In today’s post, we’ll go through a few valuable techniques to achieve fuller and more professional-sounding vocals.
It’s expected to struggle with the overall quality of your vocals, especially if you’re just now starting to wrap your head around this part of music production.
There are so many principles you need to understand, both in vocal mixing and vocal production, in order to achieve solid and professional-sounding vocals, and we will go through some of them later on. We’ll also look at some common mistakes vocalists and producers make in their attempt to get professional-sounding vocals and ways to learn from them and avoid falling into familiar traps.
So let’s dig right in!
How To Make My Vocals Sound Full & Pro In 2022?
1. You can’t go too far with layering.
Stacking layers of vocals is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to achieving a fuller sound. Even though it’s a technique we’ve been hearing for a long time, I find it underutilized in today’s indie music scene.
Maybe it’s the current trend of minimalism in pop music or the idea that less is more (which is valid!), but you have a much easier road ahead of you towards fuller vocals once you start stacking layers upon layers!
This can’t always be an easy feat to achieve, though, at least not cleanly and in a way that sounds natural. Hence why a few mixing principles need to be explained:
- Panning and Volume
Panning and volume will be your most trusted allies when dealing with stacking vocals. If you don’t practice and master these two fundamental features of your DAW, you will end up with vocal takes that sound piled on top of each other, with no real sense of intention, purpose, or natural flair.
I like to always have one vocal take panned far right and one far left when panning. These two could either be an octave higher from my leading, central vocal or an octave lower; they generally tend to perform at a similar pitch. Once these two takes are set, I start stacking other harmonies anywhere in the left or right channel.
One trick I learned from DJ Swivel (mixed vocals for Beyoncé, The Chainsmokers, Jay Z, and countless others) is to pan these harmonies in unidentical places. Let me explain. If I have a vocal take that acts as a harmony, that I pan 25% left, I don’t have to (and I avoid to) pan its corresponding harmony 25% right; I will pan that corresponding layer 28% right.
This trick ensures that you will engage your stereo field on a broader range and sound fuller. For example, instead of having vocals panned at 25%, 35%, and 50% of either side, you have vocals placed at 25%L, 29%R, 33%L, 39%R, 47%L and 49%R.
Session example: a series of vocal harmonies panned throughout the stereo field as explained above.
Other than covering more range of the stereo field, this technique also ensures your vocals will sound natural to the human ear since, in nature, sounds are not symmetrically panned but rather found all around us.
For the most part, when panning vocal layers, we ideally intend to act as supporting layers that enhance the main vocal. They need to be sitting nicely around the main vocal, ‘hugging’ it, not overpowering it. This is where we need to talk about volume controls, and most importantly, volume in relation to frequency.
A sound can be perceived louder than a different sound of the same dBs if it contains higher frequencies. This phenomenon occurs because the human ear is more sensitive to high frequencies. Therefore, remember that when you mix higher octave vocal takes, you may have to lower the volume for them to sit in nicely.
A common mistake would be to have the harmonies too loud in the mix, therefore overpowering your main vocal. Also, this would sound peculiar in mono systems since you will lose that central focus of your vocals that the leading layer provides.
EQing can also contribute to fuller-sounding vocals if approached similarly to the trick mentioned above (different settings for different vocal tracks). I usually spend some time on the equalizer of each vocal layer cutting low frequencies, adding dynamic dips around 300-550Hz, and surgically removing some annoying consonant-heavy frequencies, usually around 1.5KHz – 4KHz.
An example showcasing EQ settings for a female vocal track.
Once this initial and ‘by the book’ equalization process is done, I will go through each vocal take I panned and add dips and boosts unique to each layer. These are not values I can give for you to copy. They simply help each layer stand out a little bit while also staying out of the way of the rest.
For example, if I boost a vocal panned 25%L around 2KHz, I will create a dip at that frequency on a vocal that I also panned close to this one, on the L channel. It’s just an idea for you to experiment with. Just remember to keep in mind that the more you boost a high frequency of a vocal, the more you may have to decrease its volume, as it could start being too noticeable and compete with the rest.
You may have come across this term before, and it might seem like a scary, technical process. All a de-esser does is reduce or attenuate sibilance. We are talking about really harsh frequencies that correspond to consonant sounds of the human voice, usually using the letters S, X, SH, or F.
It’s essential to use a de-esser because the human ear is particularly sensitive to these consonant sounds, which can distract from the overall vocal performance. When dealing with stacks of vocal harmonies, though, the need for a de-esser is even greater.
