For many electronic producers, there comes a point in their career where they peak out from behind the machines to experiment with singing. It may be out of sheer curiosity, a desire to learn a new skill, or a need to express new emotions. Recent albums by Arca and Jam City brought their voice to the center stage, despite their respective starts in club music scenes. Aphex Twin and Caribou have snuck bits of their vocals in songs for years, but have shied away from making “vocal music.”
If you’re anything like me, you prefer to sing when no one is listening. See, I actually really like singing, it's just I sound terrible. After a few particularly embarrassing attempts to record my vocals a few years back, I figured it was best to stick to the beats.
What follows is a step-by-step tutorial for how to turn your voice—regardless of singing skill—into a creative production instrument. Here’s the end result:
To get started you need to record some vocals. For this specific tutorial, sustained notes—oohs and aahs—are the best source material. Vocal melodies will be handled later on by MIDI. When I put this all together, I found it helpful to sing over a simple chord progression to get a sense of direction for my vocal. After a few takes, I kept the notes with the least cracks and wobbles.
I don’t own a microphone, so I recorded straight into my laptop with Ableton. Note that this is not an ideal setup for commercial vocal production, but for this experiment it’s OK. Here’s the best thing I coughed up:
Yikes. Given the DIY recording environment, a lot of noise leaked into my take. To clean this up, I used the Gate in Nectar. Think of a gate as the opposite of a compressor. It automatically mutes a signal whenever it crosses a set threshold, making it a handy tool to remove low–moderate level noise in a vocal recording. For more detailed audio repairs and removal of vocal clicks and pops, RX is your best option. Bear with me one more time for the cleaned up version:
With the vocal recorded, I can slip back into my producer’s chair and sculpt it into something with character.
My vocal is seriously lacking in tone, spatial width, and depth. A quick solution lies in Nectar’s Harmony module. With the flick of a switch, this module generates in-key harmonies that follow a lead vocal. It's like having a group of backup singers in your DAW. Within the Nectar interface you can add up to eight accompaniments called Voices, based on the Vocal Register and Scale settings input in the Pitch module. I need a little more assistance than that, so I enabled MIDI Mode, which offers a total of 12 individual Voices from the piano roll that can be played like a synth.
Whether you choose to craft harmonies in Nectar or build them from scratch with MIDI, the trick here is to select the Voices Only mode to audition the added Voices independent of the original. This frees me up to stack vocals in a convincing arrangement without interference from the take above.
You can hear the result below. I looped my vocal, harmonized it with a MIDI sequence and output only the added voices. For context, the clip starts with a piano sequence including the exact same notes used to play the voices right after.
The original tonal character of the vocal I recorded is still there but the audio is not.
From here, you can carry out a handful of experiments to explore the potential of your new vocal sound. Rearrange the MIDI sequence melody and rhythm. Dive into the Dimension module in Nectar to experiment with the Phaser, Chorus, or Flanger effects. Or record yourself singing in a different style, with words or phrases included if you want to—Nectar will “correct” whatever you sing to fit the structure of the MIDI input. Here’s what I got from singing in a super deep voice:
As you heard in the vocal clip at the start of this tutorial I added some drums and bass to complement my vocals. I won’t go into details of how I programmed these two additional parts, but rather how to make sure my vocals stand out against them.
Aggressively sidechaining the vocal to the kick drum is a major help here. This means the vocal ducks whenever the kick is in the mix and swells up when it’s not, producing a pumping effect between the two elements. The kick gets the space it needs in the spectrum and the vocal bounces in between.
In a busy mix, you can use the Unmask Mode in Nectar’s Vocal Assistant to automatically balance a vocal against an instrument competing for the same frequency space. This makes room for the vocal to really shine through.
To bring out some of the high end in the vocals I used VocalSynth 2’s Polyvox module. It adds just the right amount of grain up top. I also dialed in chorus and ring modulation from the drag-and-drop effects chain at the bottom of the plug-in for movement. Chorus slightly warbles the vocal, and when synced to DAW tempo, ring modulation introduces a tremolo-style effect.
Producers often try their hand at engineering practices like mixing and mastering. So why not singing too? Five years ago I would have never used my voice for a synth or major song element, let alone show other people how to do it. But after some experience with Nectar 3 and VocalSynth 2, I felt confident I could.
I encourage you to explore what is possible between your voice and these plug-ins and hope this tutorial has provided you with a few ideas to get started.