Top tips to help your vocals stand out from the crowd.
In any mainstream pop track, the vocal is the most important element – it’s the thing that your listeners will immediately connect with, and it’s the reason your artist gets out of bed in the morning.
In today’s world of electronic sound beds, finding a way to “bed the vocal in” to the track is essential to avoid the feeling like the singer is just sat on top of the record.
Here are 10 of my favourite ways to add spice to a vocal, and help it gel with the underlying track…
1) Reverse Reverb
A great way to smooth over the transitions between different sections of the song (verse, chorus, bridge etc) or to add momentum in a gap, reverse reverb sounds like a whooshing noise as if the vocal is rushing up to meet you.
To make this effect, bounce off the first syllable of the vocal you want to reverse into, import it into a new track in your DAW, reverse it (so it plays backwards), then put a long hall reverb over it with the mix (wet / dry) set to 100% effect (wet). Bounce off the resulting long reverb tail, re-import this into your DAW, and position in the track so it stops just in front of the first syllable of audio you bounced off earlier. (Don’t forget to mute the bounced and reversed audio you imported earlier!).
A favourite of Nicki Minaj producer Ariel Chobaz, there are a number of ways to create a stutter effect. The simplest is to cut and copy a small piece of the vocal (typically less than half a beat – adjust to taste) in front of where it occurs and repeat it in a rhythmic fashion.
To add extra spice, you can play with panning, filters and other FX to make the stutters really play!
3) Deep Voice
A very common effect in modern dark pop and r&b production. Copy a key word or phrase that you want to emphasise from the main vocal to a new track. Then, either use your DAW’s built in pitch shifter to drop this an octave (12 semitones) or find a plug in will do the same thing (I like SoundToys Little Alter Boy for this).
For extra weirdness, try drenching the detuned voice in reverb or delay as if the voice of some giant cave troll was hiding in the back of your record!
This 70s funk and soul classic effect has been revived by a number of recent artists, from Bruno Mars to Taylor Swift to Imogen Heap.
Using a vocoder plugin such as iZotope’s Vocal Synth, you can use any vocal as a sound source, twist it through a synthesizer engine, and using midi play it back on any combination of notes you like.
Sounds range from creepy goblin to lush harmonies, and can suit almost any track.
5) Delay Throws
A favourite trick of the mix engineer to fill space between one line ending and another beginning. Use automation in your DAW to send more of the vocal to a long (¼ or ½ note) delay for the word or syllable at the end of a phrase.
For bonus points, try adding reverb or other FX to the delay only, to add some extra texture to the sound!
6) Reverb throws
Similar to the delay through, the reverb throw launches your vocal into a cavern where it dies away just in time for the next phrase to begin. Excellent for adding an extra lift at the end of a pre-chorus before the chorus kicks in.
Set up a buss track with a long hall reverb on. Automate the send of your vocal track to the reverb buss to send just the odd word here or there.
7) Radio voice
A classic vocal effect used to emulate the sound of an old FM radio station. Used a lot in the 90s and early 00s for song intro’s, this has found more love recently as a bit of spice at the end of verses in more experimental r&b tracks.
The simplest way to do this is with a combination of a low pass filter and a high pass filter. Using the HPF, filter out anything under about 1kHz. Using the LPF, filter out everything over 4kHz.
To make the effect sound even more vintage, add some overdrive to distort the audio slightly.
Often mistakenly called the “vocoder effect” – this is the sound of an abused auto-tune made famous by T-Pain, which despite near universal annoyance, stubbornly refuses to budge from our radio. Still in use, albeit with a bit more subtlety, by Drake, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Future and others, it’s still worth knowing how to create this effect.
Basically, stick auto tune on a track, set the key of the track, and set the timing to 0. For modern interpretations, automate the on/off so it only kicks in at key points, rather than throughout the whole track.
Very common in pop production, the judicious use of chorus or a tight “slap” delay to make a mono vocal seem a little wider is often applied to choruses to give them a bit of extra lift.
Best set up on a buss track with the mix set to 100% wet, you can then automate, and tweak to taste as the track progresses.
10) Chop, sample, and replay
Although this idea has been around for years (10CC used a variation of it to make the ethereal vocal backing tracks on I’m Not In Love back in 1975, and there may be even earlier examples that I’m not aware of…) it recently hit modern pay dirt on Justin Bieber, Skrillex and Diplo’s smash Where Are U Now? and has been used on nearly every pop-EDM track since.
This trick involves cutting a small piece out of your vocal and loading it into your favourite sampler. Once laid out across a keyboard, you can then play the vocal like a piano, adding all kinds of pitch bends and other weird FX to launch the vocal sound into uncharted territories, all while keeping a slightly more human sound than just a pure synth.