Posts Tagged ‘ Vocals ’

Everything you wanted to know about de-essing but were too afraid to ask

Simply, de-essing is a process for reducing the level of sibilance in a vocal recording.

What is sibilance?

Sibilance is characterised by ‘sss’ and ‘ts’ sounds (and, to a lesser extent, ‘t’ and ‘k’ and ‘z’ sounds) in the English language. Unlike vowels, sibilant sounds have a relatively low (in volume) pitched component and a high (in volume) unpitched noise component. The unhitched noise is also focussed strongly in the higher register (unlike ‘shh’ sounds).

Why would you want to reduce it?

Sibilance is essential for intelligibility. That is, we need to hear it in order to understand the words delivered by the vocalist. Too much, however, can unbalance a mix. Some singers naturally deliver sibilant sounds loudly (this often applies to singers who aren’t classically trained). Sometimes EQ or compression can enhance the sibilance in a vocal recording (especially when the high frequencies are boosted).

When listening to the voice on its own it can be difficult to know if the sibilance is too strong. This is because our brain naturally compensates for the difference in volume between the vowels and the sibilance. In a mix, however, you’ll notice when the sibilance is too strong. You’ll raise the vocal level until the vowels are at the right level but the sibilance is too sharp and ‘sticking out’ of the mix, or your’ll reduce the vocal level until the sibilance sits well but the vowels disappear under the mix. Sometimes strong sibilance can excite the vocal reverb, making the reverb much more noticeable.

How does de-essing reduce sibilance?

De-essers are usually set up as simplified compressors with a bandpass or highpass filter in the sidechain.

Most de-essors do not have the full compliment of compression controls (attack, release, threshold, ratio, makeup). Instead, there is usually just a threshold (and sometimes a ratio control). The other controls are tuned to work with sibilance and the human voice. De-essers are among the most specialised studio tools – they don’t need a lot of controls or a wide range of operation.

The filtered sidechain changes the compressor’s behaviour so that it only reduces gain when there is sibilance in the audio. The filter is tuned quite high (usually above 5kHz) so that the compressor doesn’t respond to energy in the low or mids (where most of the vowel energy is). The compressor, however, applies gain reduction to the whole signal – not the filtered version. This means that when the sibilance is being reduced, the actual tone of the voice is not changed. It’s just made quieter.

Some de-essors use dynamic EQ instead of a compressor. They’re usually designed so that instead of reducing the gain of the whole signal, they only reduce gain to the high frequencies. Imagine a high shelf or parametric cut that only comes in when the voice is sibilant. This kinds of de-essers require more care when they’re being set up because they work by changing the tone of the voice (rather than just the level). If not configured well, they can make the vocalist sound like s/he has a lisp.

How do I set up a de-esser?

I usually wait until the mix is almost completely finished before applying a de-esser. I’ll make sure the level of the vowels in the vocal are balanced well against the other elements of the mix. I’ll then use the de-esser just enough to bring down the sibilance to an acceptable level. Usually, I aim for the lead vocal sibilance to be at a similar level to the hi-hats, snare or other prominent high-frequency sound in the mix.

I almost almost insert the de-esser after EQ and compression (but before any time-based effects such as delay or reverb, of course). This is because I use the de-esser to slightly modify a sound that I’m already happy with. Applying compression after a de-esser can actually counteract the de-essing, as the rull-range compressor can bring the sibilance level back up.

What else is a de-esser useful for?

De-essers can be very useful for backing vocals. There are some situations where backing vocals (especially stacked backing vocals) are a little messy. Most of the time it’s fine, but it’s most pronounced in the sibilance. A de-esser will bring the sibilance right down, making the backing vocals sound less messy. Use this way, a de-esser can be applied much more heavily – the intelligibility and articulation is carried by the lead vocals. Just watch out for any sections where the background vocals are exposed – heavy de-essing will make them sound weird without the lead vocal.

De-essing can sometimes be useful on drum kits – particularly on overheads when balance of the kit is right but the crash cymbals are too loud. A de-esser can sometimes be effective in reducing the level of the crash cymbals while still retaining the sense of room and space. Again – subtlety is the key here. Too much de-essing will suck the air out and make the drums sound unnatural.



