Vocal processing isn’t rocket science. In fact, it boils down to a few common tools configured to complement the type of session you’re working on. In this piece, we’ll take a look at a basic vocal chain and learn how to craft a simple yet effective vocal effects chain using compressors, EQs, de-essers, reverb, and delay.
Here's the vocal before and after processing:
But, first: what exactly is a vocal chain?
In this piece you’ll learn:
A vocal chain is simply a series of processors that your dry vocals run through before getting added to your final mix. Dry vocals are your vocals without any effects or processing applied. Each processor is like a link in a chain, and your vocal will go through each processor in order to come out on the other side sounding golden.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the processors commonly used in a vocal chain and learn how they work. We will go through each step in the order I have found works best in my vocal production, but keep in mind that depending on your style, genre, and preferences, you may decide to switch up the order—or exclude certain processors altogether. Don’t sweat it. It’s totally fine to reorganize your vocal chain to what works best for you.
Also, while most DAWs come with stock versions of the processors I’ll be highlighting below, I’m going to be using Nectar Pro to explain each step in the vocal chain. Nectar Pro is a vocal polishing powerhouse that has every processor we’ll be covering built into it. You can get access to Nectar Pro, along with dozens of other mixing and mastering plug-ins, with a free trial of a Music Production Suite Pro membership.
One more thing worth noting: Nectar Pro has an intuitive feature called “Vocal Assistant” that will intelligently listen to your vocal using AI and then craft a custom vocal chain that gives you a great starting point in your vocal mix. But, for the sake of this article, I’m going to pretend that groundbreaking feature doesn’t exist and, instead, teach you how to build your own vocal chain the “old fashioned way”—completely from scratch.
In Nectar Pro, each vocal processor is called a “module.” It’s important to note that your vocal will run through each module in order from left to right, but you can simply click and drag the modules around to reorder them. The only module you aren’t able to move is the Pitch module. The Pitch module is where you’ll be able to add any necessary pitch correction to the vocal, and since pitch correction works best on a completely dry vocal, this module stays glued to the left.
In order to add pitch correction, simply turn on the module, select your vocal register (Low, Mid, or High), set the key of your song, and then dial in the Strength and Speed knobs to what sounds good for the vocal in your track. Cranking up the strength will apply more pitch correction, and turning down the speed will produce more robotic effects. Check out before and after pitch correction:
You’ll notice the Pitch module does add a bit of a robotic quality to my voice, but for the genre of this song, these settings will work just fine. Depending on the vibe you’re going for on your vocal, you may opt for a more natural sound—or you may crank up the correction to the max. Just play with the settings until you hone in on what works for the vocal in the context of your overall mix.
If you want further reading on pitch correction, check out this tutorial on The Fundamentals of Vocal Pitch Correction that uses Nectar Pro and Melodyne essential to really fine-tune your vocals.
The first processor in a vocal chain is usually a compressor or an EQ. There is a long standing debate as to which is the "right" order for these two devices, but neither side seems to have won over the decades. So, we’ll start our effect chain with compression, but you should do whatever works best for you.
A compressor’s job is to even out the dynamic range of your audio—meaning the loud parts become softer and the softer parts become louder—so the listener hears a more balanced presentation of the vocal. We compress for a few reasons, but in this context you want your listener to be able to hear everything clearly without the urge to turn things up or down. By compressing your vocal, those soft delicate endings of certain words reveal themselves, and the louder moments don’t push us back in our chairs.
It’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb to aim for an average of about 3 dB of compression on your main vocal (as depicted by the meter in the module’s window). Too much more than this and you could end up squashing the dynamic range too much, leaving your vocal sounding unnatural.
Each voice has unique qualities and characteristics, which translate to different amounts of content across the frequency spectrum. Some people's voices are breathy and have a lot of high-end air and shimmer in them. Others are more nasally or have a bit of a “honk,” with midrange frequencies having an uneven amount of energy at certain spots.
To optimize a vocal’s timbral contents, we use an EQ to achieve tonal balance across the frequency spectrum, boosting voices in ranges that need some extra love and attenuating in places where things need to be tamped down. Although different genres call for different EQ decisions, your typical goal with EQing is to remove any overly resonant frequencies in order to make the vocal sound crisp and sit well in your mix.
Here’s the pitch corrected vocal from above:
If you boosted the highs in the EQ to enhance the brightness, it’s easy to end up with a vocal that’s highly sibilant. Sibilance is the harsh sound that results from certain consonants like s, sh, ch, z, etc. They tend to live in the upper mids and in the softer parts of words. To counteract sibilance, next up in the chain typically comes a de-esser. A de-esser is an EQ and compressor at the same time, but it specifically targets sibilant frequencies and shushes them when they get too loud.
For my vocal, I used the De-Esser module in Nectar Pro to tame some of the harsh sibilance in my voice above 3 kHz. Check out how it only softens all of the “s” sounds in the vocal phrase without affecting much of anything else.
Lastly, most vocals are treated with some sort of delay, reverb, or a combination of the two. Both of these are time-based processors which put your vocal in a type of space. This can range from a small room to a massive cathedral, and everywhere else in between. If I’m going to use a delay, I personally like to put it before my reverb so that the reverb also gets applied to the delays, but this is completely up to your personal preference.
Delay can be used in many different ways depending on the rate and amount of feedback. A short delay, also known as a slapback, can create texture and shake things up in a more subtle way. Whereas longer delays synced to a subdivision can fill up space nicely and emphasize specific lyrics when automated.
For my vocals, I like to add a very fast delay using the Delay module in Nectar Pro, but I typically offset the left and right channels by about 1/64, turn the Feedback knobs to zero, and use the Delay EQ to filter out the highs and lows. I then drag the amount of the Delay module signal down to about 15%. This gives the vocal a sense of width, while still remaining front and center. Hear the before and after in the audio examples below.
With reverb, the real trick is to use the right type of reverb for your song, and to dial in the right amount. Reverb is one of those things that people tend to overuse at first because it’s quite forgiving, and will smooth the rough edges on most vocals. Be careful, and use it to taste because it can easily obscure the clarity and articulation of a vocal.
Even though Nectar Pro has a beautiful sounding Reverb module you can use, I’m going to be adding an instance of Neoverb Pro to my vocal because it has more options to play with in order to design a unique space for my voice to live in. Plus, Neoverb Pro intelligently carves out space in the frequency spectrum for my vocal to sit, ensuring my voice won’t get lost in even the lushest of reverbs. It’s worth noting here that Neoverb Pro is also included with a free trial of a Music Production Suite Pro membership.
For this track, I’m using one of the Neoverb Pro presets called “Bright Mid Chamber” because it provides just the right space and tone to get my vocal to fit in with the rest of the track. Here is my vocal with the added reverb:
And, just to give you a taste of what the final vocal sounds like in the context of the mix, here it is layered with the instrumental and vocal harmonies:
Final Vocal in Mix
Start crafting your vocal chain
Now you have a macroscopic look at the basic components and order of operations on a typical vocal chain: pitch correction, compression, EQ, de-essing, delay, and reverb. These fundamentals work to create a vocal that’s balanced both in dynamics and frequency, which means it’s sure to be pleasing to the ear.
You can get immediate access to the plug-ins used in this tutorial when you start your free trial of Music Production Suite Pro. With your membership, you’ll also get loads of other fantastic plug-ins to help you level up your mixing and mastering game, including VocalSynth Pro—a creative vocal effect plug-in you can use to bring interesting new flavors and textures to your vocal mixes. That’s all, vox!