“MY VOCAL TONE IS ALL OVER THE PLACE… HELP!”
Technical Articles/November 26, 2015
When you’ve reached the end of your tether trying to EQ a vocal so it sounds good from one end of a song to the other, it might be time to admit defeat and realise that sometimes there are several tones that make up a vocal performance.
Vocals are rarely so tonally balanced that they responds uniformly well to a single EQ setting. Most vocals test the boundaries of any EQ at some point. They may get harsh in the chorus, dull in the verse, or bright and sibilant at the crescendo.
Whatever problems a vocal may have, when they first tip the scales, your instinct is always to reach for an EQ solution. Fair enough.
Trouble is, one EQ setting is often inadequate, working in some parts of the song but not others. That section which previously sounded good now sounds lame, and this leaves you torn between two compromised settings, neither of which sounds particularly thrilling. So what do you do?
First thing to do is recognise the dilemma and come to the understanding that there’s no set-and-forget tone that will satisfy this outcome. More than likely a shifting tonal balance will be the only way to settle the vocal down.
If the vocal tone is shifting, the solution must also.
There are several things that can be done, depending on where along the timeline this light-bulb moment strikes you.
If it’s during the recording session you may find time to try a different mic, or even record several at once, with the idea of cutting between these alternatives during mixdown as the vocal tone changes. Your valve condenser might suit the verses, for instance, but sound ugly during the choruses. For these you might switch to a dynamic or even a ribbon.
Having these recording options up your sleeve can be very handy later – provided the tonal issues are well documented. It’s no good recording three different mics for the one vocal performance if the mix engineer further down the line doesn’t know why he or she has so many channels to choose from.
This recording approach can also be messy and distracting during the session to both engineer and singer, adding complexity and time to the setup, as well as potentially making the singer feel more like they’re giving a press conference than delivering a vocal.
DURING THE MIX
If you discover problems with your vocal tone during mixdown you might try a different EQ setting for the different sections, depending how clearly defined the problems are from verse to chorus and so on.
This can be done in the digital domain in several ways: by automating additional EQs in and out of the main vocal channel to balance out the issues as they present, by automating a single EQ so that it morphs to accommodate the changes in the vocal tone, or by duplicating the main vocal as many times as is necessary to dedicate one channel to each and every tone.
All of these techniques (and there are others) can work well; but they do tend to be time consuming and occasionally a little hit-and-miss. No matter how fastidious you are things will still tend to slip through the net, particularly those more transient and fleeting tonal shifts.
In my experience, the most efficient and effective way to tame an unsettled vocal tone is with multi-band compression.
For the uninitiated, briefly defined, a multi-band compressor is one that acts on different groups of frequencies in different ways. Unlike a ‘full-band’ compressor, which has one set of controls to manage all the frequencies travelling through it, a multi-band has several. This allows each ‘band’ to be selective about which groups of frequencies it’s controlling, and how.
Some digital multi-bands have set numbers of bands, each of which are adjustable and have their own controls. Others allow you to simply add more bands of control as you require them. Either way, a good multiband – applied carefully and judiciously – can allow your vocal to have its cake and eat it too, tonally speaking.
You know that tone you’ve established – the one that sounds so amazing in that quiet section but so crap during the high notes of the chorus? Well, with the aid of a multiband, all those horrible high mids that have come roaring into view during the chorus can be controlled with targeted compression – say a band between 1.8 and 7kHz – allowing you to retain what was good about the initial EQ setting as well as making the chorus sound clear and powerful, rather than harsh.
From a practical point of view, a multi-band – though by definition a compressor – is really acting more like a dynamic EQ in this context, allowing the vocal to hold together throughout the bright, dull, strident and harsh moments, with each band of compression targeting different tonal excesses that are trying to undermine your fundamental balance.
The important thing to understand about using multi-band compression instead of EQ, is that they act to control frequencies only when the singer (in this case) exceeds a certain threshold.
An EQ, meanwhile, makes wholesale changes to the tone of your vocal, regardless of its dynamic. Any changes you therefore make to one passage of the song affect the whole. That’s why you wind up chasing your tail.
Multi-band compressors, on the other hand, allow you to set a tone with your EQ – typically one that’s well suited to the lower, softer and more sensitive notes in the song – and then, when the vocal shifts gear and gets brighter, louder or more strident in the midrange, the multi-band kicks in to resist the tone moving away from what seems natural or desirable.
By dynamically controlling frequencies above a certain threshold, multi-band compressors allow you to add extra tone to main vocals, without the harsh, bright or boomy side-effects. Your tone is preserved and your mix will sound far more stable as a result.