I wanted to create a post that expands on the more conventional ways to process vocals. Whether you're a beginner or a more advanced producer or mixer, odds are you understand mixing vocals usually requires a recipe of premixing techniques like cleaning up pops, mouth noises, and breaths as well as conventional methods like equalization, compression, and de-essing. But what about creative vocal processing? Lets look at 5 creative ways to process your vocals so your music stands out from the rest and connects with your listeners in more meaningful ways.
I also wanted to tie in vocal chop processing in this post, because these two ideas go hand in hand.
1.) Saturation and Distortion for Vocals
As the music production process has become increasingly digital, a lot of producers and engineers try to find ways to "warm up" the signal path.
Enter saturation and or distortion. Before we talk about how to use them in your mix and on your vocals, lets look at what they are and how they differ.
What is saturation?
Saturation originates from the analogue world. Back in the days of tape machines, engineers would have to actively focus on printing the correct levels onto tape. In today’s digital world, if you record your signal too hot, circuits will break down and distortion or clipping may occur. However, in the analogue world, a signal recorded to tape too hot would encounter the rather pleasant phenomenon known as saturation.
There is a thin line between when saturation becomes overdrive and overdrive becomes distortion, but they are all different stages that begin with saturation. For vocals, “light distortion” is what we're after. We can add color by adding saturation, which, in turn, allows us to add tone or character to the signal path.
How to use saturation
I love to create a buss or an aux send and apply some saturation or distortion. Sometimes it's helpful to pair the saturation with a reverb and EQ to soften the tone a bit, but it can do wonders on a vocal. This is also a great technique for getting the vocal in a hook or chorus to pop out more from the verse. You can also just saturate the background vocals or harmonies, leaving the lead vocal more open and natural.
You can get more aggressive with saturation and distortion on vocal chops and background vocals. You can however, lightly saturate a lead vocal in pretty much any genre as it will bring out new harmonics and can make the vocal stand out.
What about distortion?
Because distortion is a more extreme effect, it might be harder to fit a heavily distorted vocal into a mix. Distortion can work really well with vocal chops and effected vocal sends. The key is experimentation. You could even add an aggressive distortion on a buss or aux send and blend that with the original vocal.
2.) Formant Shifting Vocals & Fomant Filters
Formant shifting is great way to spice up your vocal tracks. Wether it's on a lead vocal, background vocal, or vocal chop, it can add a unique sound to any song. Formant filters are a little different, but they are still great tool you can use to mangle and manipulate vocals.
What is a Formant?
Formants are the harmonic frequencies that occur in the human voice. They define the timbre and alter the perception of how a vocal has been performed (more from the diaphragm than from the throat, for example). Formant shifting does not affect the pitch. So a voice sounds deeper or brighter, but the pitch is actually the same.
How To Use Formant Shifting on Vocal
You can use formant shifts on vocals in tons of ways. You can use them to spice up important words, break up a long phrase, use a formant shift to define the timbre of the whole vocal (more suited for vocal chops and FX), and of course you can set up parallel formant shifts to make a lead vocal thicker in important parts of a song.
I love to use Soundtoys Little Alter Boy as well as Zplane Elastique Audio if I'm working in Logic X. If I am working in Live, I will usually just use the DAW to transform the pitch of the vocal. We used Little Alter Boy to get this awesome vocal sound inspired by Marshmello and you can see how it comes together in this video.
What About Formant Filters?
Formant filters simulate the characteristics of the human voice. Often times vowels like A, EE, UUU, etc. When a formant filter is set to the letter “E,” for example, it emphasizes the frequencies contained in the “E” sound, cutting out everything else. Sweeping the formant filter’s frequency causes the vowel sound to change.
3.) Pitch Shifting Vocals
Pitch shifting a vocal is easy to do in pretty much any DAW and is an affective way to make a vocal or vocal chop sound more unique.
What is Pitch Shifting?
The answer is pretty simple. Anything that changes the pitch of your vocal or sample. You can apply pitch shifts in either semitone values, usually -12 or +12 semitone pitch shifts, or smaller amounts like cents.
How To Use Pitch Shifting On a Vocal?
You can use pitch shifting on vocals in a few ways.
1.) To make certain sections of the vocal stand out more. You can achieve this by doubling the vocal in certain sections, and layering in a pitched up or down vocal.
2.) To thicken up or widen a vocal when you don't have real doubles. It's usually a good idea to double your vocals organically, which means have the singer sing the part more than once, but if you don't have a real double, you can duplicate and detune for a wider sound.
4.) Vocoder for Vocals
5.) Reverb, Chorus, and Delay for Vocals
Wrapping It Up
One of the best things you can do as an electronic music producer is to bridge the gap between man and machine, so to speak. You do it by giving life to your robotic sounds and adding movement to your loops, which will then move your audience’s feet and hearts.
That’s not to say that making your tracks sound human is necessary. If you feel that your creative direction is steering you towards a more robotic feel, then by all means, follow your gut. If you want to get a warm and organic feel, then get your Frankenstein on and start tweaking.