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How to Process
Great Sounding
Vocal Tracks

Part II Post Processing Vocal Tracks


by Rich the TweakMeister

part 3   part 2   part 1

Now that we are past the recording process, the real fun begins, the tweaking!  Here's where you apply the magic to make the vocal sound full, lush, and ring with great clarity.

You can experiment with these processes, but I typically work my vocal tracks this way.  Note, you don't have to use all these processes.  These are simply the ones I use a lot.  Your song, your mileage, varies.  Lots of tips here, so read them carefully.

1. Define your tracks:

 In your audio sequencer, create several audio tracks for the vocal.  You can work with different settings on each.  Try different combinations of effects and enhancers till you find one you like. This is as easy as moving the vocal track from audio channel to audio channel.  When you settle on the channel you like best, rename that as "Main Vocal".  By the way, I like to use mono tracks for the main vocals. No, don't protest, I know they are harder to set up. Just do it.  You will  find vocals more consistently stay in the center of the mix where they need to be.

Note the 6 vocal channels in a recent "pop" composition.  Vocal 2 and 3 are panned left and right for harmonies.  Notice the 3 "FX" channels on top for "accents".  You can see I merely cut these away from the main vocal track.  Also at the end you see a vocal effect with 3 stacked tracks.


Now you can make alternate vocal channels--perhaps one for choruses, a few for effects, one for doubling and perhaps one for sampling.  You can cut up the vocal in the sequencer and put different parts on different tracks with different effects.  The most obvious here is to put the choruses on a track with more processing to make them stand out a little more.  I also develop a set of tracks for doubling as well where the vocals are hard panned left and right and playback two different takes of the same chorus for that classic thick sound. 

2. Time correction: 

Vocal processors

TC Helicon Voiceworks Plus Vocal Processor
VoiceWorksPlus has all of the features you need to make your vocals shine brighter. It continues on from the success of its predecessor, VoiceWorks, with an updated feature list including 4th generation TC-Helicon harmony technology, Voice Modeling™, and the Transducer and ìMod (micromod) blocks from VoicePro.
 Tweak has the original Voiceworks  and wrote a Review

Roland VP7 Vocal Processor
For keyboardists in need of great background vocals, the new VP-7 vocal processor is ready to sing! Create harmonies instantly, from a single voice to a full-scale choir, with a microphone and a MIDI connection to the keyboard of your choice. It's simple. Just select a sound type from the front panel, and play. The Human Voice section provides rich and expressive choral backing by just playing the keyboard -- no singing required. The Vocal Designer section can automatically generate 2-voice or 3-voice backing harmonies based on the lyrics that you sing into the microphone. And for classic robot-voice effects, the Vocoder button lets you instantly sound like a vintage vocoder.

Electro-Harmonix Voice Box Vocal Harmony Machine and Vocoder Pedal
The Voice Box packs a multi-functional vocal synth processor into a tough and compact chassis. Sing, and you'll have a troupe of backup singers following you in perfect harmony. Or use the built-in vocoder to unleash classic synth-robot sounds.

TC Helicon VoiceTone Correct Vocal Effects Pedal
The nicest and most simpatico sound engineer you will ever meet is inside VoiceTone Correct. It combines pitch correction with tone and dynamic shaping that put a recorded gloss on live singing.

TC Helicon VoiceTone Create Vocal Effects Pedal

 TC Helicon VoiceTone Double Vocal Effects Pedal
Imagine a vocal pedal that creates up to four humanized overdubs - live! With TC-Helicon’s VoiceTone Double, overdubbed vocals can be “tight and intimate” or “loose and lively”. Double, with its timeless combination of natural and effected

iTech Vocal 300 Vocal Effects Processor Pedalboard
DigiTech proudly introduces the Vocal 300, an affordable Vocal Effects Processor with a built-in expression pedal. Equipped with multiple mic preamp types, the Vocal 300 is ideal for both warm classic vocals or cutting edge distortion and lo-fi styles.

DigiTech VX400 Modeling Vocal Processor with USB
The new Vx400 is the first modeling floor processor with true 2-way computer connectivity and extra I/O to handle vocals, other instruments and monitoring. With everything you need to record (including a kick-ass floor processor), this is truly digital recording designed by musicians for musicians.

