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.
The first device 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 or lost over the decades. 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 a file—meaning the loud parts become softer and the softer parts become louder—so that 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 belting moments don’t push us back in our chairs.
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. And then there’s the moment when you meet a vocalist with an even tone that doesn’t need to be EQ'd at all—but don’t bank on this scenario.
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. If we look at a typical pop vocal EQ curve, it would look something like this (also see above):
Once we’ve boosted the highs to enhance brightness and brought out the softer moments via compression, it’s easy to end up with a vocal that is 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, next up typically comes a de-esser. A de-esser is an EQ and compressor at the same time, but it targets sibilant frequencies and shushes them when they get too loud.
These three devices—a compressor, EQ and de-esser—are used in series, with each device inserted one after the next on your vocal audio track. As mentioned above, the order of the first two is a topic of much debate, but the de-esser should always come after them.
Lastly, most vocals are treated with a certain amount of reverb and, in some cases, delay. 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. For several reasons, time-based processors are used in parallel. That means that the devices are inserted on aux/return tracks to which the vocal is routed for the time-based processing to occur. Learn more about parallel processing in this article.
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.
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. Longer delays synced to a subdivision can fill up space nicely and emphasize specific lyrics when automated.
Now you have a macroscopic look at the basic components and order of operations on a typical vocal chain: compression, EQ, de-essing, reverb, and delay. These fundamentals work both in the studio and on stage to create a vocal that’s balanced both in dynamics and frequency, which means it’s sure to be pleasing to the ear.