Examples of using group busses

Group busses are a versatile and useful mixing technique. They’re often used in a variety of different situations:

  • Distorted guitar stacks. It’s quite common to layer or doubletrack (or tripletrack or quadrupletrack) distorted guitar parts in order to make them sound bigger. Sometimes the layers are all recorded with the same setup (same guitar, same amp, same mic position, etc), but it’s just as common that the layers are recorded with different setups. The layers blend to form a composite guitar sound that the listener hears as a single diffuse part. Because all these layers function as a single part, it often makes sense to treat them as a single channel when mixing the bigger picture. By using a group bus, the layers can all be treated as one. This means that when you’re fitting the guitars in the context of the rest of the mix, you can set the level and tone of the guitars as if they’re a single part.
  • Backing vocals. Much the same as distorted guitars, it’s common to treat layered backing vocals as if they’re a single sound source. This is especially useful when there are several layers that are singing the same words with the same rhythm. Unlike layered distorted guitars, it’s also common the different layers of backing vocals to be singing different harmony parts. Another difference is that backing vocals often benefit from some compression (distorted guitars often already have flat dynamics due to the distortion). When dealing with backing vocals, it’s often useful to compress each individual channels as well as the group bus. That way, each compressor can work gently while still resulting in a smooth and consistent sound.
  • Pads. While not as commonly spoken about, grouping pads can be very useful for the same reasons as distorted guitars and backing vocals. Some particularly interesting effects can be created by combining several layers of different pulsing pads and then compressing the group. Done well, this will produce a texture that is more consistent in level but is constantly changing in tonality.
  • Drum kit. This is a huge topic! The way drums and compressors interact can be quite complex. The sound is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from the way the kit is played to the selection of kit components to the choice of miss and recording medium to the design and settings of the compressors. Like backing vocals, it’s common to compress individual drums in addition to compressing the drum group bus. Used lightly, drum group compression can give the whole kit a sense of glue and life and density. Just remember not to overdo it – too much compression will flatten your drums and make them difficult to work into the mix!
  • Kick and bass. This is a technique that has been used subtly for some time, but has recently become more fashionable with modern dance music. By grouping the kick and bass and applying strong compression to that group, the bass will duck slightly when the kick is sounding. This will make the low end of the mix more compact and solid. This is now commonly taken to extremes with the use of side chain compression – instead of using a group bus, the bass is processed with a compressor that is keyed (‘side-chained’) from the kick.

Group busses are most useful when you have several tracks that all perform a similar function in the mix and you want to either glue them together or otherwise treat them as a single unit. Of course, you can group anything you like. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use group busses. Often it doesn’t make sense to group tracks that aren’t related to each other or need to remain separate.

On the other hand, you might find some interesting sounds by using group busses in unusual ways…



How to make space for the vocals in the mix


That’s right – don’t make space for vocals in the mix. When assembling a mix, there are roughly three scenarios you might encounter when working with vocals:

  • The vocal is the main foreground instrument. In this case, the best results will be had by starting the mix with the vocal. If you’ve already got a mix that you’re trying to shoehorn a lead vocal into, it’s too late. Start again. Make the vocal really shine. Make sure it sounds exactly how it needs to, and then bring the other instruments back in around the vocal. The vocal is the most important part of the mix and the song – don’t compromise it by jamming it into a sans-vocal mix.
  • The vocal is a background or supporting part. In this case, the vocal is not the most important part of the song. It might be background vocal harmonies, or inconsequential samples in an otherwise-instrumental dance track. For these situations, don’t carve up the mix to accommodate the vocal – instead you should carve up the vocal to fit in the mix. Often this means reducing the low mids (to make the sound smaller) and applying stronger compression (to flatten the envelope).
  • The vocal actually doesn’t fit in the mix, or isn’t appropriate. In this case, the vocal is probably masked by another foreground instrument. Don’t waste your time trying to perform an impossible task – you’ll wear yourself out and destroy your mix in the process. Instead decide whether the vocal is important enough to keep (that is, it falls into one of the above scenarios). If it is, you need to identify and remove the elements of the mix that are masking the vocal. This is usually quite easy to do – mute the tracks one at a time and listen for which tracks make the vocal clearer. Once you remove the elements are masking the vocal, you can then follow the approach in one of the first two scenarios above.

