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Making It Sing, Part Deux: Further Enhancements To A Vocal Plug-In Chain

Optimizing the key to "the best-sounding band I've ever heard"

By Ken-Pooch-Van-Druten- October 10, 2013

Pooch Van Druten emphatic about optimizing the mighty vocal. (Photo credit: Tim Solar)

Greg Price got the ball rolling last time (here) with the first in a series of articles sharing our knowledge of the vocal chain. It cannot be re-emphasized enough that the vocal is the most important part of your mix, and therefore should be the first focus of any good mix. 

When I was a young engineer, I asked my friends who were not musicians or mixers what they liked (or disliked) about my mixes. Without fail, comments were about the vocal. Obviously there are elements of a mix that must be there in order to support the vocal, but ultimately vocals are the key to comments like “that’s the best sounding band I’ve ever heard.”

A very prominent recording engineer/producer once told me that he views a mix as a beautiful plant. The vocals are the flowers that everyone gazes at in admiration, but without a solid root system and stem (drums, bass, guitars), the flowers would not be possible.

Both Greg and I use Waves Audio plug-ins to help achieve excellence in our mixes, but please note that we’re not suggesting using all of these tools all at once. Used sparingly, however, they are akin to bringing a gun to a knife fight.

Previously, Greg concluded at part 4 by discussing the C6 Multi-Band Compression plug-in, so let’s pick it up from there. (See parts 1-4 here.)

4. Multi-Band Comp, Continued
I’ve developed a few presets for the C6 that I believe are a great starting point. Give them a try. Again, they’re intended as starting points, not as “be all, end all.”

The specific vocal preset that Greg mentioned was created out of necessity, for my own needs. I wanted to have a preset where the threshold, attack, release, and ratio parts of the plug-in were optimized for vocal. Basically the goal was to be able to properly gain up any vocal, with the preset as a great starting point.

I experimented for over a month with different bands to come up with it. The floating, additional two outside filters are intended to adjust the frequencies that are problem areas, but the inside four filters should work pretty well as they’re set up.

5. MaxxVolume
With the advent of in-ear monitors, I’ve found that singers have become more dynamic over the years. This can be good and bad. Dynamics are a very important part of music, and absolutely are what make a mix stand out. But in the case of vocals, the goal is for every single nuance of the singer to be heard over the top of an often complicated mix.

MaxxVolume (click to enlarge)

One of the tools that I don’t go anywhere without is MaxxVolume. It’s an expander, compressor, limiter, and gate. Prior to using this plug-in, I’ve worked with singers where I had 20 dB of fader swing and chasing going on. If set properly, the MaxxVolume sits my vocal squarely in the mix, and with small fader moves keeping it there, allowing me to focus on other elements of my mix instead of chasing the vocals all night long. 

I use the Vocal Absolute Level preset as a starting point with MaxxVolume.  The Low Level side of the plug is the “expander” side of the plug, the High Level side of the plug is the “compressor,” the Leveler is the “limiter,” and Gate is the “gate.”

Don’t forget to toggle the loud and soft button above the metering, which adjusts release times of the compressor. Set thresholds for compression and expansion, and set the limiter to engage when the singer is over the top. It will take some experimentation on your part to get the desired result, but you’ll know it when you find the sweet spot. 

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