My Current Vocal Effects Process

I’ve had several people ask me about my vocal effects lately, so I thought I’d write a post about it. A few caveats: First, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not telling you what you should do, but what I’m currently doing. Second, this has changed about 4-5 times over the last 4-5 years. My process changes to adapt to the hardware I have available. If Waves comes through with some of their stuff later this year, I may change it again. Third, I have tried to develop a process that delivers consistently good results quickly and easily and is easy to explain to volunteers who are not professional engineers. With that in mind, here we go.

First, a little about our band and music style. We always have one person leading the song. It may be our worship leader, or another member of the vocal team for the weekend, but one person is the leader. The rest of the vocals are background vocals, and they typically sing parts where appropriate. We are not going for a “vocal chorus” or the Maranatha sound; we’re lead and BGVs (not that the other ways are wrong, it’s just not what we do). 

I also believe it’s important to keep the lead vocal out front in the mix where the congregation can track with it easily. I’m not going for a main vocal with background music, but the vocal is always the center of the mix. I use a few methods to make that so, without necessarily making the vocal louder. 

So let’s take the lead vocal for starters. I have three things going on for the lead vocal (in addition to the normal channel processing, which would include some compression and EQ); a double-patched parallel compression channel (AKA. vocal smash channel), a plate reverb and a simple delay. 

The smash channel is accomplished by simply double patching the leader’s mic into two channels on the console. I compress the smash channel pretty aggressively, usually running 8-10 dB of gain reduction. I don’t add much makeup gain in my setup, but your mileage may vary. Because I can, I also flip my EQ to come after my compression and I add a few dB back at about 2KHz. This brings back some of the high end that gets lost with that much compression. 

With some leaders, I don’t use much smash, with others I use it all the time. The smash acts sort of like a Z-axis control, letting me bring the vocal forward in the mix without it just getting louder. It’s kind of hard to explain, but once you try it, you’ll immediately know what I mean. It’s not louder, it’s just more there. 

The leader also gets put through a plate reverb and a simple delay. I’ve become more enamored with plates over the years; they add just enough ambiance to air out the vocal, without becoming too spacey. Then I have a delay; the time of which is determined by the tempo the song. I’ll come back to that in a moment. Both of those effects are fed from an aux and brought back into the mix via a channel. I could insert the FX on the channels, but we often have different singers leading songs during services, and putting it on an aux makes it easier to move them in and out of “leader mode.”

BGVs are simply run through a hall reverb. Also on an aux, it is easy to control how much reverb is added to the mix. I use the hall to make the BGVs sound bigger than they are. On a normal weekend, we have 2, maybe 3 background singers, but I like it to sound like more. With some hall, I can make them bigger, and  by varying the amount of dry and wet keep them back in the mix, or pull them out more in front. I like to try to visualize the BGVs as a “bandshell” behind the leader, making it easier to hear the leader, while rounding out the sound.

As for setting decay times, I’ve adapted a process that I first leaned about from Dave Pensado. He talked about setting the delay to a 16th or 8th note of the song one time, so I gave it a try. I was happy with the result, so I keep doing it. I’ve found that about 90% of the time, I’m really happy with a 16th note delay on the lead vocal. It rounds it out without having a perceptible echo—unless the tempo drops below 70, then I shorten it up by ear (sometimes as short as 102 msec.).

Then one day I was trying to figure out a method to help my new volunteers with decay times on the reverb. I wondered if setting it by tempo would work. So I tried it. Again, I was happy with the result. Unlike the delay, which has a little more predictable time setting, I go with a value that equals either a half, three-quarter or whole note. Again, about 90% of the time, I’m happy with the result. 

All of this is a bit like the English language, however. There are some rules, and a lot of exceptions. Sometimes the tempo method I just described works great. Other times, it’s too much or too little. In that case, I change it. I was teaching this in a church a while back and I think I spent almost as much time telling to be unafraid to break the rules as I did explaining the rules in the first place. So remember, these are starting points and guides, not absolutes. 

I’ve been doing this for about 6-8 months now, and like I said, I’ve been very happy with the results. It’s quick to set up for each song (I don’t ever get more than 2 runs through each song before a service, so it has to be fast), and it’s easy to show my volunteers.

That’s my method; what’s your story? How do you approach vocal effects? Who knows, I’ve changed my methods more than once—maybe I’ll adopt yours…

UPDATE: I realized later in the day that I should have pointed out the fact that our band plays to a click, so the stated tempo is consistent for the song, every time. If we didn't play to a click, I would adapt as needed. END UPDATE

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