphones come in various types-dynamic, condenser, or ribbon-each offering distinct sound characteristics suitable for different vocal types and genres.
    • DAW (Digital Audio Workstation): Your central hub for recording, arranging, editing, and mixing vocals. A DAW hosts your plugins, provides the tools to manipulate audio, and ultimately brings together all elements of your production.
    • Plugins (EQ, Compression, Reverb): These are essential audio effect tools used to shape and enhance the sound of your vocals. EQ adjusts the balance of frequencies, compression controls dynamic range, and reverb adds space and depth to create a polished final product.
  2. Choose the right room

    The environment in which you record vocals is as just as important as the gear you use. An acoustically treated room ensures that your vocals are captured clearly, minimizing the influence of external noise and room acoustics. Adding absorptive materials can minimize sound reflections, while bass traps can control low-frequency resonances. This treatment creates a space that captures a true, uncolored vocal sound, which is indispensable for professional-sounding recordings.

    Furthermore, recording in a quiet room also helps in isolating the vocals, making them stand out in the mix without unnecessary background noise. For those unable to access a professionally treated room, improvisations like recording in a closet full of clothes, using portable vocal booths, or adding rugs and curtains to a room can be surprisingly effective.

  3. Practice optimal mic placement

    Proper microphone placement is crucial for capturing vocals that are clear, detailed, and true to the performer’s voice. It significantly influences the sound's tonality and the recording's overall quality. The distance and angle of the microphone to the vocalist can accentuate or diminish certain frequencies, affecting the vocal's warmth and presence.

    Additionally, correct placement minimizes unwanted noise, like plosives and sibilance, which can be challenging to fix in post-production. Taking the time to experiment with and fine-tune microphone placement ensures a cleaner, richer sound, providing a strong foundation for the following stages of vocal production.

  4. Prepare for each vocal performance

    Once you’re set up, warming up and preparing your voice can be a helpful first step in ensuring a successful vocal production session. Much like an athlete prepares their body for a game, singers should prepare their vocal cords to avoid strain and improve performance. Begin with deep breathing exercises to enhance lung capacity and control. Follow with gentle humming and lip trills to gradually introduce your vocal cords to activity. Incorporate scales and arpeggios to extend your range and flexibility, adjusting the difficulty as you become more warmed up. Remember, the goal is not to stress your voice but to prepare it for the work ahead. Hydrate adequately, avoiding cold and overly sugary beverages, as they can hinder vocal performance. Warm herbal teas and room temperature water are ideal choices.

    Furthermore, cultivating a focused and relaxed mindset can significantly influence the quality of your vocal takes. Consider engaging in brief meditation or visualization exercises to center yourself before beginning your session. If you’re working with a vocalist, you may need to coach them through a performance or have them run through a few takes using different inflections or different keys. Communicating your expectations and offering reassurance can both be very helpful here. You should also encourage your vocalist to use emotion while recording. Emotional vocals can often be the driving force behind a song, and they make producing vocals easier because they offer energy to a mix.

  5. Record vocals

    With everything prepared and ready to go, it’s finally time to hit the record button and capture your vocal performance. In Pro Tools, set up a new vocal track for recording. Ensure the track is armed for recording, and all the levels are set appropriately to avoid clipping while capturing the broadest dynamic range of the vocal performance. Once you start recording, keep these tips in mind:

    Keep an Eye on Levels

    Monitor the input levels carefully during recording to ensure they are neither too low nor too high. Ensure that your input levels during recording peak around -6dB to -12dB. This provides sufficient headroom for dynamic variations in the performance and for additional processing and effects that will be applied during the mixing stage. Proper levels will result in a recording that is clear and distortion-free, providing a high-quality raw file that will be much easier to work with during the editing and mixing stages.

    Record Multiple Takes

    It’s a good practice to record multiple takes of the vocals. Every performance is unique, and doing several takes allows you the flexibility to choose the best parts from each, creating a composite or 'comp' that represents the best of all performances. This practice provides you with options when you move to the editing stage, giving you the freedom to select and compile the pieces that shine the most.

    Layer Vocals

    Layering multiple vocal takes on top of each other can add richness, depth, and dimension to a track. By recording several versions of the same vocal line, or adding harmonies, ad-libs, and background vocals, producers can create a fuller, more dynamic sound. Layering can emphasize key parts, enhance emotional impact, and provide a professional polish to a final mix.

    Use Punch-In Recording

    During the recording session, the vocalist might not nail every part in one take, and that’s completely normal. Pro Tools offers a punch-in recording feature that allows you to easily replace a specific section of the track without having to re-record the whole thing. This feature is particularly useful for correcting mistakes or improving specific parts of the performance without losing the flow and feeling of the original take.

