When it comes to producing vocals for a remix, or any electronic production, the necessity for attention to detail cannot be underestimated. If you want to stand out from the crowd, creativity really is the key.
Current trends leans towards intricate cutups, glitch programming and intense spot processing to compliment, or replace, the original vocal performance. With this method of vocal production you can really stamp your creativity on a mix and make the parts supplied your own.
When using the right techniques, your vocal parts can be transformed into new instruments in their own right. Complex and interesting grooves can be built up to accompany the main vocal, whilst perfectly retaining the character of the original performance.
Whether your approaching a full vocal mix or a stripped down dub, the extra time and effort could ensure your mix is the one that receives all important airplay or dj support.
Vocal Production Topics
Cream of the crop
When you receive vocal parts from a client, the first thing you’ll learn is that they can come in many forms. Some clients will supply absolutely everything recorded for the project, whilst others will send only the bare minimum.
The variations don’t stop at creative content either. You’ill find that the choice of format that’s supplied will be just as diverse. You can expect everything from OMF (Open media framework) to more traditional WAV or AIFF. Some labels are even supplying parts in mp3 format, to save space and transfer time.
Whatever format your vocals arrive in, once you’ve imported them, you are faced with deciding which sections are to be used. This can be a monumental task, especially if you have been sent every part of the performance. It is not unusual to see as many as 10 or more full tracks just for vocals.
Once you know which parts you are going to include in your remix, its a good idea to start cutting them into their separate components and placing them on their own tracks. This makes things much clearer moving forward to the arrangement process.
Now look for any technical defects in the vocal parts. For instance their might over bearing sibilance, or pops and thumps imprinted during the recording process. It is advisable to deal with these now using manual editing in an audio editor. This way you can avoid using too many processors at a later stage in the mix. Simple eqs and filters are indispensable here but of course some of these issues, such as sibilance, should be dealt with by dedicated processors, in this case a de-esser.
Pick your route
Once you’ve dealt with any technical issues, its sensible to start thinking about the way you want to use the vocals in your overall mix. Obviously this will depend a lot on the brief given to you by your client, of course in some cases, if your lucky, you’ll have total artistic freedom.
You have two main options here really, you can opt for a full vocal mix, which will incorporate all, or most, of the original performance, or alternatively you can go for a dub mix, which involves using some key parts of the vocal, often edited and heavily processed.
This decision may of been made for you whilst choosing your vocal parts, as you might have only chosen a few you really like. If this is the case you only really have the option to produce a dub. Either way, if you are working on a commissioned project it is always a good idea to double check with the client before proceeding, to avoid misunderstandings.
One positive side of working with dub mixes, is the creative freedom they allow. For instance if you are working with a full vocal and you intend to rewrite all the instrumentation around the original vocal, you will obviously have to ensure that your new music is in key and follows any note changes correctly. In contrast, when working with only a few vocal components in a dub, you will find that you are able to write around the single parts and change the melody much more freely.
Tracks and groups
With all these newly cut up vocal sections its really important to keep things organised. A good starting point is to make a number of new audio tracks in your DAW. Then you can start placing the separate parts on each track, this way you can overlap parts or treat and mix them independently. Also simple actions like colour coding and naming these new tracks will pay dividends as your project progresses. Once this initial organisation is in place you will find it much easier to give each part its own personality. Working on intricate edits, loops and effects will become much easier with the extra breathing space created by the added tracks.
More traditional techniques can also be made easier by using multiple tracks. For instance, two identical vocals on consecutive tracks, with a small amount of delay added to one can make ‘virtual’ double tracking effect. Panning these tracks will add a wide stereo effect.
As this process develops you might find it easier to group some of these channels into further sub groups of greater control in your mix and final processing. These sub groups can then be fed into a master vocal group, allowing you absolute control over all the vocal elements in your final mix.
Having control over the dynamics in your music is always important but when it comes to vocals it’s essential. For a vocal to ride high in the mix without drowning out other elements or being masked itself, good compression and limiting techniques indispensable.
Some vocal recordings will come pre treated, so there will be little need for further processing. In other instances the parts will be in their raw state. If this is the case there are some basic issues that should be observed before you go any further.
If there is any noise present in the signal its a good idea to apply some simple gating to clean things up. Some DAWs, such as Logic Pro have an alternative method you can utilise. In logic this is called ‘remove silence’. As simple but effective algorithm that senses when there is absolute silence between the audible signal. You are able to set thresholds, start and end points, giving you fine control over how you cut out the silent sections. Using this feature you can not only kill any noise present but also add clarity to your project and reduce the pressure on your audio drive by playing back less files at once.
Once any noise has been banished, its time to look at the overall level of the vocal. If there are any peaks and troughs, automation can go some way to evening things out but your main weapon should be a good compressor. Whether its software or hardware its wise to opt for something with a good pedigree. A perfect example of this is Universal Audio’s LA2A emulation. This is a simple compressor with only a few controls but it handles vocals perfectly.
Obviously everyone’s taste differs, so its up to you which flavour of compressor you use, but with a combination of manual editing and some light compression, your vocal should be ready for your mix.
When it comes to vocal effect processing it’s time to put your imagination into gear. There are no hard and fast rules here, apart from back up the untreated vocal before doing anything destructive!