Vocals are an important part of many songs, and have a distinct recognisable quality that’s unlike any other instrument. When mixing a song with vocals, it’s critically important to understand the role of the vocals in the song. This understanding will guide you toward the best approach to making them work in the mix.


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.


Eight ways to write effective backing vocals

Backing vocals are easily overlooked in the production process. After all, the lead vocal was hard enough to record and mix, why would you want to record a bunch of more vocal parts? Backing vocals are not always the best choice for a song or a production, but often they can add substance and reinforcement to the song’s message. They can also make a production sound more polished and professional (a single vocals line on its own can sometimes sound lonely or underproduced).

When you want to use backing vocals, there are actually more options than simply telling the singer to perform the lead melody with different notes…

In sync

This is the simplest way to write backing vocals. When the backing vocals are in sync with the lead vocal, the timing is the same and the effect is of harmony reinforcement. Use a backing vocal separated by a third or a sixth to bring out a colourful harmony (the bridge is often a good place for this). Use backing vocals separated by a fourth or fifth to add grounding and stability (the chorus is often a good place for this).

Out of sync

This is a bit more involved, and how you go about it depends very much on the nature of the song. When backing vocals are out of sync with the lead vocal, they ‘break out’ and are heard as a separate part with its own phrasing. There are many ways of approaching backing vocals like this. One of my favourites is to identify some key words in the lead vocal and stretch them out over several beats – either before or after the word appears in the lead vocal.

Non-word vocalisation

Another approach is to use non-word vocalisation (such as ‘ah’ or ‘ooh’) as part of the instrumentation. This can be very effective in bridging the textural/tonal divide between the lead vocal and the backing tracks (ever had a song sound like karaoke? This is the fix!). Long sustained notes can function like a pad – especially with several harmony parts layered. It’s like a  vocal pad or choir pad found on many workstation keyboards and synthesisers, but made from the voice of your singer! Short staccato notes can be effective in reinforcing a rhythmic aspect of the song. Be careful though – less experienced singers can have real difficulty with hitting the right intonation at the very start of each note.

Parallel motion

When writing a backing vocal to sit behind a lead vocal, the obvious way to contour the phrase is to follow the melody. When the lead vocal rises, the backing vocal rises. When the lead vocal falls, the backing vocal falls. This can be useful for reinforcing the shape of the melody, and is often useful in the chorus of a song.

Unlinked motion

Unlinked motion is a bit more interesting – this is where the backing vocal breaks away from the main melody and presents its own melody. This can be as simple as a slight modification of the main melody to add interest and melodic variety, or it can be as complex as a completely new melody (even with different lyrics and rhythms!).

Opposite Motion

An interesting hybrid of parallel motion and unlinked motion is opposite motion. This is where a backing vocal ‘mirrors’ the lead vocal. When the lead vocal rises, the backing vocal falls. When the lead vocal falls, the backing vocal rises. The effect can be ear-catching, but is difficult to pull off for long passages. It’s not always easy to find suitable notes for the harmony that retain the mirrored shape of the melody and also hit notes that support the overall harmonic structure of the music. Additionally, this approach can sometimes be constrained by the range of your singer. Despite these difficulties, opposite motion can be effective in small sections – even single motifs.

Intermittent emphasis

Backing vocals don’t have to be sounding for the same length time as the main vocal. In some situations, it’s appropriate for the backing vocals to come in occasionally for certain words or phrases. This allows you to emphasise some parts of the main vocal over others. This approach is particularly effective for long verses or complex choruses, where it’s easy for the listener to get lost. The backing vocals add some delineation and ‘punctuation’ to help make the song easier for the listener to understand. Of course, it’s also useful for reinforcing particular words or phrases in the song that have emotional significance.

Call and response

This is a really good way of adding interest and energy to a vocal part with a lot of gaps in between phrases. The simplest way to do this is to have the backing vocals fill the gap with an echo of the main vocal part. Bonus points for using a different melody and different (but relevant) words. Using different words can also give you an opportunity to expand on the lyrical themes and add meaning. Don’t fill in all the gaps, but do it in a way that supports the overall contour of the song (such as adding them to the second and last choruses).

