The power of nudging in Protools!

I’m going to share with you a super simple technique to improve your vocal productions! One word…nudge. Nudging is simply sliding vocals ahead in time or back in time. Protools has a function to move audio by pressing the + or – key on the numeric keypad. Just select the part you would like to move, separate into a region (command e), then start nudging. First of all it works best for the visual if you are using the Protools grid. I will talk about the grid more soon, but the grid in Protools is showing you perfect time. So make sure the instrumental lines up with the grid perfectly. Make sure you line up instrumental with grid before recording, or you can highlight the instrumental and vocals and nudge them together to line up with grid.Assuming the instrumental is perfect with the grid, you can now visually see in protools if the vocals are too fast or too slow.. 9 times out if 10 the vocals are rushing it. Most performances rush the beat. By selecting an entire vocal phrase and nudging it back in time, we are able to correct the timing issue while keeping the “feel” of the vocal take! This is huge! By far the most simple and effective way to correct timing issues for vocals or other instrument performances! Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Do you need more clarification on vocal compression?

If compression isn’t making much sense, let me clear this up for you. First I want you to listen to the vocal with no compression. How dynamic does it sound? Are there really quiet words and really loud? Or maybe it’s pretty consistent and doesn’t vary too much. This will let you know upfront the type of approach you should have. If the vocal is very dynamic then it’s obviously going to need a lot of compression. I suggest using more than one compressor with similar attack, release, and ratio settings. If both compressors have a combined 8-10db of gain reduction, that may be okay. Use your ears at this point. Does it sound too harsh? Does it sound just right? The faster the attack, the more gain reduction that happens. Try slowing down the attack just a bit. Compression is a balancing act just like eq. Start with a low ratio on the compressors around 2:1 or 3:1. For attack time, remember that fast attacks will make the vocal more controlled, more round, warm, and sit in the mix. Slow attacks will be more percussive, cut through mix, and it will let the vocal be a bit more dynamic. Both can work, but it’s up to you to figure out which fits the track best! Comment below!

So what is multi-band compression?

I had a request to chat about multi and compression so hopefully this clears things up for some of you. A multi-band compressor is a very simple concept but setting it up properly can take some good ear training. If you read my new ebook called The Ultimate Vocal Handbook, it may help a bit to know what to do with the multi-band compressor. Let me explain…a multi band compressor usually has 4 to 6 bands. The one I use has 4, its called Waves C4. The smartest way to use this plug-in is to first diagnose the problem frequency areas. This is done by ear, or you can use a frequency analyzer. I prefer by ear. If you read my book I mentioned above, you will now be able to recognize the problem frequencies. I’ll give you an example…let’s say the singer was really close to the mic when recording. On certain words, the voice gets boomy with excessive amounts of low end. This is a perfect scenario for the multi-band. Now you can set your first band on the plug-in to the range of where the boomy/low end frequencies live. In my book I explain that 125hz is the sound of the rumble that an airline creates. So we can set the multi band to where 125hz is about in the middle of the range. So by setting the multi band compressor band to 0hz to 200hz, the compressor will now compress everything that is in that range. To compress adjust the threshold on that band. Now that the boomy vocal is being controlled and sounding better, now you should bypass the plug in and compare to before you added the multi band. If you notice it lacks low end now, just turn up the gain on that specific low frequency band. This technique applies to ANY vocal frequency problem you will come across! Hope this helps! Write your comments below!

High and low shelf eq rules!

Almost every vocal you will ever record will not be bright enough and/or is too flabby in the low end and low mids. I’ve used a couple mics and a few singers that it wasn’t the case, but this is very common guys….I’m going to give you a little tip. Shelf Eq. Ok that’s it, see ya next time! Just kidding, I’ll elaborate. This is a simple concept though. Did you know you can get similar results whether you use a low shelf and cut or a high shelf and boost? It’s a balancing act. Cutting a few db of let’s say, 300hz and lower will sound similar to boosting a few db of 4k and higher. When the low frequency content is reduced, automatically the highs become more defined and clear. When you boost 8k and up a few db, automatically the lows and low mids become less muddy and don’t sound like much of a problem anymore. So here is the secret sauce tip of when to do which! The deciding factor for me is how severe the sibilance is and how harsh the vocal is. If it has harsh or intense sibilance I’m not going to want to boost the highs more. It will intensify the problem. If the vocal isn’t harsh or containing extreme sibilance issues, boost the high shelf. Hope this helps you all! Comment your thoughts!