A good place to start is distortion. A good saturation or bit reduction plugin can totally transform a vocal, giving it a lot more edge. Mix this with a flanger with a high feedback setting and you can end up with some interesting effects.
Also try chorus plug-ins and stereo enhancers for some movement in your stereo field. Some manufacturers, such as Waves, actually have dedicated vocal processing packages with plug-ins such as ‘Doubler’ which are great for adding extra dimension.
Obviously the combinations here are unlimited, so experimentation is important. Its also worth mentioning, when trying different processors to play with the order of them, as this can be as important as the actual effects your using.
When you want to alter the mood or melody of a vocal a vocoder can be the perfect tool. Vocoding can also be used to alter a vocal that you think maybe lacking in integrity. Although it is an effect that has been used in many productions, with the right vocal and some creative tweaks it can still sound fresh.
There are quite a few vocoders on the market to choose from. Some synthesisers such as the Korg ‘Microkorg’ and Access Virus range, have them built in. There are also some software options that maybe a more accessible option for many. The most obvious choices here are vocoder plugins that are bundled with various DAWS, e.g. Logic Pro, Reason and Cubase SX. There are also some excellent third party software vocoders available, such as the classic Prosoniq ‘Orange Vocoder’ and the newer Eiosis ‘ELS Vocoder’.
Once you have chosen your vocoder, try taking a key part of your vocal and looping it over say eight to sixteen bars. Then route this audio track to your vocoder plugin or hardware, for this technique you will want to have any mix controls set to 100% wet, so you only hear the vocoded audio. Next route your midi keyboard to the vocoder, now when keys are pressed you should be able to hear the processed vocal playing. You can now play chords or single note sequences, completely changing the melody of the vocal.
Its wise to use a transparent, clear vocoder pre-set as a starting point. This will make the processed vocal as intelligible as possible. Good pre-sets to look for are those with a high number of frequency bands. Of course its not a hard and fast rule that you have to alter the original melody. A highly effective technique can be to play more sympathetic melodies to compliment the original performance. This will involve using a mix of the vocoded and the original unprocessed signals. Also try automating this mix amount to create spot effects and add emphasis to certain phrases. Other useful processors in this category are robotisers and harmonisers. They work in very different ways to classic vocoders and are often not controllable by midi but they are just as capable of transforming a vocal into something totally new. For examples of these try Antares ‘Harmony Engine’ and Logic’s ‘Vocal Transformer’.
When looking for new instruments and grooves for your vocal remixes, the biggest challenge often lies in achieving continuity between the original performance and your new elements. One solution to this is to form the new grooves from the vocal itself.
First start by bouncing the entire vocal with any processing included. Then select regions of the performance you feel have the most energy and dynamic content. Once you have these larger areas on a track of their own, create a few new tracks. For the next step take your scissors tools and cut out smaller sections of the bounced vocal. Start with larger divisions say 1/4 or 1/8 of a bar. Choose these sections visually at first, looking for interesting transient events. Then once the areas can be auditioned alone you can make a decision whether to use it or not.
These smaller edits can now be placed on your newly made tracks and manipulated further. Try cutting the sections using a higher resolution, say 1/16 or 1/32 of a bar. Then experiment with different arrangements of these parts, timing when they play with any groove in your current composition.
Also try repeating and looping these smaller sections for a true glitch effect. You can then add automation to panning and levels to breathe life into the parts. Further movement can be added by automating effect sends on these cut up channels.
There is an alternative editing method that achieves similar results but allowing more hands on control to the parts being used. Start with the same larger sections of vocal and again crop them into smaller bite sized pieces. This time, rather than having these sections play directly in the arrange window, import them onto different keys on a hardware or software sampler.
Once the sampler patch is set up with your edits loaded, you will able to play each part on your chosen midi controller. This can allow really human grooves to be programmed, which of course you can tighten up and edit later using the midi parts created. the advantage of this method is that you can use the synthesis engine in your sampler to directly process the clips.
Whichever method you choose, this is a great way to turn your vocals into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. And you can be sure that most of the results will be not only in tune with the rest of the vocal but have the same feel.
Of course nothing can replace a solid vocal performance and a certain amount of talent but sometimes as a remixer you may not have any control over the artists you are producing.
If you find that some of the notes aren’t being hit correctly and you are required to use the entire vocal as part of your brief, then it might be time to reach for a pitch correction tool.
An obvious choice would be Antares Auto tune but there are other innovative products available. I would strongly advise taking Celemony’s ‘Melodyne’ plugin for a spin. Not only has it got a unique interface but achieves truly awesome results.
When using delay on vocals, why not try going beyond the standard stereo delay line. There are some delay plug ins available that can be a perfect marriage to your vocal mix. The most obvious example of this being Ohmforce’s ‘Ohmboyz’. With its four independent delay lines, resonant filters, LFOs and built in distortion, this is delay, but not as we know it.
Other pumped up delay offerings include Native Instruments ‘Spectral delay’, which splits the delayed signal into many different bands available for further editing. Also take a look at emulations of classic tape echo systems, such as Universal Audio’s digital version of the much sought after Roland ‘Space Echo’