Just two more quick ideas:

  1. Don’t forget to combine these different approaches. These are all techniques available to you. You should choose when it is appropriate to use them. Some songs won’t require any backing vocals. Some songs are best served by only using one of the techniques above. Some songs will require a combination of these techniques in order to bring the best out of them. Always remember to support the lyrical content and the contour of the song.
  2. These tips don’t only work for voices – they also work for instrumental parts too! Even if you’re composing music without words, you can probably find use for these techniques. For example, you might emphasise a techno lead synth with a second harmony part underneath it for the most intense section of the song. Or you might have a guitar solo being echoed and harmonised by a supporting keyboard part.

With these techniques in mind, try out some new ideas on your next song and see how they go. Some ideas might work, others might not. Either way – you’ll learn something new!



Masking is a little-understood concept that is important to composers and mix engineers. Essentially, masking is what happens when one sound makes it difficult to hear another sound. An obvious example of this is two instruments playing the same note, with one instrument sounding much louder than the other.

This can happen with notes or chords, where the voicing of one instrument covers up another, softer instrument. It can also happen with frequencies, where an element of one sound covers up an element of another sound. As with the example above, this happens when two instruments are playing the same note or frequency range and one is much louder than the other.

It can also happen when the notes or frequencies are not exactly the same, but nearby. The effect is particularly strong when both instruments are playing the same or similar parts, and the sounds blend very well. A common example is of distorted guitars and distorted bass. On its own, the distorted bass might have a heavy growl caused by a lot of energy in the lower mids and a crunchy fuzz on top. Once the guitars are brought in, however, the bass is reduced to a low-frequency rumble beneath the guitars. Even though the main energy of the guitars might be in the upper mids, it masks the upper harmonics in the distorted bass.

Another example is vocal harmonies. A song might have a section where the main melody is sung in parallel harmony – perhaps a third or fourth apart. If both voices are similar (sung by the same singer, in the same style, with similar processing), our ear will hear the upper harmony as being much more prominent than the lower harmony. The effect is sometimes quite striking – the lower harmony simply blends into the upper harmony.

These are both cases of the higher sound masking the lower sound.

Sometimes masking is useful, as it allows a sound to be thickened or deepened by adding other sounds to it. Other times it is undesirable as it makes it difficult for the listener to distinguish between the different sounds.

In the bass/guitar example, greater separation could be achieved by filtering or EQ so that each instrument contributes a unique sonic component to the mix. Alternatively, each instrument could be given a different depth. For example, the bass could be up front and the guitar further back in the mix.

In the vocal example, greater separation could be achieved by instructing the singer to perform each part differently – such as whispering one part, or perhaps singing one part forcefully. Better yet, have a different singer perform one of the parts.


Backing Vocals

Recording backing vocals is a little different to recording the lead vocals. Rather than recording them forwards, then backwards, then forwards, I simply record them one section at a time – typically four or six takes for each part. I prefer a combination of syncronised harmony vocals (in time and harmony with the lead vocal) and unsynchronised ‘call and response’-type backing vocals (with different timing and rhythm to the lead vocal).

For bigger backing vocals, I’ll take the two best takes for each part, and pan them hardleft and hardright. The natural variance in intonation gives the part a very wide sound without being messy. It also sounds much more natural than using a single take and making widening it using artificial processes (such as delays or pitch shifting). When I want even more voices, I record different harmony parts and apply the same process. Sometimes I’ll go as many as three parts deep. This results in six total harmony tracks – three on each side.

The trick with harmony vocals is to go easy on intonation correction. Whether you use Autotune, Melodyne, GSnap, or something else, find a way to use it extremely subtly. The more in-tune the backing vocals are, the smaller the total effect is. Your job is to balance correctness with size. I find even correcting the vocals 50% has a significant effect – often too much! A lot of the time I’m happy to keep the backing vocals untuned, or tune one side and keep the other untuned. So long as the singer can sing reasonably well, it shouldn’t be too detrimental to the song. If the lead vocal is appropriately in tune, the backing vocals only need to add size and thickness.

On the other hand, if the lead vocal is weak (tuned or not), the backing vocals benefit from being much more in tune. In this situation, the backing vocals serve as a support for the vocal (and should be mixed appropriately).