For all engineers, mixing can be a time-intensive process, and having a basic checklist of plugins when engineering recorded audio can significantly reduce lift. Additionally, for artists recording their vocals themselves, a basic understanding of vocal engineering and a good ear can be the difference between an amateur and a professional sound. In this article, we’ll share a six plugin checklist to use when building your vocal chain for you or your artists’ next songs.
1. Equalizer (EQ)
The first plugin in your vocal chain should be your Equalizer or EQ. This is the first step in taking your raw vocals and turning them into professionally sounding audio. While there are many EQs out there, we recommend a visual EQ with at least 6 frequency band options, such as Waves Q10.
While there are tons of tutorials online to learn how to EQ, a tip we share with artists is to pull upwards on a frequency band until the frequency is maxed out. If the audio sounds horrible, that is a frequency to reduce. If it still sounds decent, that is a frequency to highlight. You can also use this technique to identify which frequency includes audio you want to mute, such as white noise. You can find the specific frequency and then lower it.
The de-esser is a great plugin for reducing syballence in your audio – the annoying hissing sound often heard when pronouncing words such as success and hysterics. The de-esser recognizes the frequencies of these sounds and lowers them automatically. While overuse of the de-esser can create a muted sound, and not all audio requires a de-esser, this is a super helpful plugin for those who need it. Ableton Live 10 has a stock de-esser but other DAWs may not, so you may have to download or purchase one.
A compressor helps limit the dynamic range of your audio, helping to take quiet, solid sounding audio, lower peaks, and then increase the overall volume. This helps take your equalized and de-essed vocals to the next level so that the entire track can be brought up in the master. Many tracks where the vocals feel hidden behind the instrumental or instrumentation are a result of not compressing the vocals enough and not bringing the gain up afterward.
Delay can help provide extra depth to your track and fill in empty spaces in audio by creating an authentic echo sound. Delay also gives audio recorded with only 1-2 tracks an additional pseudo-backing vocal or ad-lib. Delay should be used only very slightly and the timing of the delay depends on the song and artist preference.
Reverb gives your vocals a finishing touch, emulating recording in a wider room without having to record in an environment that will distort your raw vocals. Reverb helps perfect audio, but can also be used experimentally to produce unique vocal effects.
The last step in the vocal chain is a final equalizer. Closing out your vocal chain with a final EQ will allow you to adjust sounds affected by your other plugins as well as to mix your final vocal into your instrumental or instrumentation.
By following this checklist, you’ll be able to turn nearly any audio into a professional sounding mix. As you continue to become a better engineer, you’ll be able to create presets to improve your workflow, recognize solutions to audio issues more easily, and ultimately deliver better mixes. If you’re interested in more tips for audio engineers, check out all of our audio engineering articles.