News:

Please begin sharing multitrack files as FLAC files. Read more here!

 

Author Topic: Micro-automation, vocals, and compression...  (Read 2809 times)

  • *****
September 11, 2011, 04:06:35 PM
I know a lot of engineers these days do extreme amounts of automation on lead vocals, adjusting the level on every syllable in many cases. That's all fine and well, but it is a pretty recent thing, I think.

In the days before DAW editing, it would be very difficult to write automation with that level of detail, so clearly engineers were using compression and limiting to even out the lead vocals.

My question is which do you do and why? I've tried both, and while editing/automating vocals is certainly effective, it's very time-consuming, and I don't know that the results are superior to what I can get with some relatively aggressive compression and limiting.

What do you think?

  • ****
September 11, 2011, 04:27:42 PM
FWIW, I mostly do both.

I typically record vocals thru a pre with a compressor (Meek VC3q) and then go in and adjust for intelligibility and consistency.

When I record without a compressor (using a VTB1 or ART TPS) I usually use a plug-in and then, ...


... manually level adjust.

  • *****
September 11, 2011, 07:06:52 PM
I guess what I'm referring to is micro-adjustments, before compression or limiting is added. I typically will compress a vocal (I use Yong's W1 limiter, set to crush) then automate the fader to bring the vocal up a bit here, down a bit there, but not on a syllable by syllable basis. On the other hand, I've gone in and edited the raw track, using the little gain handles in Cubase, to get them pretty even, before adding compression, etc. That method does give a slightly more 'modern' sound, but I'm not sure it's superior. 

I usually track vocals with some compression, too (using a Crest I-Pro One which has a neat 'blend' knob to allow for parallel compression.) But it seems that many of the tracks I get to mix have had no or very little compression applied at the tracking stage.

 

September 13, 2011, 10:59:51 PM
Hi John,

Here's what I typically do with a lead vocal:

Find the right mic for the vocalist. For this I'll put up to 12 mics initially, and leave 4 to 5 of them up the rest of the time, to get slightly different sounds for the album. Backing vocals by the lead singer on the same mic? Not a chance.

Find the right mic preamp. I have a few different mic preamps. I tend to favor neutral sounding ones though for the lead vocal. The cleaner and clearer the better.

Use the following signal chain :

Vocalist 12" distance average > microphone > microphone preamplifier > LA2A or 1176 compressor on insert > post fader output to AD converter.

I use the fader "post fader" to get a good level onto the DAW, riding it along with a lyric sheet. This helps even out large level discrepancies right off the bat.

I set the compressor to only compress when the singer gets extremely loud. As in EXTREMELY LOUD!!!

Otherwise it is all about getting the sound of the compressor on the vocal. This helps the definition of the transients and the shape of the top end.

I EQ in the DAW, unless I happen to have a problem emanating from the singer, such as extreme sibilance or some rogue frequency that needs some taming.

Then, when mixing I may use up to 2 different compressors, a limiter and a compressor, and up to 3 equalizers to ge the vocal to stand out in the mix without destroying the artists personality. If it is someone famous, then I have to try harder so that anyone listening to the song can easily identify the singer by sound only. This may involve some homework on my parts, as to what the artist generally has sounded like on their earlier recordings.

Cheers

  • **
September 14, 2011, 12:37:58 AM
Hey John,

I indeed spend a LOT of time on it and it pays itself back. I sometimes think that producing and editing things to perfection is taking away the human element that todays pop music often needs.
I recently did a classical project for a duo that were playing in a big name orchestra but wanted to go solo. It seemed they were not that good as it would look like so i had to do like hundreds of edits to satisfy them, just because i proudly told them beforehand it was all possible these days.

Most of the time when i edit pop vocals i'll do it manually because this way i can still put something unique :-* on it. First i'll check for consonants and bring them down to a certain point where it stops annoying me. I've used Waves' De-esser, C1 and Sonnox Surpresser for that instead, sounding instantly fabulous but always a little short on 'feel'. Then i ride each word of the lyric in short passes using level automation so i have full control wether it be louder or lower in level. I use eq's, compressors and limiters to even it some more and to make it stand out.


  • ****
September 14, 2011, 02:55:28 PM
I know a lot of engineers these days do extreme amounts of automation on lead vocals, adjusting the level on every syllable in many cases. That's all fine and well, but it is a pretty recent thing, I think.

In the days before DAW editing, it would be very difficult to write automation with that level of detail, so clearly engineers were using compression and limiting to even out the lead vocals.

My question is which do you do and why? I've tried both, and while editing/automating vocals is certainly effective, it's very time-consuming, and I don't know that the results are superior to what I can get with some relatively aggressive compression and limiting.

What do you think?

