Vocal Effects 101

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Vocal effects, what are they? What do they mean? It’s a known fact that sound engineers and musicians like to use effects to enhance and shape a vocal sound in both live and studio applications. Sometimes just plugging your microphone cable into the mixing desk and turning the level up leaves something to be desired, and the overall sound could benefit from a bit of “sweetening.”. Maybe the vocal can sound a bit “wonky” or “weak,”, or maybe needs a bit of depth to compensate in a small, dead-sounding room.

The solution to these real-world problems isare often simple – enhance the vocal signal with a bit of effects. In this article, we’ll be talking about the 3 main classifications of effects that are commonly used on vocals, and the characteristics of each. These concepts described can apply in both live and in- studio applications— – but how the effects are used can differ depending on their respective environment.

Time-based effects

Time-based effects are pretty self-explanatory: they are tools that we use that will affect the length of time to a particular audio signal. To give a realistic use, you may want to use time-based effects if you’re looking to add a Hall Reverb to give a bit of a decay to a vocal performance, or a Slapback Delay/Echo to add a “doubled” effect on your voice (think Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire”). These effects will add depth to your performance, and are used both live and in the studio.

Reverb:

There are several different types of reverbs that emulate different spaces (halls, rooms, cathedrals, springs, churches, etc.), though the sound that is best to my ears for vocals are Plates. These types of reverbs often have a nice “shine” to them, and I’ll use them on vocals for live and studio applications. Some may have pre-defined lengths (i.e. Short Plate, Medium Plate, Long Plate), or may have an adjustment for the length of time. If you’re working in the studio with a reverb plugin (take the Renaissance Reverb by Waves), generally you will have more control over the individual attributes of the reverb device. Experiment with several types, and see
what sounds best for your ears.

Delay/Echo:

Delay/Echo can be used in a number of different ways, and can really make a difference if used tastefully and artistically. The simplest example of a delay would be something like the quintessential Johnny Cash vocal effect, where he uses a very short delay time to achieve a doubling sound to his voice. However, we don’t always have to use this effect as a constant— effect – it can be used tastefully here and there to accent certain lines in a performance. In live sound and studio applications, I like to use delays that are set to the BPM (beats per minute) or tempo of a song using a Tap Tempo, and accentuate lines at the ends of phrases to get the vocal to repeat— – whether it’s set at a ¼ note, ½ note, or a full measure. These subdivisions can be easily defined if you’re using a delay plugin in the studio (try H-Delay by Waves), or if you’ve got a vocal pedal with a Tap Tempo in live applications (try the TC Helicon Voiceton E1).

Other:

There are other types of time-based effects that aren’t as commonly used on vocals such as Chorus, Flanging, or Phasing. If you’re experimenting with a Vocal Multi Effects pedal or a have a set of plugins on your studio computer, play around with some of these effects and see if you recognize their sound from any recordings you’ve heard!

Pitch and Frequency based effects

Frequency-based effects alter the sound by modifying the sound wave of an audio signal. More simply put, you may want to use frequency-based effects to make a dull-sounding vocal shine, or to generate a harmony that’s a 3rd above your voice while playing a solo acoustic gig.

  EQ:

We’ve talked about Equalization (EQ) before, but it is quite possibly the most commonly used— – and sometimes, most important— – tool in the audio world. In live applications, you might use EQ to tame a vocal that’s feeding back, or add some brightness to a vocal signal that sounds as iflike there are’s cobwebs in the XLR cable. These are examples of how EQ can be used as both an additive and subtractive tool to correct and sweeten vocal performances. In studio applications, you may want to EQ a vocal so that it stands out in the mix above the other instruments, or even use a drastic EQ effect to achieve a “megaphone” sound, for example. Never underestimate the power of EQ!

Apple Logic’s Channel EQ, where the engineer is using additive and subtractive EQ to achieve the sound shethey desires.

Pitch effects:

Pitch effects are also classified as frequency-based effects because they alter the frequency of an audio signal. So if you’re rocking that T-pain AutoTune sound (we’re all guilty of wanting to try it out…just once…), or you’re using a Harmony Generator to create a harmony a 3rd above your voice, you’re affecting the frequency of your audio signal. As a sound engineer, I generally let the vocalist dictate whether or not these types of effects will be used. T, and there are several great Vocal Multi Effects pedals in the market that can easily help a vocalist achieve these results.

Dynamics-based Effectssxsc

Dynamics-based effects alter the dynamic range of an audio signal or performance. While we often (most of the time) want to preserve dynamics in any musical performance, sometimes we want to be able to control the extremes.

Compression:

Compressors are devices commonly used on vocals to help tame the extreme jumps in volume and achieve a median level in a vocal performance. In a nutshell, a compressor makes the loudest points of a waveform quieter, and the quietest points of a waveform louder. This can be a great tool in performances with a drastic volume difference from a verse to a chorus. Setting the tThreshold of a compressor helps the device decide the point at which it should kick on and start working, and if set correctly can help a vocal from being “just a bit too loud.”.

Noise Gates:

Noise Gates are classified as dynamics-based effects because they work as the Gatekeeper or Keymaster (obscure Ghostbusters reference, anyone?) for an audio signal. The way that a Gate works is a threshold is set and any audio signal above the threshold will be heard, whereas any signal below the threshold will be inaudible. This works as a great tool in live situations where a singer may be in close proximity to another instrumentalist (let’s blame the drummer), and there is bleed from another instrument into the vocal microphone. We can set a noise gate to cancel out the signal bleed while the vocalist isn’t singing, and set the threshold at a point that allows the gate to open when they are singing.

Conclusion

These are just a few examples of the different types of effects that are commonly used on vocals, in both live and studio applications. In some cases, less is more, and in other cases you may want to overload the effects to achieve a desired sound. At the end of the day, use whatever sounds best to your ears, and experiment with the different types to hear how each will alter the sound of your voice.


Michael Harmon is a Berklee College of Music graduate. While drumming remains one of his first passions, Michael performs with several bands around the Northeast U.S. He educates young musicians in audio production and supports the art of independent record making. www.wachusettrecording.com


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