If you ask nine mix engineers how they approach their vocal chain, you’re likely to get 10 answers.
While I don’t want to add to the confusion, what follows is an idea for how to handle vocals in a worship (or any other, for that matter) setting.
Keep in mind that it’s descriptive not prescriptive; that it’s a constantly evolving process; and it’s designed to be easy for non-professionals to learn and implement quickly while delivering good results.
First, a little about our band and music style. We always have one person leading the song. It may be our worship leader, or another member of the vocal team for the weekend, but one person is the leader.
The rest of the vocals are background vocals, and they typically sing parts where appropriate. We are not going for a “vocal chorus” – we’re lead and background vocals (not that the other ways are wrong, it’s just not what we do).
I also believe it’s important to keep the lead vocal out front in the mix where the congregation can track with it easily. I’m not going for a main vocal with background music, but the vocal is always the center of the mix.
I use a few methods to make that so, without necessarily making the vocal louder.
So let’s take the lead vocal for starters. In addition to the normal channel processing – which would include some compression and EQ – I have three things going on for the lead vocal; a double-patched parallel compression channel (a.k.a., vocal “smash channel”), a plate reverb and a simple delay.
The smash channel is accomplished by simply double patching the leader’s microphone into two channels on the console. The smash channel is compressed pretty aggressively, usually running 8 to 10 dB of gain reduction. I don’t add much makeup gain in my setup, but your mileage may vary.
Because I can, I also flip my EQ to come after my compression, and then add a few dB back at about 2 kHz. This brings back some of the high end that gets lost with that much compression.
With some lead vocalists, I don’t use much smash, while with others I use it all the time. It acts sort of like a Z-axis control, letting me bring the vocal forward in the mix without it just getting louder. It’s kind of hard to explain, but once you try it, you’ll immediately know what I mean. It’s not louder, it’s just more there.
The leader also gets put through a plate reverb and a simple delay. I’ve become more enamored with plates over the years; they add just enough ambiance to air out the vocal without becoming too “spacey.” I also have a delay, the time of which is determined by the tempo the song. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.)
Each of those effects are fed from auxes and brought back into the mix via a channel. I could insert the FX on the channels, but we often have different singers leading songs during services, and putting it on an aux makes it easier to move them in and out of “leader mode.”