8 Steps To Get That In Your Face Vocal Sound
Songs like ‘All My Life’ from the Foo Fighters or ‘Uprising’ from Muse have one thing in common: An in your face vocal sound.
How about getting those kick-ass vocals into your next production? Are you up for the ride? Then buckle up… because Kansas is going bye-bye!
1) Record a spot-on performance
Mediocre performances will never make a great track. While this is true for every instrument, it’s especially true for vocals. Don’t settle for anything but the best.
Make your singer rehearse thoroughly. Practice with her during a band rehearsal. Give her feedback. The performance must move you.
During the session, do everything you can to make the artist feel comfortable. Find the sweet spot in the recording room and have mics and preamps set up properly. Then take your time to record the perfect take.
2) Apply the magic of double-tracking
In order to make your vocals sound full, you’ll need to record vocal doubles. Put as much work into this step as into recording the main take. It’s tempting to comp a double using alternate takes. But believe me – the extra time dedicated to getting down a perfect double will be well invested.
3) Edit thoroughly – but not too much
Nowadays, almost any vocal track is edited before reaching the mix stage. Timing and tuning issues must be corrected, but beware – don’t make it sound too perfect.
A skillful editor knows how to identify what needs correcting and what should stay as is. It’s like salting a dish – neither too little nor too much will taste good.
If in doubt, consult with the artist and carefully listen to your reference tracks.
4) Control dynamics with compression
If you want the vocals to be in your face, you need to control their dynamics. Your first tool for this is the compressor. Here are a couple of tips:
- You can hit the compressor a bit harder than usual. Exaggerated compression is part of the in your face sound.
- Chain two (or more) compressors together and let each one work a bit. This way, you can achieve a lot of gain reduction while still maintaining a fairly natural sound.
- Avoid crushing the initial transients by using longer attack times.
- Adjust the release so that the compressor needle follows the vocal rhythm. Start quick and increase until you find the perfect spot.
5) Cut through the mix with EQ
You’ve taken care of the dynamics, now get those frequencies right:
- Add some brightness around 5k to help the vocals cut through the mix.
- Cut muddiness (~300 Hz) to avoid clashes with guitar and bass.
- Cut frequencies that mask the vocals in the instrument submixes. This is a fantastic way to get the vocal track more to the front without over-boosting frequencies.
- If in doubt, a frequency analyzer is your best friend.
6) Spice up the track with harmonic distortion
Distortion plug-ins and exciters create harmonics, which make your vocals instantly sound more alive. I call them the jalapeños of mixing. Just be careful: Our ears really like distortion, and it’s easy to overdo.
My way of checking whether I used too much spice: Have a coffee and come back to the track with fresh ears. If the vocals sound too harsh, back up the drive.
Want to get creative with exciters and distortion? Here are some tips:
- Apply an exciter on the main vocals.
- Use a more aggressive distortion effect on the vocal doubles.
- Duplicate the main vocal track and add either an aggressive compressor or a distortion effect. Adjust the volume of the distorted track to taste.
- Use EQ after distortion to tweak the sound to your taste.
7) Create space with reverb and delay
Let’s be honest – who doesn’t like the instant gratification of slapping a large reverb on a vocal? But too much reverb makes your vocals lose definition. This is the last thing you want when you are creating a monster in your face vocal sound. Try the following tips when creating the acoustic space for your vocal track:
- Work with very short reverb times (1s and below).
- Use less reverb than you normally would.
- Use short delays instead of reverb.
- Try combining short reverbs and delays to create the acoustic space.
8) Level the vocals with automation
Even after carefully applying compression, your vocal track might still not quite ‘fit in.’ That’s when it’s time for a fader ride. I recommend doing this with a control surface or a control app. Avoid editing the volume automation with the mouse – this breaks the feedback loop between your ear and your finger.
If you’re pressed for time, Waves’ VocalRider can give you a great starting point that you can refine with trim automation.
That’s my tip for today, thanks for reading!
About Norbert Weiher
Norbert is a sound designer, composer, and engineer based in Curitiba, Brazil. If you’ve got questions about this post or want to check out his work, head over to norbertweiher.com.
Audio Production, Music Mixing