I was eager to discover what advice the engineers could offer about EQ'ing vocals for 'presence', and approaching the important but difficult-to-judge mid-range, which is really important in modern vocal production. Obviously, subtractive EQ can be hugely important in vocal mixing, and Tony Hoffer focused on this: "I'll usually cut any junk out at the bottom and then I tend to sweep around with a parametric EQ to find any trouble or sweet spots. Generally, though, I find my mixes sound better by not overcomplicating things. Sometimes just turning a vocal up 1 or 2 dB can work better than adding any tweaky EQ..."
Romesh Dodangoda: "Sometimes I'll add a bunch of presence in the 1-4 kHz area but then use a FabFilter multiband compressor straight after it, to lightly compress the same area, so it keeps it under control and stops the odd word poking out.
Romesh Dodangoda advocated a bolder approach to EQ: "If a vocal needs a huge boost somewhere then I'll just do it. Sometimes I'll add a bunch of presence in the 1-4 kHz area but then use a FabFilter multiband compressor straight after it, to lightly compress the same area, so it keeps it under control and stops the odd word poking out. I'm a big fan of the Brainworx SSL E Channel. It's amazing for really carving into a vocal and getting it to sit in the right place."
Julian Kindred identified the same frequency range: "I love to maximise the presence of a vocal and that magic 1–4 kHz spot, even when the artist needs it to exist in an ambient space. Sometimes this calls for minimal EQ, other times it demands a lot. Best to close your eyes and listen at this stage." But he pointed out that EQ isn't the only option: "There are also many other amazing tools to draw on for this that behave differently to EQ, and I will often use transient designers like Elysia's Nvelope and the Black Box HG-2 to enhance both the 'point' and 'glue' of the vocal's mid-range presence."
Boe Weaver say they're "big fans of a bit of 3k! We borrow a technique from our favourite mastering engineer, Guy Davies. Using a Pultec–style EQ, set the Bandwidth to 3 and boost 3dB at 3kHz. It can add a brilliant presence that can make a vocal lean right out!"
Jack Ruston made a very interesting point: "What can sound a bit uncomfortable under the microscope of studio monitoring distills down into a presence when played back in other environments." He also described how this interacted with his approach to EQ more generally: "I typically work in a top-down fashion. When I'm getting the initial balance together I'm constantly adjusting the mix-bus EQ to do any heavy lifting if needed. Generally, I don't add so much high-mid on the mix bus that I need to dip that on the vocal, but I'll do that on the drums or guitars if need be. I usually find that the vocal can take it and often needs it to really leap out of the speakers."
This isn't an article about vocal compression — that's a vast topic in its own right. But I did want to understand how these engineers used their compressors to help a vocal sit, and how this related to their decisions about level automation. And some interesting themes emerged...
Julian Kindred: "I'm never applying compression for the sake of minimising how much vocal automation I'll do. It's entirely about developing the vocal's sonic character, whether openly transparent or dramatically coloured.
Jack Ruston, for instance, made it clear that "I'm doing it more for sonics rather than level." Of a similar opinion, Julian Kindred talked at greater length: "I'm never applying compression for the sake of minimising how much vocal automation I'll do. It's entirely about developing the vocal's sonic character, whether openly transparent or dramatically coloured. Both extremes and all the nuance in between are valid, depending on where I feel the artist would like the vocal to exist in the mix. But I have to stress that I see compression as a sonically creative tool and not a utilitarian control mechanism. There are a lot of missed creative opportunities because many view it as the latter."
Several engineers mentioned using more than one compressor to achieve the desired effect. Tony Hoffer, for example, said that: "Sometimes I really want to hear the compression and other times I want the vocal to hold steady but feel more natural. Almost always, I put an 1176 on the lead vocal and decide what's needed sonically from there. Sometimes I'll add an additional compressor after the first 1176 and usually have at least one blend. I actually try and keep things somewhat simple and not have a ton of blending or routing." Romesh Dodangoda said he'll "often run two compressors together on the vocal, both doing a bit of each [managing levels and adding colour]. I find this works well and you can get some interesting colour going on." And Boe Weaver suggested a variation on the theme: "Sometimes a very small bit of distortion (0.5) on the Lo–Fi plug-in can work wonders when inserted before any compression." Interestingly, that's a technique I often use myself; Lo–Fi is a Pro Tools stock plug-in, but this trick can work with any saturation plug-in.
Mixing requires both technical skill and artistic judgement, and never more so than when we start to apply effects like reverb and delay. Jack Ruston put it well: "The vocal needs to be treated in such a way that it sits naturally in the 'world' the mix inhabits. It's not that it needs to necessarily sound as if it's in the same room as the instruments, but we need to be mindful of that relationship. Should we use a lack of ambience to move the vocal in front of the track? Should we keep ambience but use a long pre-delay to achieve that? Or should we move the voice right back into the mix by tying it up in a lot of reverb? These are the decisions we need to make from a creative standpoint. That combination of the ambience and the EQ can really affect how we perceive things. Generally, we want to chase the strongest connection between the listener and the song. It's dependent on the genre, the lyrical content and the artists' voice."