All the consonant sounds and harsh frequencies found in a vocal layer will get louder and louder every time you layer more and more vocals on top of each other. It’s like we are adding unwanted frequencies on top of unwanted frequencies. As mentioned above, I tackle this by using dedicated equalizers on each vocal layer and by grouping my vocal harmonies.
Once all the stacks of vocal harmonies are grouped, I add two de-essers on the group channel and spend some time finding the most problematic frequencies (usually aiming for the S and SH sounds). I will reduce these frequencies dramatically, almost to the point where their absence is very noticeable, and then back down a little bit.
It’s important to emphasize that I’m being very dramatic and over the top with this technique on my grouped background vocals. I’m almost completely removing the S and SH sounds.
If the harmonies are played solo, they might sound peculiar since the S and SH will be mostly gone, but when played with the lead vocal, you will find that this helped them gel together much more. Furthermore, you will notice that the main vocal has more presence and clarity since the S and SH sounds will mostly come from there.
You won’t ‘lose’ the main vocal since no other harsh frequencies are left to distract your attention from it.
2. Don’t neglect your showrunner
With all this talk about stacking vocal layers and paying attention to how you mix harmonies, it’s important to remember who the showrunner is. For all the above to work effectively, your main vocal track has to be as close to perfect as possible.
While the previous notes on EQing and de-essing apply strongly here, too, there are some more things to keep in mind to make your main star shine.
Let’s assume you’ve already practiced your song, got very comfortable with delivering the lyrics with the right intensity and conviction, know how to set up your microphone and record a clean audio signal. There’s still some way to go to get a full, professional-sounding vocal track.
So, let’s focus on some techniques to help you get there.
Comping is the process of piecing together the perfect vocal track from multiple takes. I always record at least eight takes of my main topline (and usually even more, once I realize my first eight don’t fully work!) and search through them, trying to identify where the best bits are.
You can snatch just a phrase from one take that sounds better than all the rest, or even just a word. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you have enough material down to piece together the perfect take.
Example of what a typically comped vocal track looks like.
Compression is fundamentally crucial in processing vocals. What a compressor essentially does, is reduce the dynamic range of a signal. You set a threshold, and everything above it will get reduced in volume. This ensures that both the loud and quiet parts of a signal can be heard clearly, without sudden peaks or dips in volume.
The attack parameter determines how fast the compressor will reduce the signal, while the release decides how quickly it will stop affecting it. The ratio determines how much the signal will be reduced, and the makeup control increases the volume after the compression is done.
Examples of a vocal recording pre and post-compression. Notice how the big peaks of the top waveform are smoother and closer to the quieter parts on the bottom waveform.
It’s essential to spend enough time experimenting with different compressors, tweaking each parameter, and understanding how they affect your vocal track. Once you gain a basic understanding of your compressor, you can build a consistent signal that, at the same time, sounds natural and clean. There are some issues, though, that a compressor cannot fix.
If certain parts of your vocal are too quiet, meaning the dynamic range is too high, you’ll have to push the compressor hard to reduce the dynamic range, which may result in distortion, altering the character of your recording. Gain automation can help in fixing this issue.
- Gain automation
Most of my time mixing vocals is dedicated to automating the gain of each word or phrase of my main vocal. This does a couple of things for me: It helps keep a consistent signal level, especially on parts too low in volume for the compressor to fix, and allows me to control breaths, consonants, and lip-smacks that might be too noticeable.
I like to separate my vocal recording into different clips in Ableton and change each one’s gain through its dedicated audio clip control panel. This keeps my session cleaner since I don’t have a bunch of automations happening that I might forget about later on. It also gives me a visual cue since I can see the waveform change as I adjust each clip’s gain.
Example of Ableton’s clip gain control. Notice how the vocal track is separated into different clips for more control.
3. Creative tricks
Nowadays, with the help of technology, new plugins, and DAWs that are capable of more and more, we have access to more creative ways to thicken up our vocals and make them more unique and interesting.
Pitch-shifting duplicate copies of your vocal tracks can be an exciting way to spice them up and cover frequencies your voice can’t naturally reach. You can achieve this effect either through your DAW’s audio clip settings or with the help of a plugin dedicated to this feature.
Try pitch-shifting two takes of your main vocal an octave lower. Then, pan them hard left and hard right, lower the volume and blend accordingly with your original, main vocal track. The support you get is insane, and by experimenting, you can get some genuinely excellent stuff; this is just a basic idea to get started.
