If there’s one thing that’s for certain about today’s musical climate, it’s that electronic production has an ever-present role in sound design and it’s here to stay.
Effects are a great way to add personality to vocals, as well as highlight the singer’s strengths (and sometimes mask their weaknesses). But there is such a thing as overdoing it, and it happens a lot with novice mixing engineers and producers who get too excited about effects without really understanding how or when to use them. So, we’ve put together a guide on how to get your vocal effects just right — regardless of the style of music you’re making.
Don’t abuse reverb
One of the first things a vocalist will ask for — whether they’re recording or performing live — is more reverb. Why is that? Because, well, reverb sounds good. It complements the voice and gives it room to expand.
It’s uncommon to turn on the radio and find a song that has no reverb on the vocals. If it’s so popular, then using a lot of it must be a good thing, right? Well, not exactly.
Reverb shouldn’t be used to mask the voice. If your vocals only sound good with an ocean of reverb, that might be a sign that you need to practice your singing rather than insisting it just needs more reverb.
Sure, some artists like to use a lot of reverb for stylistic purposes. One of Foals’ most popular songs, “Spanish Sahara,” is covered in it — but it’s done under minimal instrumentation, giving the reverb room to echo. Plus, it’s EQ’ed to not clash with the other tracks. You can still understand the lyrics and hear the human voice.
Using too much reverb can muddy your mix, especially if you’re not EQing it properly. To achieve a good, clean reverb mix, make sure the low-end frequencies are toned way down, if not completely taken out. Use a small amount of decay to give a light delay effect. Make sure your natural singing voice is the clear focus, and the reverb is the backdrop.
Make room for your effects
Just like how Foals took advantage of minimal instrumentation to crank up the reverb on the vocals, it’s smart to give room in your mix for vocal effects.
If you have a very crowded song with abrasive guitar and drums, it might not be a good idea to put a ton of delay on your vocals. The echo trails will clash with the instrumentation, muddy your mix, and essentially mask what each instrument is doing.
For example, in Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” there’s a busy and alarming instrumental with pounding drums, buzzing 808s, and tons of screaming. His vocals aren’t dry, though; there’s a short delay (the keyword here: short). Since the delay doesn’t trail, it gives him the spooky echo effect without flooding the mix with unnecessary vocal effects.
Whenever you’re using vocal effects beyond your standard compression and EQ, make sure the mix has room for those effects; otherwise, they’re going to cloud everything else going on.
Mix in mono
Many mixers swear by working in mono, and there’s a reason why: it allows you to hear everything in its most vulnerable form.
Oftentimes, switching from stereo to mono exposes flaws in your mix — and sometimes it makes things that were present in stereo suddenly vanish in mono. Even if you don’t want to do your entire mix in mono, you should absolutely test your mixes in mono, especially your vocals.
You never know where people will be when they’re listening to your music. It could be in a professional studio with a state-of-the-art sound system… or it could be on cheap phone speakers. Plan for the latter, and make sure your vocals sound great in stereo and mono. If the effects only sound good in stereo, you know you have to keep working.
Work with your voice
This happens to every artist — they try to emulate their favorite musicians, and end up either sounding like a photocopy or just flat-out bad. Another scenario may be that your favorite artist writes in a different genre than you do, yet you try to emulate their vocal production.
If you make EDM and happen to be a lifelong Jeff Buckley admirer, you probably shouldn’t treat your vocals like his. Buckley often left his voice largely untouched, subjecting every note to scrutiny, and he pulled it off. But vocals like that on an EDM track are going to sound out of place. EDM calls for harmonizers, pitch effects, and large amounts of delay, reverb, and chorus to peacefully coexist with the electronic soundscape.
There’s nothing wrong with challenging genre norms, but it’s a good idea to use vocal effects that best suit your voice and your style of music.
Test your mix on every stereo system possible
One of the most important ways to ensure your vocal effects are sitting just right is to test your mix everywhere you physically can. Play them on your cell phone, your car stereo, your alarm clock, or even your neighbor’s alarm clock. Send it to your friends and ask them to pay attention to the vocals, even if your friends aren’t musicians (almost everyone has an ear for when something sounds off).
Some questions to ask when you’re listening back should include:
- Can I understand the lyrics?
- Can other people understand the lyrics?
- Are the vocals coming through clearly?
- Are the effects distracting, or do they complement the vocals?
- Which effects are essential here?
- Which effects could be turned off?
Give yourself time to experiment
Most artists know what they like — they have their go-to effects in their back pocket at all times. But no matter how well you can master an effects rack, always challenge yourself to branch out.
For example, if you always leave your vocals in the center of the mix, try putting them on the outside. Or throw a flanger or a phaser on your vocal. Even if you don’t end up leaving it on for the whole song, find a section to make it work.
Bon Iver is a great example of an artist who isn’t afraid to present his voice with numerous different identities. Whether it’s bare and lo-fi on his standout hit, “Skinny Love,” or entrenched in a massive AutoTune harmonizer like on “Woods,” he takes advantage of new ways to complement his voice.
There’s no right or wrong effect to put on your voice, so don’t be afraid to experiment and get creative.
Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications such as The FADER, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.