Have trouble getting the vocal to sit “in” the mix?

I had a request to talk about getting the main vocal to sit “in” the mix and how to guarantee it’s “finalized” aka “album ready”. So first off, what makes it not sound finalized? Well, actually a lot of things. Pitch correction is huge, if it’s not pitched right then it will never seem to blend right. Another big one is frequency balance! I talked about dynamic eq a few posts ago if you missed that. If the vocal gets muddy in a certain section of the song, or say it gets harsh on the high notes, then it’s not going to ever sound “finalized”. These problem frequencies need controlled. Well what if you tried your best to tame the frequencies and it’s still not working. Well at that point I would start automating the volume. You may need to turn certain words up or down. For example, those high notes that were belted out that always sound harsh. Try turning down just those words. I would suggest to automate vocal volume with the speaker volume very quiet. This will help you use the right judgment. If the vocals have a low frequency issue, like it gets muddy in spots, then turn it up to a good volume. Assuming you are using a bit of effects like reverb and delay, the last thing I would say is to understand the mastering process. If you are doing the mastering, then set up your mastering chain and mix through that, so you can dial it in right. If you are sending it out to a mastering engineer, understand that he will smooth it out and do the overall finalizing with eq, harmonic distortion, more dynamic eq compression, and some stereo imaging. All these things in the mastering process will effect how the vocal sits! Mastering doesn’t fix problems in the mix but it sure does help put things in order! Especially if you honestly gave it your all in the mixing process! Comment your thoughts!

How do you know how much compression to use on a vocal?

There are a lot of opinions when it comes to vocal compression. I was taught in recording school to never get more than 3 db of gain reduction. Although that may work sometimes, its definitely not always the case! Odds are, a singer will belt a high note 15db louder than the previous note and the threshold setting will not tame that note enough at all. So this may sound cliche but with compression you have to use your ears. If you are compressing the vocal and getting 8 to 10 db of gain reduction how does it sound? Here are some red flags….does the voice sound extra harsh when compressed harder? Did the breaths the singer takes in between words get really loud? Is the sibilance very loud and cutting? If yes, then it’s a bit over compressed. So what do you do when one setting isn’t compressing the vocal enough and the other setting has those side effects? Good question. There are a few options. Here’s what I suggest. If you are mixing something upbeat with a full production like pop, hiphop, or rock….you can compress it pretty hard to get the vocal nicely leveled and when the side effects creep in, use a dynamic eq like I talked about in a previous post to make the vocal less harsh in the areas that are a problem. As for the breaths, use volume automation or clip gain to manually bring down the level of each breath. However for other genres like acoustic, soft pop, or anything that’s more dynamic you would compress the vocals less to where the side effects aren’t happening.At this point he vocal may not be leveled enough, so after the vocal is lightly compressed, you can now listen through the song and automate the vocal volume on certain words. The best way would be to set the vocals to where the quieter notes are at a good level and then just automate the louder words or sections down. Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comment section!

Compression is cool, eq is too, but dynamic eq is awesome!

Vocals are unlike any instrument ever when it comes to mixing. I’ve heard problem frequencies in almost every area you can think of! Sometimes singers sound really muddy, or super harsh, or the sibilance on an “s” word can cut right through glass! Others sound chesty and don’t have any brightness in their voice. The thing that makes this complicated for standard eq and compression is that a singer has the ability to sing differently all through the song. Maybe the verses have too much low mids or in other words…is too muddy, but once they are belting the high notes in the chorus…the singer needs that low mid mud to balance everything out. With dynamic eq, we are able to dial in a compressor that is compressing just the frequency problem areas! Pretty awesome right? The most common places in the frequency spectrum is in the low mids between 150 and 500hz as well as the high mids between 2khz and 5khz. I’m not saying you won’t use it in any other areas but the majority of the time the problems are in these areas! Comment below if you have ever struggled with this and if dynamic eq would help you out! There’s a free plug in called TDR Nova if you need a dynamic eq plug in!