- Formant shifting
Formant shifting refers to altering the harmonics of your vocal. Harmonic frequencies define the timbre of a sound, and by shifting them, we create different “colors” of vocals.
I like to do this through Little Alterboy, a plugin by Soundtoys. It’s designed specifically for processing and altering vocals, although you can use it on all sorts of things. You can formant shift your main vocal to get different tones and characters out of it, or, again, use it on other tracks that you then layer with your main vocal to beef things up and add more textures and colors to your mix.
Little Alterboy is also capable of pitch shifting. The combination of these two techniques can yield a wide range of results, something that makes this plugin very special and, in my opinion, worthy of your time and money.
- Spatial effects
Panning isn’t the only way to effectively engage your stereo field. There are different effects and plugins dedicated to widening sounds, pushing them to the back of the mix, or placing them in unexpected spots.
One of my favorite plugins to widen vocals is Little MicroShift by Soundtoys. It uses an algorithm that alters the sound’s pitch and creates short-time delay effects to create rich, stereo width. Use it on a higher octave vocal, and it will help it blend smoothly with your leading, centrally placed one.
Another plugin that works similarly is Magic Switch by Baby Audio. This free plugin is a one-button chorus effect inspired by the vintage Juno-60; its sound, though, is unique. Noticeably darker and more detuned than your typical chorus plugins, it can help create full background vocals that fill your headphones to the maximum!
Finally, another great option would be Doubler by Waves. This is an industry-standard choice in creating rich stereo width on vocals, as well as some incredibly unique and creative pitch modulation effects. There’s a variety of presets designed by top engineers, and with some experimenting and tweaking, I guarantee you will come up with something fresh and specific to your sound.
4. Mix with send channels
I always use send channels to process my vocals. What are they though? They are simply channels that let you run multiple tracks through the same effect. If you have a specific reverb on a send channel, you can send numerous vocals through to have the same reverb on all of them.
The best thing is you can choose how much signal you want to send to a send channel (sort of like a wet/dry feature). Other perks include saving CPU usage and, most importantly, creating cleaner and more cohesive mixes, where all sounds feel like they belong in the same environment.
Let’s go through some of my favorite ways to set up send channels for processing vocals:
I dedicate two reverb send channels for vocals: Short/medium reverb and long. Remember that when setting up effects on send channels, you should have the wet signal on 100% and the dry signal on 0.
The medium reverb can be a plate or room reverb. Its sole purpose is to give a spatial context to the vocal in relation to the instrumental. I don’t drown my vocal in that send channel, meaning I don’t send too much of it there. Always use a little bit less than what you think you need on this one. My favorite one to use is the Valhalla Vintage Verb, but do some experimenting and find the best one for you.
The long reverb is where you can experiment more. This reverb is more about creative mixing rather than functional mixing. I like to set up a long reverb on this channel, with a lot of stereo information and a fair amount of pre-delay. I then add an equalizer to shape its tone; I like to cut the lows, scoop out some low mids, and, depending on the song, of course, shave off some of the high frequencies.
The last thing I do is add sidechain compression, meaning a compressor that uses a different track as a trigger. When the trigger plays and reaches the set threshold, the reverb will decrease in volume. My chosen trigger, in this instance, is the vocal track I’m routing through this send channel.
For example, if I send my main vocal track to the long reverb, I will also choose it as the trigger. My threshold value will be extreme, meaning that when the vocal plays, the reverb will barely be audible, but when the vocal stops, the reverb will come back up. This is a great trick to fill in empty spaces and create fuller vocal tracks.
Long reverb send channel example. Notice how low the threshold is, meaning the reverb will almost be completely ”choked” once the vocal comes in. The long release time ensures the reverb will raise in volume slowly and smoothly once the vocal stops playing.
- Slapback Delay
I always have a slapback delay set up on a send channel. It’s a great way to add more stereo information to a mono vocal track and make it feel like it exists in a real space. A slapback delay is a short, single repeat echo effect, with short delay times, usually less than 120 ms.
I like to add a stereo delay plugin on a send channel and unlink the left and right delay channels. I then experiment with delay times (depending on your song’s tempo, different settings will sound better) and set the left channel around 20ms and the right around 80ms. The feedback should be below 5%. An equalizer after this would be a great addition, so I can shave off frequencies over 7kHz and cut the lows too.
Slapback send channel example. Notice how the high frequencies are cut; this is, so they don’t compete with your dry vocals. Higher frequencies host the presence and clarity of your vocals.
