AF’s Weblog

July 15, 2011

Vocals Processing Tips: Part 2

Hard disk recording techniques have affected every aspect of recording, including vocals. Although overdubbing vocals has been a common technique for years, today’s programs let you do multiple tracks of vocals, and make a “composite” with all the best bits. We’ll cover how to do that, then talk a bit about compression and reverb.

Composite Vocal Tracks

Cutting and pasting has benefited vocals, as you can do multiple takes, and splice the best parts together to make the perfect “composite” vocal. Some producers feel that stitching together vocals doesn’t produce as natural a “feel” as a take that goes all the way through from beginning to end, while others believe that being able to choose from multiple takes allows creating a vocal with more range than might occur with a single take. If you want to try composite vocals, here are the basic steps.

Record the Takes

Record enough takes so there’s plenty of material to piece together a good performance (loop recording is particularly handy for doing vocals). While you’re in a recording mood, record a little bit of the track without any input signal. This can be handy to have around, for reasons described later.

Audition the Takes

Audition each take, and isolate the good parts (by cutting out unwanted sections). I recommend setting loop points around very short phrases.

Solo each take, one after the other. If you’re not going to use a take, cut the phrase. If a take is a candidate for the final mix, keep it.

Pick the top 3 or 4 candidates, and remove the equivalent sections from the rest of the tracks. Now repeat this procedure, phrase by phrase, until you’ve gone over the entire performance and found the best bits

Ligne de chant compilée

In Sonar, several takes of vocals have been recorded. A mute tool has muted portions of each track (the waveforms are shown as shaded), with the remaining parts making up the final vocal.

Next, listen to combinations of the various different phrases. Balance technical and artistic considerations; choose parts that flow well together as well as sound technically correct. Sometimes you might deliberately choose a less expressive rendition of a line if it comes just before an emotional high point, thus heightening the contrast.

Once you have the segments needed for a cohesive performance, erase the unused parts. If you want to archive everything “just in case,” go for it. But if after putting the part together you think it could be better, you might be better off re-cutting it than putting more hours into editing.

Ligne de chant compiléeSeveral takes of vocals were recorded into Cubase SX, and edited to create one final vocal. The program shows the elements that make up the final vocal by highlighting them in green.

Bounce the Takes

This isn’t absolutely necessary, but converting all the bits into a single track simplifies subsequent editing and processing.

Before bouncing, play the tune through from start to finish and match the segment levels as closely as possible. Also check the meters for any send bus or master bus the tracks are feeding, and adjust levels (if needed) so there’s no distortion. Generally, the bounced track will be derived from a bus or master; if there’s distortion, the bounced track will have distortion too.

This is also where the recorded noise might come in handy. Sometimes I’ve had to do a quick fade on the end of one segment, and a fade in on the beginning of another, leaving a dead silent gap between phrases. Layering in a bit of the noise signal gives better continuity, and keeps the part from sounding too “assembled.”

After everything’s set, implement the program’s bounce or mix to hard disk function. You can typically bounce to an empty track, or “render” the audio to disk and bring it back into the project.

Edit the Composite Track

At this point, I bring the composite track into a digital audio editor for clean-up. Here are some typical processes:

  • Phrase-by-phrase gain adjustments. If a phrase has mismatched levels, use the program’s level change DSP or mix automation to fix the problem.
  • Fix breath noises and inhales. There might be “flammed” inhales from combining two different takes, so cut one. However, don’t eliminate all inhales and breath noises — they keep things “human.”
  • Add overall dynamics control, reverb, EQ, echo, etc. if needed. Do not add these while cutting individual takes; it will be much harder to match the effect, and in the case of reverb, tails might get cut off. Adding processing after optimizing the entire track will give the best results.

Tidy Up Your Hard Disk


After the vocals are done, check how your program deals with deleting unused segments, as this can reclaim significant space from your hard drive.

Now let’s take a look at compression…

Reverb Tips for Vocals

Nothing “gift wraps” a vocal better than some tasty reverb. My favorite reverb for voice is a natural acoustic space, but as reverb rooms are an endangered species, you’ll likely use a digital reverb. Reverb settings are a matter of taste, but two parameters are particularly important.

Waves RVerb (Renaissance Reverb)

A reverb’s Predelay and Diffusion parameters are crucial to getting good vocal sounds. This reverb, the RVerb plug-in from WAVES, offers an exceptional amount of control.

Diffusion: With vocals, I prefer low diffusion, where each reflection is more “separated.” Low diffusion settings often sound terrible with percussion, as the individual echoes can have an effect like marbles bouncing on a steel plate. But with vocals, the sparser amount of reflections prevent the voice from being overwhelmed by too “lush” a reverb sound.

Predelay: This works well in the 50-100 ms range. The delay allows the first part of the vocal to punch through without reverb, while the more sustained parts get the full benefit of the reverberated sound.