DigiTech Vocalist Live 2 Vocal Harmony Processor
Vocalist Live uses breakthrough musIQ technology to directly analyze the output of any electric or pre-amplified acoustic guitar (no special MIDI guitars or hex-outputs needed). Then it generates the correct vocal harmony. For example, if you're singing an A over the chords that are generally found in the key of G, Vocalist will harmonize with a C. But, if you then play an A major, Vocalist will shift to the C#...because like any good harmony singer, it listens to the guitar!

DigiTech Vocalist Live 4 Vocal Harmony Processor
Vocalist Live uses breakthrough musIQ™ technology to directly analyze the output of any electric or pre-amplified acoustic guitar (no special MIDI guitars or hex-outputs needed). Then it generates the correct vocal harmony. For example, if you're singing an A over the chords that are generally found in the key of G, Vocalist will harmonize with a C. But, if you then play an A major, Vocalist will shift to the C#...because like any good harmony singer, it listens to the guitar!
Priced from 499.95
Digitech Vocalist Live Pro Vocal Harmony Processor
Generate live multi-part vocal harmonies accompanied by your keyboard or guitar.

TC Helicon VoiceLive Vocal Floor Processor
As a performing musician you strive to assemble the right mix of gear to make your performances shine - but what about your voice? In the studio you polish your vocals to perfection using EQ, compression, pitch correction, harmonies and effects. VoiceLive brings your signature vocal sound on the road, putting your studio voice tools at your feet.
Priced from 799.00
TC Helicon Voiceworks Plus Vocal Processor

It happens all the time, the vocalist gives a stellar performance on a chorus but came in late.  With any vocal track in a sequencer you can slice it up by words, even syllables to make it fit in time if you need to.  It's a good idea not to trash bad vocal takes as later on you may find all you need is one word to replace a botched word in the choice track.  The joys of processing vocals in a sequencer is that you can mix and match segments from many takes down to one.  This is called a composite vocal track.  Yep, it's true, some of the stuff you hear on the radio might actually be a composite of 3-30 takes.  The performance may have never existed in reality.  Ever wonder why some unnamed Divas can't sing their song live very well? Of course a truly great vocalist will nail the track in one take.  If one of these happen to be in your studio, send them to me.  :)  "We'll make you a star!" [no--don't really use that overused line]

3. Pitch Correction: 

You might not think your vocalist needs it.  If they are rock on pitch, they might not.  However, if you listen to most popular songs you will find that most vocal tracks are pitched perfectly, dead on.  How many slightly off key notes do you hear on the radio?  None!  How many slightly off pitch notes are in your vocal track?  C'mon, dude, be honest.  10? 30?  50?   Uh huh, Case in Point! Even the best singers will have days when certain notes are consistently a little sharp or flat.  Even the best vocalists benefit from some pitch correction, and a bad vocalist (like me) might actually get by with correction. A good pitch correction processor will gently (or abruptly, if you want) bend the note to the exact perfect center of the pitch, and you can also add vibrato and even wilder yodel like effects if you want.  After building the composite track, correcting timing and pitch errors, you should mixdown the vocal track to a new file.  This way you can remove any plugin processors used so far and clear automation to start fresh as you go into the next round. You also can go back to your source tracks at any time if you screw something up.


Melodyne and Auto-Tune are popular ways to correct and tweak pitch after the vocal has been recorded.  I just wrote a comparison on audo-pro-central that you should check out if you are interested in these.  Logic also has its own pitch corrector that is quite similar to Auto-Tubes Automatic mode.  Waves has a pitch correction processor in it's bundles.   


large product image

Waves De-Breath plugin from the Waves Vocal Bundle

4.  Destructive enhancements:    

Here's some things to do in an audio editor which may enhance the track before you add plugins.  Track cleaning.  Open your newly mixed main vocal in an audio editor.  We are going to clean the track.  Here you zero out (silence) all the dead space between phrasings.  Breath control.  A long debated question is:  Do you keep the vocalist's breaths in the recording or zero them out?  If you take out all the breaths, the vocal will sound strange.  Certain breaths are very musical, like the ones leading up to a loud part.  However, there are usually some that are excessive or out of sync, or just get in the way.  Those are the ones to remove. Remember you still have your source files in case you botch this.  Gain Optimization.  Look for words that do not ring out as clearly or may get buried in the music.  If you built a composite track you might have different takes at different levels. You want them all to sit up in the audio editor in the same way if possible. Here you can use normalization to good use.  But don't normalize the whole track, normalize whole phrases.  This brings the soft ones up to the same level as the loud ones.  

