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Challenge Accepted: Create a Beat with a Laptop Mic and Vocal Bundle

by Griffin Brown, iZotope Contributor February 21, 2019
INDIAN OCEAN (July 29, 2015) Yeoman Seaman Branden Carcamo DJs round three of the USS Essex’s “Gator’s Got Talent” talent show on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). The Essex finds time to enhance unit moral by showcasing the talents of Sailors and Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Essex Amphibious Ready Group and Essex. The 15th MEU is embarked on the Essex Amphibious Ready Group and deployed to maintain regional security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Elize McKelvey/Released)
Create a Beat with Laptop Mic and VCB

Repair and restore your audio:

RX 7

Transform and find your voice:

VocalSynth 2

Let your vocals cut through the mix:

Nectar 3

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The plug-ins included in our Vocal Bundle are able to effectively process vocals and repair sound integrity problems in almost any audio track. Today, we’re going to put the Vocal Chain Bundle to the test by creating a beat with vocal sounds and objects recorded on a laptop microphone, using Nectar 3 and VocalSynth 2 to polish the recordings. Afterward, we’ll perform some audio editing with RX Elements, do some sampling, and light processing to create a viable beat. Listen to the final result below, and read on to see how we got there!

Disclaimer

Before we get into this challenge, it’s worth mentioning that I’m handicapping myself to demonstrate the potential of plug-ins included in the Vocal Bundle. Using a computer microphone is obviously not an ideal setup. If this were the case, producers and recording engineers wouldn’t be spending thousands of dollars on microphones.

A quality mic will drastically improve your results, but even today we can improve our recording environment. I’ve made sure that I’m recording in a quiet and relatively insulated room to minimize room noise in the recording. For vocal recording, I’ve also placed a pop filter in front of my laptop microphone to control plosive sounds (just as insurance, as my vocal samples in this beat don’t have any plosive sounds).

Now that we’re clear this setup isn’t ideal, let’s get to work and see what we can do with the Vocal Bundle!

Drums

As my goal today is to create a beat, I thought that the drums would be a great place to start. Naturally, it’d be best to record real drums, but I’ll be using objects found around the house to make every element in the beat.

I build my drum kit starting with the most important drum sounds: the kick and snare. Given how structurally important the kick and snare are, I want to create samples that replicate real drum sounds relatively closely. With a bit of searching, I find a couple of objects to record:

For the kick drum, I chose to layer a few samples. For the low end, I record a low “umph” using my voice. For the mid frequencies, I flick a roll of paper towels. And for the high end, I slap my office chair seat.

The chair’s surface and the roll of paper towels acts like a drum membrane and resonant chamber respectively, with low vocal sample providing some weight. The raw isolated recordings, in order of 1) office chair, 2) paper towels and 3) vocal sample, sound like this:

Raw Kick Layers

We’re in for a challenge, aren’t we…

My first reaction to these recordings is that the higher two layers sound a bit too clicky for my taste. I tame this using RX 7 Elements’ De-click, which is designed to eliminate clicks in a vocal performance caused by mouth sounds. I use a low sensitivity, which effectively softens the clicks on these recordings without getting rid of the high-frequency content we need in the transient.

RX 7 Elements De-click

To fill out the low end of our kick drum, I pitch the vocal sound down a couple octaves. This gives us a nice, sine-wave-esque foundation for the kick.

I group all of the layers together and process them using Nectar 3’s EQ, Saturation, and Compressor modules. By attenuating some low-mid frequencies, adding some mid harmonics, and applying some compression, we arrive at a usable kick sample:

Kick Sample

Next, for the snare, I record two samples of closing books, one paperback and one hardback. The paperback layer helps to emulate a snare drum’s skin and the hardback layer helps to give the snare some weight. The raw isolated recordings sound like this:

Raw Snare Layers

I want to preserve some of the snare’s tail, but my laptop microphone picks up some room noise and hum in the paperback book recording. I use RX 7 Elements’ Voice De-noise module to help eliminate this noise and keep the tail focused on the snare itself.

RX 7 Elements Voice De-noise

To help augment the tail and add some stereo information to the snare, I use VocalSynth 2 as a parallel effect. I send the paperback layer to a return channel containing VocalSynth and edit the “Added Texture” preset.

VocalSynth 2 snare texture

I also pitch the paperback sample down nine semitones to move the resonant frequency in the snare transient a bit lower. The high frequencies that we lose are added by the VocalSynth 2 return channel.

Again using Nectar 3’s EQ, and layering the two samples together, we arrive at our snare drum:

Snare Sample

With the most important drum sounds out of the way, I recorded a bunch of high-pitched sounds to use as my hi-hats and other percussion. I used two samples of a pencil hitting a metal trash can as my hi-hats and a bag of colored pencils, an empty plastic bag, and some coins as percussion sounds.

