Five ways to deal with an ugly vocal

Every once in a while as a producer or engineer, a project will come your way with one of those singers. With an… unconventional voice. Maybe they’re inexperienced. Maybe their voice is just like that. Maybe they’re doing it deliberately because they like it. Whatever the reason, you’ll recognise this kind of project by that feeling you get when you hear the voice – “What on earth am I going to do with this?”

This is not to say that ugly vocals are bad – they’re ugly in the sense of being unconventional, interesting and unique. The challenge is that it can sometimes be very difficult to make them work in a mix. And it’s easy to get stuck or waste a lot of time with techniques that don’t work. So next time you’ve got some ugly vocals to deal with, try think about these tips:

  1. Pitch correction. No, don’t turn your singer into a robot. It’s worth trying, however, using stronger pitch correction than you normally would use. It won’t make a bad singer any less bad, but it can help fit an instrument into the mix in a way that EQ and compression (obviously) can’t.
  2. Low mids. Pay attention to the lower mids – anywhere between 100Hz and 1kHz. Problems in this range can sometimes be quite difficult to identify. Sometimes all that’s needed is a dip at 250Hz. Don’t overlook (or overlisten?) the possibility that you might need more lower mids. This can be particularly true for thin or strident vocals. Sometimes a subtle bump in the lower mids can bring back some much-needed warmth or weight.
  3. 2.5khz. I almost always try a dip here. Be careful – this is where a lot of the voice’s character is. Sometimes, however, there’s a bit too much character in a singer’s voice. Dipping around 2.5kHz can make a voice sound smoother. Too much, however, will make the voice disappear into mix – it’ll blend too well and lose definition.
  4. More compression. Another characteristic that a lot of ugly vocals have is dynamic peaks – the problem not being the tonal balance, but the strong peaks or wide dynamic range. In these cases it’s worth trying stronger compression – lower threshold, higher ratio, faster response. It might make the compression more obvious, but it might not be a problem if the voice already has an unusual character.
  5. Learn to embrace it! In trying to reign in an ugly vocal, don’t lose sight (or sound) of the context. Try to capture, rather than suppress, the unique character of the voice. Don’t get carried away in trying to conform the vocal – you’ll end up destroying the sound, destroying the mix, and wasting your time. Instead, approach the character of the vocal as a critical contributor to the character and identity of the song, the album or the artist.

With these techniques up your sleeve, you should be able to do something with any singer that comes your way.

-Kim.

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    • Thomekk
    • June 3rd, 2010

    Very well spoken and true. Thanks for forming this to words!

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