To read the full article see: Vocals Processing Tips Part 2

July 8, 2011

Vocals Processing Tips: Part 1

It was late at night, at a live-in-concert recording session in Germany. As several thousand fans waited anxiously, the vocalist walked onstage, and picked up a set of headphones. I saw him plug them into the mixer, and figured he was going to make one final check of his vocal sound before the band kicked in. He then turned the preamp gain control up full…not too unusual, as mics don’t have a lot of gain. But then he held the headphones up to his mouth and — started singing. He had plugged the headphones into the mic in, not the headphone out…and he had done it on purpose. Is this what recording vocals in the 21st century is about?

Well, the answer is yes…and no. No, in the sense that a well-recorded vocal through a high-end mic feeding a state-of-the-art preamp remains a supremely important part of the recording art. Yes, in the sense that it underscores a fundamental truth about recording today: anything goes.

The tools of the vocal trade have undergone as dramatic a transformation as the recording process itself. Microphones are better and cheaper; today’s “budget” mics sometimes outperform the champions of yesteryear. Preamps, whether tube or solid state, have noise levels that are measurable only with the most sensitive test equipment. Processing gear ranges from “vocal strips” dedicated solely to vocal, to technologies such as Antares’Auto-Tune (which can correct out-of-tune-vocals) and mic modeling, which mimics the characteristics of particular “signature” mics. Compressors, reverbs, even vocal booths have all enjoyed the results of technological progress.

So what’s the best way to record vocals these days? The answer, of course, is that anything goes. Following are some of the possibilities.

Recording Vocals

Few topics inspire more debate than the optimum vocal mic and preamp. But note that a mic and preamp combination that sounds great with one vocalist might not work with another. Case in point: once while recording, my voice was recorded with a sub-$100 dynamic mic and a $995 condenser mic. The unanimous agreement was that the dynamic sounded better.

Was it because the mic was better? No. From any objective standpoint, it was inferior. But it had some response anomalies that flattered my voice. The condenser mic was accurate, but my voice didn’t need accuracy: It needed a high-frequency lift, and warmth from the proximity effect (i.e., the tendency of a dynamic to produce more bass as you sing closer to it).

I sometimes wish that all mics looked the same, and had no labels on them. That would force engineers to take a fresh approach with every session. It’s very easy to rely on using old favorites — the assumption is that the mic that worked great on the last session will be equally good on the current session, but that isn’t always true. Furthermore, there’s a matching issue between mics and preamps, so mic X might sound great with preamp A and not so great with preamp B.

Bottom line: Try every mic with a vocalist, record the results, then choose which one sounds most appropriate. I suggest comparing two mics at a time to prevent “option overload.” Choose the best of each pair, then have a runoff among the winners.

Let’s take a look at some other tips…

Synthesizing Vocal Harmonies

Normally, I sing my own harmonies. But sometimes, pitch shifters — because they’re not perfect — add timbral and timing imperfections that actually sound better for some applications.

 

Here’s an example of creating harmonies using Sonar’s real-time pitch shifting plug-in (the principles are the same for other programs). Note that Sonar Producer Edition also includes a high-quality, but non-real-time, pitch stretch processor. I usually use the real-time plug-in to get the harmonies right, then go back and process the files destructively using the higher-quality, non-real-time algorithm.

Harmonisation d'une partie de chantThis shows harmonies being generated within Sonar using real-time plug-ins. Higher-quality, offline plug-ins can be used for the final processing.

Note that there are four tracks of vocals: The teal one at the top is the original vocal. The violet one below that is a “cloned” version, which has been processed with the doubling technique mentioned previously.

The next track (blue) is also a cloned track, but it’s being processed through the pitch shifter set to a major 3rd. However, note that some elements have been cut from this track and moved to the next track down, which is processed through the pitch shifter set to a minor 3rd. As Sonar doesn’t know which notes should receive minor 3rd or major 3rd harmonization, you have to cut up the track appropriately, and move the right phrases or notes to the right tracks. This may require zooming way in on the cloned track, so you can make cuts in the space between phrases.

The standard pitch shifting caution applies — the further you stretch pitch, the less realistic the sound. Sonar’s real-time pitch shifter does not preserve formants during shifts; however, when pitching up a major third the formant change adds a bit of voice-on-helium effect, which when mixed behind the main vocal, can actually sound pretty cool.

Starting with Sonar 5, the Producer Edition includes Roland’s VariPhrase technology in their V-Vocal plug-in. With this plug-in, you can “draw in” harmonics and constrain a melody to particular notes. This makes the process of harmonization much easier, as does a similar feature in Samplitude and Digital Performer. There are also programs like Antares Harmony Engine, and zplane’s Vielklang (among others) that are designed to generate harmonies.