  6. Edit vocals for clarity and precision

    Editing is a critical step in vocal production that can clean up your vocal tracks. This process refines and corrects the vocal performance, removing any mistakes or inconsistencies, and enhancing the overall quality and impact of the vocal recording. During the editing phase, the goal is to polish the vocals without over-processing. It’s essential to preserve the natural qualities and expressions of the singer’s voice while avoiding making the vocals sound robotic and lifeless. Here are some things you can do to clean up your vocal takes:

    Eliminate Unnecessary Noise

    After recording, you’ll want to go through your take and clean up breaths and empty space that occur between phrases or words. Removing these silent sections creates a smoother and more professional sounding vocal track. When cutting out silences in Pro Tools, utilize fades or crossfades at the edit points. This technique helps to prevent abrupt transitions and eliminates potential clicks or pops that might occur when the audio suddenly starts or stops, ensuring a seamless and polished vocal performance. In Pro Tools, simply select/shift-select all the clips that you want to fade, then hit command-F (Mac) or Alt-F (Windows) to fade multiple clips at one.

    Pro Tip: Another excellent feature Pro Tools offers for vocal production is the ability to use Strip Silence and Batch Fade tools. Strip Silence works like a traditional noise gate in that it takes out all audio below a specified threshold. The difference is that instead of simply turning down the gain on audio that falls below the threshold, Strip Silence can actually delete it. This helps to keep editing sessions cleaner and allows vocal producers to visualize what vocal clips they’re working with.

    Pitch Correction

    Even the best vocal performances might have slight pitch inaccuracies. If you hear an out of tune note that distracts from the song, try applying pitch correction to the vocal track. Using Pro Tools' built-in Melodyne, you can subtly correct these inaccuracies without losing the natural feel of the vocal. Melodyne allows you to adjust the pitch of each note to perfection, providing a polished sound while maintaining the singer's original timbre and expression.

    Fix Timing

    Timing adjustments are crucial for a tight and well-aligned vocal performance. With Pro Tools’ Elastic Audio feature, you can easily adjust the timing of a vocal take, ensuring that your vocals are in perfect sync with the rhythm and other instruments in the track. This feature lets vocal producers stretch time and change the length of a vocal recording without affecting the pitch of the vocalist’s voice.

    Curate the best takes

    Vocal comping, or compiling the best segments from multiple takes, is common practice in vocal production. Pro Tools simplifies this process with its intuitive Playlist feature, making it easy to compare and select the best parts of each take. This feature allows you to craft the perfect vocal performance by choosing the best phrases, words, or even syllables from different recordings.

  7. Mix vocals for a polished sound

    In the mixing stage, vocal processing techniques help refine and polish the vocals to seamlessly integrate them into the track, providing a professional and captivating sound. Here, you will balance levels, apply EQ and compression, introduce effects, and possibly automate certain parameters. Each of these components is crucial for creating vocals that not only sound great solo but also work within the context of the entire song.

    Balance Levels

    Balancing levels is pivotal for ensuring the vocals sit well within the overall mix. Vocals need to be clear and prominent, but not so loud that they overshadow other elements in the track. This step involves careful listening and perhaps adjusting levels as the song progresses to maintain a balanced sound throughout.

    De-Essing

    Harsh 's' and 't' sounds, known as sibilance, can be distracting and unpleasant. De-essing is essential, and Pro Tools offers Dynamics III, a versatile plugin with a De-Esser option designed to effectively mitigate these harsh sounds, creating smoother and more pleasant vocals.

    Apply EQ

    EQ, or equalization, enhances the clarity and presence of vocals by adjusting specific frequency ranges. This process might involve boosting frequencies where the vocal is strongest, or cutting frequencies that muddy up the vocals, helping to achieve a clear, crisp sound that cuts through the mix.

    Compression

    Compression is used to smooth out the dynamic range of the vocals, meaning it helps maintain consistent volume levels. It can also add sustain and presence to the vocals, making them sound fuller and more polished, as well as ensuring that every word and phrase is heard clearly.

    Add Effects

    Effects such as reverb and delay can be added to vocals to create a sense of space and depth or to achieve a specific stylistic sound. These effects should be used sparingly and tastefully to enhance the vocal track without overwhelming it.

    Automate

    Automation allows for dynamic changes in volume, panning, and effects throughout the track. It provides the flexibility to make vocals louder or softer in different sections, or to apply effects selectively, which can make the vocal performance more engaging and dynamic.

Start Producing Professional Vocals with Pro Tools

While vocal production may seem complicated at first, remember that each session further refines your skills and helps you understand the nuances that breathe life to vocals. The more you do it, the more natural the process will feel. If you’re just getting started, download Pro Tools Intro for free! It comes vocal production essentials that will help you get comfortable with the process of vocal production in a DAW used by the pros.

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