Nailing the reverb and ambience on lead vocals can be really tricky. This week, we’re going to show you a method for doing vocal ‘verb that’s easy, basically fool proof, and will work for music of any genre. AND we’re going to show you a nifty vocal reverb trick that you can use to highlight a specific section of a song.
Three Reverbs on a Vocal
The basis of this method of getting vocal reverb is similar to that which we use on snare - read Dan’s Snare Trick blog post from last week if you missed it. We will be using three different reverbs. The first will add thickness and presence to the vocal, the second will place the vocal in an acoustic space, and the third reverb is a special, which you can use to highlight the vocal in specific sections of the song.
ONE: Thick and Present
First, instantiate a Micro Digital Reverberator on the vocal channel’s insert, after all the other processing you’ve got happening (EQ, compression, etc.). Regardless of what MDR program you use, turn DRY fully clockwise and lower WET to around 50%. You’ll adjust WET more later.
For a program, you’re looking for a small room that will add texture and thickness to the vocal but not really reverb.
These are the programs we like to use. We tend to choose one that is the opposite of the voice — it it is a dark, bass voice we choose a brighter program. For a bright or higher voice, try one of the darker settings. If you don’t know what to pick, just use Machine 1 Small 1, it always works great for this.
Machine 1 Small 1
Machine 2 01 Small Bright .1 SEC
Machine 2 02 Small Bright .2 SEC
Machine 2 03 Small Bright .3 SEC
Machine 2 05 Medium Bright .6 SEC
Machine 2 09 Medium Dark .5 SEC
With reverb times above 300 ms (.3 seconds or higher) beware setting WET too high, it can sound like a bathroom. Typically, we wind up using Machine 1 Small 1 or Machine 2 09.
Most vocal tracks are recorded in mono, but at this stage, switch the channel’s output to stereo—you’ll see why in a moment.
Press the Korneff nameplate to pivot around to the back of the MDR, find the WIDTH trimpot and set it to 50% or lower. Because you’ve switched your mono vocal track into stereo, the stereo width control will have the effect of widening the voice a little bit. You can crank it all the way up to 200%, but depending on the song this might be a bit distracting. This is one of the settings you’ll be messing with later in your mix as you add in instruments, etc.
So, now your vocal should be a little bit bigger and commanding more attention in your mix, but it won’t be louder or processed sounding.
Quick trick here: crank up the INPUT gain to drive the MDR a little bit. This will get you a cool, slightly grainy saturation. Be sure you turn the OUTPUT gain down otherwise you’ll digitally clip the channel, and that will sound like ass.
TWO: Reverb and Ambience
The vocal, at this stage, is probably too dry to sound polished and professional, so we want to add a reverb effect that we can really hear and recognize as reverb. We’ll do this using an effects send.
Set-up a send from the vocal channel, and put an MDR on the insert of the Return. Set the DRY to 100% and the WET to 0%—this is the way the MDR initially loads in.
There are a TON of possible reverb programs on the MDR to choose from at this point, so a lot of what you pick will come down to taste. We typically use medium and smaller sounding rooms on vocals when songs are fast, and bigger, large rooms and plates and halls when songs are slower. These are the settings that we keep going back to all the time:
Machine 2 13 Large Warm 1.1 SEC is a gorgeous reverb and generally where I start. IF it is too bright, I look for something darker, if it is too big I look for something smaller, etc. This particular program blends really well within a full mix, and it adds polish without making things sound “reverby” like a record from the early ‘60s.
Machine 2 22 Large Warm 1.75 SEC sounds like a vintage echo chamber and is very musical and rhythmic on a vocal. Great for ballads and things like that.
Machine 1 Large 1 always sounds good, but it might be too much for some music.
Machine 1 Small 5 works great on vocals with lots of short words when intelligibility is needed.
Machine 1 Small 6 This isn’t a room, it is a smooth and dark plate reverb effect, and it can be way too much. We like to use this but throw it way back in the mix so you only really hear it in the gaps of the other instruments.
THREE: A Special
During your mix, you’ll probably have some moments where you want the vocal to jump out and really call attention to itself. For that, we’re going to use a special.
Sibilance - your enemy, your little pal...
Generally, on vocals, we try to get control of sibilance. Sibilant frequencies are in the 5kHZ area and they add intelligibility to speech and singing. They are the frequencies generated by consonants. As people get older, these frequencies get harder to hear, which is why you have to repeat yourself and speak very clearly around grandma and grandpa (especially if they were in a punk band when they were younger). Too much sibilance on a record, though, sounds hissy and spitty. It’s caused by sounds like S and T overloading a microphone or a preamp somewhere. Usually, we don’t want sibilance. However, this trick is all about generating sibilance.
Set up yet another effects send from your vocal channel. Crank up the send level a bit. On the return channel, add channel EQ or a High Pass Filter, and follow it with yet another MDR on that insert. Set it to 100% WET, 0% DRY.
Dan loves the Vocal Whisper preset on the Lexicon 480L unit, so we’re going to sort of rip that sound off a bit.
On the channel EQ you’ve got before the MDR, put a high pass filter at about 10kHZ and roll off everything below it. This will prevent almost anything other than high pitched vocal sounds from getting to the MDR.
On the MDR, set it to Machine 2 50 Multitap Reverse. Flip around to the back panel of the MDR and set DAMPING to -1.6dB, LPF to 13.2kHz and WIDTH to 170% (you can go higher).
As you play your mix, you’ll notice that S’s and T’s, and other sibilant consonants, will jump out and kind of sound like ghostly whispers. Adjust the High Pass Filter of the EQ to get more or less of the effect. Dan likes to use this in relatively open areas of the song to create a scary, unsettling mood.
A good way to figure out where you want to use this effect is to put it on the vocal somewhere in the middle of your mix process and listen to the entire mix with it a few times. Generally, there will be certain spots where the effect jumps out. I often just leave stuff like this on always so there is a random element happening in the mix to give me ideas.
Some Other Ideas
There are all sorts of fun variations on this you can try. As an example, rather than setting a high pass filter, set a low pass around 400Hz and send all that dark, warm low-end gunk into the MDR. Set the MDR to Machine 2 34 Slow Gate 450 MSEC. If you listen to the effect all by itself it, it sounds like a moron singing in the shower, but in the mix it gives the vocal subtle movement and texture, and makes it seem wetter than it actually is. When I do this, I set my other vocal reverbs to something bright so things don’t get muddy.
And of course, try this trick on guitars, synths, etc.
And that is it for this week. Let us know how this all works for you on our Discord or Facebook.