To read the full detailed article see: Vocal Processing Tips Part 1

March 21, 2011

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch Review

Vocal effects are present more than ever in modern music, but if you want special effects, you don’t give the control to the sound engineer. Loopers are also hip, especially for artists making solo performances on stage. So, when such a serious manufacturer as TC-Helicon offers a voice processor, harmonizer and looper in one single box (everything you need for a single voice, voice + guitar or voice + keyboards performance) it is worth taking a closer look at it. Let’s go!

Who is TC?

TC-Helicon is a Canadian company belonging to the TC-Group, a holding that controls several prestigious pro audio manufacturers like the very famous TC-Electronic, but also Lab.gruppen amps or Tannoy speakers… TC Group merged with Gibson in 2008. TC-Helicon specializes in voice gear, from processors to mics. Their products have a good overall quality and a rugged construction plus they sound pretty good.

The VoiceLive Touch is a variation of the VoiceLive 2 footboard, which offers more possibilities (to a certain extent) and is also 60% more expensive. The street price of the Voice Live 2 is around $800 while you can get the Voice Live Touch for only $500. And unlike the VoiceLive 2, the VoiceLive Touch includes a looper. And not a toy one.

The VoiceLive is not just a light version of its predecessor. In fact, its designers had the idea of developing a concept with a radically different user interface based on a “touch” interface. Definitely trendy, but is it a good thing? We’ll have to discuss the matter further. Let’s start discovering the unit!

Heavy Duty!

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch

At first hand, the VoiceLive Touch gives the impression of being quite sturdy. Its heavy weight, in spite of the compact size, is responsible for that, but also the materials. The housing, except for the front panel with the touch interface, is made out of some sort of rugged rubber plastic. Why this material? Because the VoiceLive Touch’s special shape allows you to place it on a table or on a microphone stand, which is a very convenient solution to always have it at hand. The fixation system is well thought out as you can see from the pictures. However, the rear handle used to fix the unit to a microphone stand makes connections a bit harder, even if it hides the connectors from the audience. You can’t have everything, right? Long jacks can be problematic.

Although the overall design of the VoiceLive Touch is very nice and original, the touch interface looks a bit awkward, as if it had been designed in the 80′s. In some (rare) circumstances, you’ll be dazzled by the reflections. The external PSU is the same as for many consumer products, which is hard to understand for a stage device, especially at this price. An adapter plugged into a multi-outlet power strip or an extension power cord is not exactly what you want to have or see in the middle of the stage. Luckily, the length of the cable should be enough to hide it behind a monitor speaker. I know, it’s an insignificant detail, but once you discover its features you’ll agree with me that such a product deserves better.

An All-Rounder?

The features of the VoiceLive Touch are very comprehensive. Just take a look:

  • Voice effects processor
  • Automatic tuning correction (so you can sing in tune)
  • Harmonizer (to add a choir to your voice)
  • Basic guitar effect
  • Looper
  • Phrase sampler

Phew!

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch

Let’s just mention the tuning corrector briefly: it offers a single “strength” control (in %). If you sing like an angel you’ll set it to 0 if, but if you are a shower singer you’ll probably have to set it to 100. As always with such tools, the performance looses its natural expression with higher settings. In extreme cases you’ll even experience bizarre results (like the famous “Cher” effect). But it’s a very handy tool: it is not easy to sing in tune with choirs and effects added to your own voice. The tuning corrector makes up for this. Since it is global, we prefer to use the one included with some effects for presets that require it. Do note that the samples were recorded without tuning correction (I guess you’ll hear it anyway!).

The processor includes six effect categories: harmonizer, modulation (chorus, flanger, …), delay, reverb, “double,” and “FX,” which includes different effects (only one can be used at a time). The effect chain has independent sections you can switch on/off individually (like separate stompboxes). Each section offers several (quite) basic parameters. Let’s take the delay as an example: you can choose from 18 different delay types, set the effect amount added to the mix, the stereo width, and the tempo. And that’s it. No direct feedback nor damping nor feedback delay time: just select the delay type number to change to a new sound. The 18 delays cover a wide range of effects but don’t allow the precise processing you get with standard parameters. Below you will see that that wasn’t the goal of the VoiceLive Touch.

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch

You also get a “lead level” setting for each effects section. It allows you to attenuate your voice when only that effect is active. It is similar to a standard dry/wet setting but the fact that it activates only when no other effect is on allows you to create (very) interesting special effects.

Some sections offer more settings, but some are very basic. Besides the “lead level,” the reverb provides you only with a send level (routing to the mix) and a selector to choose among 30 reverb types, which is quite a lot considering that they all have different colors and duration. This approach is good because of its simplicity (some people don’t know what all parameters of a delay or a reverb are for), but it can be frustrating for people who are used to tweaking effects. Especially given that the effects are identified only by a number rather than a name, which makes it difficult to find them and often requires you to try all of them.