Here’s a great way to make sure the singer is comfortable during recording…

When I started off in my first couple years of recording I use to record vocals like recording guitars. I would have the singer sing along and punch a word or two here and there and just tell them to sing along. It took me a while to figure it out but that’s not the best way in my opinion. It’s extremely hard for most singers to sing along and punch in a couple words mid-phrase and have it come out sounding natural and not sounding like it was “punched in”. Singers would often get frustrated because of the numerous times we would have to punch a couple words and it was the ultimate “vibe killer”. Eventually I learned about comping vocals and man was that a life saver! I learned that you could basically have the singer vibe out, sing the whole song front to back several times, and pick the best takes afterwards. Now I normally still focus on just a verse or chorus at a time with this method but some singers prefer all the way through the song and in that case I put their needs before mine. After all they are the artist and their comfort is crucial for a good session. Long story short…singers I have worked with since changing methods years ago always seem to leave with a smile. They were able to come in, sing their heart out, stay in their lane, and let me do the rest with comping. It’s definitely a great work flow too, try it out!

Which program is better?Melodyne or AutoTune in graphic mode?

Ever since moving to Nashville, engineers look at me crazy because I prefer Autotune in graphic mode for my default program to pitch correct vocals as opposed to melodyne. Truth is, they both have their pros and cons though. The reason I’m drawn to Autotune in graphic mode is because the workflow is extremely fast! I would say 3 or even 4 times faster and it’s less tedious than melodyne. You can simply highlight a word, adjust the retune speed for that word if need be, and it’s right on pitch. It’s incredible. The con with Autotune is if the vocal is a little too far from the note, it doesn’t work the greatest…it sort of changes the timbre of the vocal. But hey, that’s why we are supposed to get good vocal takes in the comping process right? That’s my philosophy anyhow. Another con with Autotune is it doesn’t really work with gritty vocals. Anyone heard of Dave Grohl? Don’t use this program for him! So let’s get on to melodyne…the number one pro for this program is the heavy lifting it can do. You know that one singer that was singing the song way off? Like a whole different key off? Melodyne has them covered. I’ve used melodyne to change a note to 3 notes higher or lower than the singer recorded it and it works. Plus if it changes the timbre of the voice because of how drastic, you can use the formant tool to adjust the timbre. Pretty crazy. You can also use melodyne to create harmonies from the original vocal take. Also very helpful for those not gifted with singing harmonies. Melodyne works miracles with gritty singers so with that being said, Dave Grohl approves. The cons however are pretty serious in my opinion. Melodyne is very surgical, you have to use several different tools to get the right result. Cutting the blobs, using pitch modulation and pitch drift to manually to straighten out shaky vocals, or adjusting vibrato etc. You must have a very good ear for melodyne because it’s very easy to completely miss things. The workflow is way slower, even if you are lightning fast and have been doing it for 10+ years like I have. In conclusion, you need both. I own and use both. Sometimes I get away with just using Autotune in graphic mode, other times I use melodyne then touch up with Autotune graphic. You will come across gritty Dave Grohls and perfect pitch Chris Browns. In a perfect world I would choose to use Autotune graphic alone, but it’s not a perfect world! Let me know your thoughts and questions!

It’s up to the singer to give the mic a great signal.

So many times I run into a problem while recording a vocalist. The problem is usually harsh characteristics. Whether it be a “K” or a “T” or an “S”…certain letters can sound pretty brutal if the singer isn’t careful. Here’s my theory…singers are more often singing in clubs through an Sm58 than in the studio singing into a Neumann U87. Which means they over compensate with their voice. A dynamic mic sounds better when you over compensate because it creates a compression within the mic. This is why screamers in metal bands sound so good through an Sm7b mic. A dynamic mic will help a singer sound better when they push out sibilance too hard but what works even better, is when the singer lightens up. It sounds obvious but singers have to use techniques just like the engineer does. It’s a team effort. So as a producer you should politely ask the singer if they could lighten up on how hard they are pronouncing words. It will make a crazy difference! Now in the mixing stage when the vocal is compressed, the vocal will sound smooth to the ears! Try it out! Let me know what you think!