I then send my vocals through this channel and blend the volume to my desirable amount. The result shouldn’t be too obvious. Mix in this slapback delay low enough so that it doesn’t distract you from your main, dry vocals.
- Delay throws
This send channel is all about filling in spaces between phrases and spicing up your vocal mix. My favorite plugin to use here is H-Delay by Waves. I like the sound of the analog settings, the depth and rate modulation controls, and the overall straightforward layout.
The setup process is simple and similar to the long reverb’s channel: I will add the H-Delay (or any delay), an equalizer for extra control over the shape of my effect, and a sidechain compressor routed to the main vocal (or any vocal I’m sending here).
I then automate the amount I’m sending to this send channel throughout the song. A common way to go about it is to send the vocals before the end of a phrase. This way, after your vocalist stops singing, there’s an echo repeating the last word he or she sang.
Experiment with ping pong or mono settings, different delay times, or multiple delay send channels for various effects. There are no limits on how far you can push this!
- Magic send
We all have a ”secret trick” we use, and this send channel is dedicated to this.
Depending on the song I’m working on, I will have a channel with many different effects that aim to create a unique and exciting added layer of texture to my vocals. I will break down below an example so you can get an idea of what I mean; hopefully, it will tickle your imagination and help you come up with something unique to you when you’re mixing your vocals.
Example of what a ”magic” send channel looks like for me.
Let’s break down what’s happening in the picture above. The first plugin is a saturator; you don’t need to have the Abbey Road Saturator; any will do. It’s adding harmonic distortion, something you can do with Ableton’s native saturator effect. After that, we have a chorus for some stereo information, an overdrive that significantly distorts the sound, a small room reverb on 100%, and an equalizer to shape the sound.
This is blended on 20% with the main vocal to add an extra layer of interest. Another helpful tip is to automate the blend of this effect. I choose to only send my vocal to this effect at certain song moments.
Find moments of extra importance during your vocal track and emphasize them by sending them to this magic send channel. It can be a great way to dramatize and highlight specific lyrics that carry a lot of weight.
5. Back to basics
One last tip before we wrap this up: Study your idols!
It can’t be overstated. You will learn so much more from your idols, the past and present greats than you will from any book, article, or forum. What we do is an art form, something to be felt and communicated through emotions. It’s much easier to use our ears and try to identify what’s happening than to read about it.
Find your favorite song with vocals, or better, your favorite vocals in a song. Actively listen to it once and take notes on a piece of paper. Notice the main vocal on this first listen and ask yourself: How does it change throughout the song? Does it get louder in the chorus? Does it have different effects in different parts of the song? Is it dynamic or consistent in volume?
Then, on a second listen, pay attention to the background vocals. Write down at which point in the song they come in. How many layers can you identify? Do you hear noticeably more layers during the chorus? Is this the reason why the chorus feels bigger then? How are they panned?
On a third listen, try to focus on the technical stuff. What types of reverb can you identify? If you don’t know how to separate hall from plate reverb, write down words like bright, dark, big, small, short, slow. Anything that will help you understand the sound and externalize how you comprehend it.
Notice when the delay throws are happening, if you can hear any chorus effect, distortion, special ear candy moments that happen once or twice only during the song. Go in-depth and identify as much information as you can.
After you have finished listening and written down as much as possible, try to make a song or mix a vocal session practicing what you learned.
Nowadays, with so many tools at our disposal, we can employ a wide range of techniques to achieve fuller and more professional-sounding vocals, even from the comfort of our home studios.
Practice and record multiple vocal tracks to support your main layer. Experiment with panning, EQing, volume, and de-essing to help your vocal stacks sit nicely in the mix and assist your main layer.
Treat your main vocal layer with attention and care; comp together the perfect take, compress to an ideal place and make sure it’s as consistent in volume or as dynamic as you want it to be. Then polish everything with send channel effects, and don’t forget to experiment with different effects of your choice.
Finally, don’t forget to study your idols. They have loads to teach you, and their music is always available to listen to, analyze, and get inspired by.
The more you experiment and have fun with these tips, the likelier it is to develop your own signature techniques that will set your vocals apart from all the rest!
Alvinos Zavlis is an artist/producer from Cyprus based in Bristol, UK. With three albums under his belt and plenty of singles, his catalogue covers a wide range of sounds, from hip hop and trip hop to IDM and experimental electronic styles, all fused together to create unique blends of sounds. He works as a freelance mixing and mastering engineer in Bristol for artists of all styles.