Thus, fine tuning your presets with the VoiceLive Touch demands quite some time before going on stage. Even though most factory presets sound very good, they require you to at least adjust levels.

Now let’s take a close look…

Conclusion

While I was very enthusiastic about the concept in the beginning, I ended up with mixed feelings because the VoiceLive Touch has some excellent features as well as some irritating ones. The touch interface didn’t quite convince me. In fact, I was surprised by some design faults, as well as by some very nice ideas and some complexities. But the VoiceLive Touch has many advantages too: besides its perfect sound quality, some very intelligent features and its versatility (I couldn’t mention many of its applications in this review), it has a very powerful harmonizer and an excellent looper. Both are crucial in the decision to buy the unit. When I was a solo performer (voice+guitar), I would have been delighted by such a product.

Advantages:

  • Original concept
  • Clever features
  • Irreproachable manufacturing quality
  • Very professional sound
  • Excellent harmonizer and effects
  • Awesome looper
  • Affordable optional footboard

Drawbacks:

  • Questionable “full touch” interface
  • No possibility to tweak effects live on stage
  • Improvable ergonomics
  • Lousy display
  • Settings sometimes too complex

To read the full multimedia article please see:  TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch Review

June 15, 2009

EQ and Compression Techniques for Vocals and Acoustic Guitar

As an engineer/producer, one of my biggest early challenges was getting my mixes to sound as polished and balanced as the mixes of songs on my favorite albums. Living in Nashville, I knew the problem wasn’t the players (some of whom had even played on those same favorite albums). I also knew that I was happy enough with the sounds I was recording because when I’d solo a particular track, I liked what I heard. The problem, in a nutshell, was getting all the parts of my mix to fit nicely together. What I’ve learned over time and will describe below are a few simple compression and EQ techniques for vocals and the acoustic guitar in your mixes. These techniques, when used properly, will go a long way towards allowing the vocals and acoustic guitars in your mixes to effectively share the sonic space.

Compression

When I first started reading about compressors I was hopelessly lost. The terminology was technical in an almost mean-spirited way and I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was being written. To keep things simple, I think of compression as a way of evening out the loud and soft parts of any vocal or instrument so that its behavior is a bit more predictable. In other words, compression brings up the really soft spots and tames the really loud spots so that you’re not constantly reaching for the volume fader on your mixing board (or virtual mixing board on your DAW). In its simplest form, a compressor, whether a hardware unit or a plug-in, will squeeze the audio so that its highs and lows are less pronounced. This allows you to do things like bring down the volume level of the compressed track without fear that its softer parts will get lost, or bring up the volume level without fear that the loud parts will jump out. It might help to think of all compression settings (attack, release, ratio and threshold) as ways to squeeze your audio more or less aggressively. Not enough compression will leave tracks that jump out of a mix at inappropriate times or get lost in the sound of the other instruments; however, too much compression can make a track sound lifeless or uninspired. My rule of thumb is to be less aggressive compressing audio on the way into your DAW (because you’re stuck with whatever you do) and more aggressive with my plug-in compression (because you can always dial it back).

EQ

While a wonderful (and essential) tool, EQ is also quite possibly the quickest way to royally mess up the sound of a mix. Overuse of EQ ranks second only to overuse of reverb as the hallmark of an inexperienced mix engineer. EQ should be used to subtly (or not so subtly) color the sound of the particular track you’re working on so that it relates well to and leaves space for the other tracks in a mix. My experience has been that it’s what you pull out and not what you put in that makes EQ work best. For example, even when you’re looking for a boost in the high frequencies of a track, it’s often more effective to pull a few dB from a lower frequency which, in turn, brightens the sound.

Conclusion
Compression and EQ are two very powerful weapons in your mix arsenal, but as with anything, overuse will do more harm than good. I think back to the words of an engineer whose work I really respect who liked to say “I’ll compress until it sucks and then back it off from there.” In other words, knowing when to say “when” is an equally useful skill. A final thought…as far as signal path is concerned, I tend to place compression after EQ because EQ effectively raises or lowers the volume of the track and I’ve found I get a more effective response from the compressor if I hit it with the EQed audio. I would highly recommend using the above EQ and compression settings not as an ironclad rule but rather as a jumping off point. Every mix is different and your ears will tell you what’s working and what isn’t.

To read the full detailed article see: EQ & Compression Techniques

January 21, 2009

NAMM 2009: Video Demo TC Helicon VoiceLive 2

Filed under: namm 2009, Vocal Processor — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 5:31 pm

Presentation of the new VoiceLive 2 stompbox voice processor from TC Helicon.

To watch all NAMM 2009 video demos visit us on Audiofanzine NAMM 2009.

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