I am definitely the compressor guy if you all didn't know that already ;D. I've discussed about this matter with my teacher and his opinions regarding the
whole syllable adjustment is that 25 years ago nobody could do that. But everyone could compress. And modern music is made with pretty conservative
values.
I guess it is also a matter of taste but I think that in an aggressive song where uncompressed lead vocal could get buried adding compression makes it
even sound better. On soft ballad there's plenty of room for the vocal so once again just a tiny amount of comp will help and once again no need get
a headache from that automation hell. 8)
Of course the vocal needs to automated slightly if there's no other way of gaining intelligibility. I've had to do that couple of times even after applying
15 dB of compression.

Much faster and (probably) much better sounding.

The problem with compression is that when done wrong it sounds awful. At this moment I think that the feeling "yuck, it sounds compressed" comes
mostly from misuse of compressor. Either the technique or the compressor itself is wrong for the task at hand. I've started to understand why they say
that the compressor is one toughest devices to master.     
"You don't go to a record school to go to courses, you go to record school to record there!"
http://soundcloud.com/spede-1

  • No avatar
  • **
September 19, 2011, 11:30:43 AM
Hi John

I find that using a certain amount of each technique (compression on tracking, compression at mix, and level automation) gives the most natural-yet-engaging sounding results.

To try and replicate the effect of compression by drawing fader moves is usually pointless - way too time-consuming, and still won't give me the "sound" of a particular piece of gear, or even plug-in. But to maximise intelligibility of a lyric and bring out all sorts of nice vocal details just by compressing (or limiting) the shit out of the channel is a wild goose chase, since in my experience the vocal will have had the life squeezed from it long before that point.

Two principal differences between compression and level automation: 1) they have two different guiding "brains" - the very consistent, precise but unintelligent GR circuitry of the former, and the broader-brush but intelligently interpreting brain of the mixer with a lyric sheet. 2) with the possible exception of the Waves vocal rider, which I haven't tried, compression does not take into account the volume or density of the rest of the music.

So compression will automatically give me some overall stability of volume and apparent tone, but only automation can emphasise a particularly important lyric, or bring up a "t" that's buried under a hi-hat hit, or duck intrusive breaths that the compressor is unwittingly amplifying, or introduce a crescendo into the chorus, or ... you get the idea. What is essential is for the automation to be POST-COMPRESSION, otherwise the compressor will just even out the differences you've spent two hours writing in.

To sum up, I can get a decent balance with compression, but it never "sounds like a record" until I've done some level automation, even sometimes down to sub-syllable level.
Grid is good.

  • *****
September 19, 2011, 03:01:38 PM
Some good points there!

How much of your approach is genre dependent? Do you do the same level of automation for a rock song as for an R&B track? Or would you use the same approach for a singer/songwriter with just acoustic guitar accompaniment?

I got thinking about this only because, until just a few years back, this level of micro-automation was impossible. And, if you read a lot, you often come across mixers saying they use several compressors on the lead vocal, in various arrangements (some use parallel and series compression, like Michael Brauer, who often uses 5 different comps on a lead vocal.) It seems that by using that much compression (though he doesn't use any to crush the vocal, the net effect is one of a pretty smooth vocal, I'd guess) you'd be able to automate only for musical purpose, rather than technical.

I ride vocals up and down, based on the song, etc, but I try to avoid spending a huge amount of time riding syllables up and down.

  • No avatar
  • **
September 19, 2011, 04:35:10 PM
Good question - although I have no experience in R&B and other genres in the "urban" category.

I'd say it probably depends on the density and apparent loudness of the instrumental tracks as much as anything. I absolutely agree with you that until recently this sort of detailed automation was difficult if not impossible to achieve - but I wonder if the opportunity afforded by DAWs has itself contributed to greater loudness of records. In other words, we can get away with bringing the mid-range instruments up a couple more dB before the vocal is swamped if we are using this technique. I have no evidence - haven't been doing this long enough - but it's a thought!

For a simpler, sparser acoustic/singer-songwriter track, I'd be tempted to go more "traditional", and in any track I may leave whole lines untouched if I don't feel they need automation. To be honest, I really don't enjoy doing it, but it makes such a difference that I'll do as much as is required - I hope not more!

Just to illustrate, there are three bands currently featured on my soundcloud page in relatively contrasting genres, with three very different singers. All use pretty extensive multing and automation on the vocal parts. The Rifle Volunteer vocal was recorded without compression, then given fairly generous amounts in mix. The Jokers Jacks & Kings singer was hit pretty hard by a Distressor on the way in, then compressed further in mix. (I'm mixing another track by this band where the vocal was not compressed during tracking, and am using an MB-style 3-parallel-compressors set-up on the chorus, bussing the three to a group, and automating the group.) And of course I'm not sure how compressed the All Hands Lost vocal was during tracking, but certainly gave it plenty of beans in mix, before automating. I hope that even at 128kbps each of the vocals will seem to occupy an integrated-yet-present space within its respective mix.

Incidentally, the "Occam's Razor" track was mixed by the erstwhile Mr Senior, in case you're wondering why it sounds better than the other three!
Grid is good.

  • **
November 15, 2012, 09:55:20 AM
Dont overthink it guys just duck the vocals in

Thanks for the read