Of course, while effects like reverb, delay or distortion can inject character and excitement, they can potentially mask important details, so I also asked my engineers if they'd like to share any techniques for retaining clarity and intelligibility when using them.
Boe Weaver offered this: "A brilliant mixer we know once told me to put the reverb where we like it and then drop it by 2dB. We also cut anything below what the singer can't produce, to help create space in the low mids. That goes for reverbs and delays, and we are not shy in using EQ on any effect sends."
Romesh Dodangoda shared another good tip: "One thing I like to do with vocal delays, or reverbs, is to use a compressor on them, but keyed from the lead vocal. That way, when the vocal is being sung it gently ducks some of the 'verbs and delays out of the way, and when the vocal stops you hear more of the tail. This can be really handy if you want to make a vocal clearer in an effects-heavy mix."
Tony Hoffer explained that the character imparted by analogue gear remains important to him: "I think it's important for vocals to have some kind of overt character to help make the vocal pop out of the speakers in a unique way — as in the case of a short room reverb. That's where my analogue spring reverbs and delays come in, as they all sound quite different, add colour and grit and can generally be easier to sit in a mix. I also write volume automation on effects returns and this can be really useful to help clear things out a bit."
Julian Kindred: "I was a musician first, then record maker second. It's definitely influenced my prioritisation of musical arrangement above all else. One thing I do a lot is give the vocal different character blends or effects in each section... Sometimes it's very subtle, but even then it can enhance the growth of the song's dynamic from start to finish in ways that the most untrained listener can feel the excitement from it. Occasionally I get to do it in the extreme, but it's important to mix carefully with effects because nothing dates a record more than their overuse — particularly when the most vital thing is to make sure the vocal speaks."
It's so important to show the vocal enough love when we mix. I care about how good your snare sound is. Really I do. I might even notice what you've done to the hi-hat or the cowbell. But in most popular music it's the vocal that makes that emotional connection with the average listener. It's the vocal they'll remember and sing along to. These engineers know how to help music form that connection, and I found our discussion really useful. I was struck in particular by just how much emphasis they didn't place on EQ and dynamic-range compression — obviously they use them, and I'm sure we could have talked in more detail about that side of things. But they deliberately chose to focus on the tools and techniques they use for critical listening, on micro-managing levels with clip gain and automation, on using other tools to impart colour, and on decision making more generally. I hope they've inspired you to try a few new ideas!
Boe Weaver are a UK-based production, mixing and songwriting duo. Operating mostly in their own boutique Studio Humbug facility on the Isle Of Wight, they've worked with an array of artists, including Rhys Lewis, Wolf People, the Archie Bronson Outfit, 77:78, Whyte Horses, Pete Molinari and Lauran Hibberd.
Romesh Dodangoda is a producer and mix engineer from Wales, and has worked for artists including Motörhead, Bring Me The Horizon, Funeral For A Friend, Kids In Glass Houses, Twin Atlantic, Bullet For My Valentine and Lower Than Atlantis. Specialising in rock, pop and metal, Romesh has a production studio in the heart of Cardiff but also travels around the world to work. Recent jobs include recording Amo, a forthcoming album by Bring Me The Horizon, which includes the singles 'Mantra' and 'Wonderful Life'.
Jack Ruston is a producer, and recording and mix engineer whose career began in LA playing guitar in Robert Vaughn's award-winning band Dead River Angels. That led to him recording in some of the world's finest studios, and he soon became more obsessed with recording bands than playing in them. A 2017 MPG Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year nominee, Jack's clients include Judas Priest, Reuben, Walking On Cars, Oktoba, Void, McBusted, James Morrison, Foxes and Birdy.
Tony Hoffer is an LA-based, Grammy-nominated, Mercury prize-winning producer/mixer whose credits include: M83, Beck, Phoenix, Fitz & the Tantrums, the Kooks, the Fratellis, Silversun, Belle & Sebastian, Air and many, many more.
Julian Kindred is a Canadian musician, producer, engineer and Grammy award winner. His recording career began in the iconic studios of Nashville's Music Row, where he worked with many of the city's legendary musicians and producers. After moving to London in 2002, he set up his own Nonsuch Park Studio and continues to produce, record, mix and write with established and developing artists alike. He's worked with numerous artists including Ellie Goulding, Aimee Mann, Hammock, Nao, Max Cooper, BT and V S.
Neil Rogers — 'Bugs' to many — has over 20 years' experience performing and engineering in recording studios. A regular contributor to Sound On Sound, Neil works mostly from his Half-Ton Studios in Cambridge, and has recently produced recordings for Captain, Steven James Adams, the Travis Waltons, Freeze the Atlantic (ex Reuben and Hundred Reasons), the Broken Family Band and the British Public, to name but a few.