4. Setting up Insert Effects: 

In the main vocal track, start with compression to smooth out the levels a little more.  Since you compressed going in, you may not need much.  However, I find it to be real important to keep the vocal consistently above the music. If you are hearing too many "SSS" sounds in the vocal, it is time to apply a de-esser.   After compression, it gets exciting.  No not like that, but with an exciter.  An exciter essentially gives you "sheen" on the high frequencies by adding harmonics to the source signal.  This is more than the boost that EQ gives.  An exciter actually adds harmonics that were not present in the original signal while an eq just raises the volume of those that were buried.  With a combination of eq and excitement, you can get the vocal as bright and crispy as you want it.  Most popular records have vocals processed with great brightness.  It increases intelligibility and makes the vocal sound "clear" even on inferior car and boom box speakers.   

5. Setting Up Send and return Effects 

Now that we have our main vocal channel set, we move to the sends and returns.  Here we put the "common" effects that may be used for all the vocal tracks and even for some instrument tracks as well.  Of course I am talking about reverb here.  On our software or hardware mixer, route a send to an effect.  In the software mixer, you create a bus and put a reverb on it and send the signal to this destination from the send knob on the vocal track.  On a hardware mixer the "aux send" goes out the back and goes to an effects box.  the output of the effects box comes back to the mixer via the returns.  Its a common mistake to use too much reverb so don't overdo it.  Other excellent effects that can be applied here are delays. Just a little bit goes a long way, especially when you also have reverb running. 

Software processors
Antares AVOX Evo Vocal Software (Mac and Windows)
From the company that revolutionized vocal production with Auto-Tune comes AVOX Evo - the newest generation of the Antares Vocal Toolkit. Now featuring Antares' seriously evolved Evo(TM) Voice Processing Technology, AVOX Evo combines ten state-of-the-art vocal processing modules to give you the power you need to create stunning vocal tracks in any musical style as well as design unique vocal effects for audio post-production applications.


Antares Harmony Engine Evo Vocal Modeling Harmony Generator Software (Mac and Windows)
Introducing Harmony Engine Evo - Vocal Modeling Harmony Generator the quickest, easiest tool for creating realistic harmonies. From the company that revolutionized professional vocal production with Auto-Tune pitch correction technology, comes Harmony Engine Evo, the second generation of Antares' real-time harmony generating plug-in that puts professional-quality vocal harmony arrangements within reach of any songwriter, producer, musician or engineer..


Emedia My Voice Vocal Removal Software
With My Voice software, you can replace the original singer on your favorite audio CDs. Now you can become the star! With My Voice there's no need to buy equipment or special CDs. My Voice hides the vocals on your audio CDs to help you create your own remixes, karaoke or recorded masterpieces. Using the Digital Studio you can add special effects to your final creation, and the Karaoke Maker lets you add karaoke lyrics to any song. When you're done, you can burn the finished result onto an audio CD, playable on your home stereo system -- or go mobile by saving it to your iPod. The My Voice software comes with a high-quality microphone, so you can get started right away!


Waves Vocal Bundle Plug-Ins
The new Waves Vocal Bundle is a comprehensive vocal toolkit made up of three Waves classics and two brand new processors destined to become industry standards: Tune, which delivers a new level of sound quality and ease in pitch correction and melody transformation; and DeBreath, a Waves exclusive which removes unwanted breath sounds automatically. In addition, Waves Vocal Bundle features Renaissance Channel, the acclaimed virtual channel strip that gives you EQ, compression, gating and limiting in one convenient plug-in; Renaissance DeEsser, perfect for removing excess sibilance; and Doubler, for superior double-tracked effects.

Propellerhead ReCycle 2.0

6. Spot Effects:

If you listen to my stuff, you know I am a big fan of "spot effects" which is done simply by putting part of the main vocal track on a different track with strong effects. Some effects that can be used on different tracks are harmony processors, radical EQs for lo fi effects, vocoders, extreme delays and reverbs, distortion, and whatever else you feel helps make the artistic statement.