All of the percussion sounds are sent to the VocalSynth return channel we used for the snare. This creates a consistent stereo space for the percussion and snare, similar to a small room reverb.

With all of my drum samples created, I arrange a simple groove to use as the foundation for the rest of the beat.

Drum Groove

Instruments

I decide that I want to be pretty sparse with my instrument sounds and allow them to fill the space. A pad playing chords, a bass, and a supporting melodic instrument should do the trick.

For my pad instrument, I record a short sample of myself whistling. With the airy nature of a whistle and the room noise, the raw sample is pretty noisy.

Raw Whistle

I insert this recording into a sampler, which I will use to play chords using MIDI input. In this instance, I’m using Ableton’s native Sampler instrument, which allows me to set loop markers within the whistle sample. This allows me to sustain notes and create a pad sound, rather than firing off the single whistle.

Ableton Sampler looping

Again, I use Nectar 3 as my main processor. I EQ some lower frequencies out of the pad to make room for bass and add a bit of chorus using the Dimension module. This makes the pad more spacey and provides a nice supporting chordal layer to the beat.

Nectar 3 on pad

RX 7 Elements’ De-hum could be useful here to get rid of the room noise in the whistle recording. However, this could also affect the pad’s fizzy distorted quality, which I like. Instead, I apply a low-pass filter in Nectar (using the EQ module) after the Dimension module. This allows us to keep some of that fizz and push the pad into the background.

With a bit of gain automation and sidechain compression keyed off of the kick, the pad provides the beat with some harmonic structure and movement.

Beat with Pad

Next, to add a bassline to the groove, I choose to repurpose our whistle recording for our bass patch. The repeating waveform of my whistle looks a bit like a sine wave, and therefore I believe that it could work well as a bass sound. By pitching the whistle down and applying some different processing, we can kill two birds with one sample.

As this is a bass sound, I want the low end to remain mono, and therefore don’t use the chorus effect that I had on the pad. I do, however, use Nectar 3’s Saturation module to add a bit of warmth to the bass patch.

Nectar 3 Saturation on bass

To add a bit of higher frequency character, I use another instance of VocalSynth 2 on another return channel. This adds to the overall airiness that we have going, plus helps to accentuate the notes in our bassline.

Beat with Bass and Pad

The last instrument to add is our support melody. For the purposes of this beat, I decided to make a glassy mallet sound by tapping a glass jar with a pencil. Here’s what the original recording sounds like:

Raw Glass Jar

Like the whistle recording for the pad instrument, I isolate the sample of hitting the jar and load it into a sampler. In this instance, as I don’t need to loop anything, I use Ableton’s native Simpler instrument (another sampler).

The mallet instrument is a bit dull in the register that I’d like it to play. I could add the octave above, but the sample being pitched that high has a sharp texture that I want to avoid. To add a bit of brightness, I use Nectar 3’s Harmony module, adding two more voices to the instrument playing the octave.

Nectar 3 mallet octave

In addition to the octave added in the Harmony module, I add Nectar’s Reverb module to wash the mallet into the background. This will allow it to provide countermelodies without being too overpowering.

Lastly, I send the mallet to another instance of VocalSynth 2 on a third return channel. This adds an interesting lower layer to the mallet, helping to make it more interesting than our original glass jar.

With some sidechain compression keyed off of the kick, the mallet fits nicely into our beat:

Beat with Instruments

Vocals

My final addition to the beat is a short vocal hum. This will be used for phrasing purposes, in order to give the groove a bit of momentum.

I first process the vocal using Nectar 3’s Vocal Assistant, which adds a Gate, EQs, De-esser, and Compressor. Considering I’m using a laptop microphone for all of these recordings, Vocal Assistant is a life-saver. I also use RX 7 Elements’ De-hum to minimize any room noise in the recording.

In order to give it a bit more character than my (mediocre) singing voice, I use Nectar 3’s Harmony module to add several voices. I add two lower octaves, two lower fifths, a centered voice singing the octave above, and two wide layers singing in unison with the notes I sing.

I then set the Harmony module to Voices Only mode, allowing me to have total control over the relative levels placement between added voices and the original one.

Nectar 3 Harmony module on vox

I selectively add some insert reverb in certain sections for arrangement’s sake.

Conclusion

It was quite a challenge, but we were able to make a full beat using only a laptop microphone and the Vocal Chain Bundle. Here’s the full beat with all drums, instruments, and vocals included:

Full Beat

These are the possibilities with (likely) the worst microphone you’d ever use. Imagine the potential capabilities of Nectar 3, VocalSynth 2, and RX 7 Elements with a half-decent mic! Whether you need to repair rough recordings or process well-recorded sounds, the Vocal Chain Bundle is a powerful tool for any producer or recording engineer.

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