Chris Lyth selects six of the best plug-ins for vocal production, with a special emphasis on vocals for house and disco
In genres like house and disco, there’s no doubt about it: vocalists are still the star of the show. But as anyone who has ever tried to record vocals will testify, it’s not quite as easy as putting a microphone in front of a singer and hitting record. There is still a lot of mixing and processing work to be done after the vocal has been captured to make it fit perfectly into your track.
This feature is a round-up of tools specifically for the processing of vocal recordings, and will assume you have a well-recorded vocal to work with. Beginners may wish to have a look at this previous article to get some technical tips on recording vocals and getting a good performance from your singer.
So, here (in no particular order) is a selection of six plug-ins that will afford you both precise control and lashings of tone and colour to sculpt your perfect vocal takes.
Crave DSP EQ
Even the most pristine vocal recording will likely need a little tweaking to help it bed into the track and sit perfectly; every producer needs a good surgical EQ for when the job is to leave as little colouration as possible. And the Crave DSP has been somewhat of a revelation: it's without doubt the most transparent and flexible EQ I've ever used, and I've used a lot!
It adds no discernible distortion or artefacts to the sound, and also has different filter models, which is incredibly useful when working with different types of material. It's wonderfully smooth-sounding when cutting on vocals: you can really go to town and it still sounds organic and natural. Conversely, when boosting high frequencies nothing sounds harsh – everything is clear and refined.
I'm not given to hyperbole, but there are EQs that cost over £300 and the Crave beats them hands down. Needless to say, it is essential.
Maag Audio EQ4
$229 (but has been seen as low as $29)
The use of EQ is very subjective, as there are no hard and fast rules on how to use it in any given situation: it depends greatly on the source and, crucially, your taste. One thing that there is fairly broad agreement on, though, is that this particular plug-in works very well on many different applications and is well on its way to becoming a modern classic.
It's been described as an audio version of Photoshop. If you are looking for a vocal to sound bright, shiny and open, the AIR BAND on this EQ will do much of the heavy lifting for you. It has the uncanny ability to get above the sound and bring it forward in the mix without it being harsh. It will work on pretty much any genre of program material, but it’s particularly good at keeping the vocal upfront in busy mixes where there’s competition from other higher frequency sources.
Hey, if it's good enough for Madonna and Snoop Dogg, it'll do just fine for us! The 40Hz boost on a kickdrum is also speaker-rocking dynamite, but that's for another time…
BABY Audio Smooth Operator
Dynamic resonance suppression plug-ins are starting to creep into the plug-in libraries of top producers and BABY Audio's Smooth Operator is the most reasonably priced and easiest to use of these yet.
You'll find Smooth Operator incredibly handy for notching out those aggressive-sounding frequencies that can occur sporadically in a vocal take. It's essentially an intelligent multi-band compressor and EQ that only reduces or boosts frequencies when it's told to, and leaves the rest of the vocal unmolested. It's also equally adept at taming troublesome bass frequencies, and for more creative applications like sound design and tone shaping.
If your vocal is heading towards the harsher side of the spectrum, then do yourself a favour and throw Smooth Operator on your vocal channel.
If you have an expensive microphone and pre-amp, there’s a good chance you will have been able to dial-in a lot of tone and colour on the actual recording. However if you’re not so lucky, fear not, as epic tone and colour can be added afterwards in the plug-in environment.
Soundtoys Decapitator is found on many a hip-hop producer's drum bus, but is equally accomplished at adding a little vintage warmth and colour to vocal tracks. There’s all the riotous distorted colours under the rainbow, ranging from tape saturation to gritty vintage pre-amp to all-out sonic assault. It works great when placed directly on the vocal channel insert, but try using a second instance on an Aux channel to build greater depth and control.
PSP Audioware 2445
This offering is inspired by two legendary early digital age reverberators: the EMT 244 and the EMT 245. The design is based on the original digital code, to which they have handily added ingenious tweaks which allow you to blend between the two different units.
PSP have faithfully recreated the originals and gone way beyond, offering up a tonal palette which is perfect for house and disco vocals, where often you want a rich, lush tone, but still need it to be intelligible on a large system at high volumes. A lot of this is informed by your mixing decisions, but the 2445's smoothness on longer settings and its natural timbre help vocals to sit within the music without sounding plastic and incongruous.
Softube Tube-Tech Mk II
Vocals have a big dynamic range, and disco and house divas in particular can really test the mixing ability of inexperienced producers. The trick is to use just enough compression to make sure the quiet parts are easy enough to hear and the loudest ones don't blow your eardrums. Needless to say, a good compressor is required.
Softube Tube-Tech Mk II is fast, smooth, rich and colourful. It's superb when used subtly on house and disco-type program material, or indeed any material where a subtle warmth and body is required. With the Tube-Tech Mk II, you can add a lot of dynamic reduction without the result being veiled and flat sounding. Its rich musicality compliments house and disco vocals, which need to be big, exciting and upfront while conveying a whole range of emotions. I’ve heard direct comparisons between this and the original CL 1B that it's modelled on (which has an RRP of £2,940) and there’s really nothing between them.
Vocal production can be very challenging, but with a good ear, the right tools and a lot of patience, great results can be had for little money. So, as ever – experiment and have some fun!
Words: Chris Lyth