Because your main vocal tracks are centered, for effects you may want to move them off center.  This adds a little more dimension.  Remember a good effect is one that defines it's difference relative to a norm.  So your main tracks should be dead center, loud and clear, full and rich.  Your effects tracks can be of great contrast, i.e., all the lows removed, all the high's removed, totally gnarled, nothing but reversed echoes, whatever.

7. Sampler Effects:

Don't forget, you can use your soft or hard sampler for vocal effects too.  Toss the whole vocal file in recycle, slice it, then port it over to the EXS, Kontakt, your E-mu for some dangerous keyboard controlled effects, like stutters, filter swept voices, LFO Mods.   

8. Volume Automation. 

Your sequencer has automation, use it.  As the Mix plays, not any sections where the vocal needs a boost or a cut.  Draw them in.    Grouping If you have a multi output audio interface and enough busses on your mixing board you can consider making a "group" for just the vocals. This can also be called a vocal "submix".  Rather than having each vocal track set to different mixer channels, route them all, post insert effects, to a single group channel.  This gives you one fader that raises lowers all the vocal tracks.   It is important when getting the overall level of the vocal set against the context of the music.  You may use automation on this bus too. 

9. The all important Final Level 

So we are almost done.  We worked hard to get here, but all of the work is in vain if the final level is not set correctly.  The whole point of all this compression, excitement, eq, and post processing was to get a vocal that sits up in the mix properly, where every word is intelligible, where the track never gets drowned out by instrumental tracks but does not drown them out either.  Be real careful with the final fader tweaks.  Try to get the vocal where it "floats" on top of the mix in a nice way.  Pan other instruments to the sides that might compete with the vocalist's sweet spot and avoid putting so much reverb on the voice so it sound like it is behind the instruments. You might try doing 3 or 4 mixes at different setting for the overall vocal just so you can listen elsewhere to critically evaluate the level. 

10. Mastering Considerations  

After you mix your final wave file, you still have one more chance to touch up the vocal during the final mastering process, which will be burned to CD.  A good quality parametric EQ can touch up the frequency response of the vocal's sheen (as well as the entire mix's overall frequency balance.)  You shouldn't have to do much here, since you were so careful during the recording and processing of your mix.  But a little bit of eq or multi band compression  can raise or lower the "temperature" of the mix quite dramatically.  Ideally though, you will have your vocal perfectly tweaked before the mastering phase.  

<Tweak Pauses>  "Ok lets go to questions"

Q) I have a harmony processor.  Uh, where does it go in the recording chain?  It has a mic input. Q) How do i get vocal effects like on Cher's "Believe"?  I heard it was done with a Vocoder.
A) Of course you can record through it up front, and sometimes you may want to do that.  However, you are stuck with the result later and it cant be changed.  I would put it as an insert on a vocal channel of your mixer.  That way you can tweak the settings later on and get them to fit perfectly with your song. A)  Nope.  It was done with a pitch/intonation processor, like Antares AutoTune.  You get that effect by "abusing" the settings.  You tell autotune you are singing only Ab and and Eb notes and you sing F and C notes. Auto tune will bend your vocal notes to the closest selected pitch giving that "yodel-like" sound
Q) I want my vocal to stutter at points as an effect.  How do I do this?  Should I slice it up on an audio track and use copy and paste?  Q) How do I get "formant" processing effects?  and err, what is that.
A) That works.  A sampler works better though as you can control it with MIDI.  This allows very fast 32nd note stutters which would be very tedious copying and pasting.   If you use a sampler you can also modulate it with a square wave LFO so it stutters through the whole waveform, not just repeat the attack.  A)  Formant processing is a "modeling" technique where a digital model of a vocal cavity is applied to audio material.  You can turn a male voice into a female voice for example and many more wild things.  You need hardware or software that does this, like Kontakt or a Roland Variphrase


Summing Up

If you use my advice above you'll find that your vocals can really stand out in the mix.  Like any other recording technique, getting a good vocal takes practice.  Naturally all the gear in the world is not going to make a great vocal performance, but using some of the tweaks above you'll find that a good performance will really shine through and dazzle your audiences. 

I am
Rich the TweakMeister
Class dismissed!


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Cool Quote:

"Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung."  

Voltaire, 1694-1778) Social Critic

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Microphones Introduction
Mics under $100
Set up a Vocal Session
How to Process Vocal Tracks
Recording Vocals
M-audio Solaris
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