You know that saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”? I have the same feeling towards vocal effects. If you can’t use a reverb or delay without going overboard, then you’re not allowed to use effects. 🙂
The only reason I seem a bit bitter towards vocal effects and effects in general is because I was a sucker for them. My first several recording projects were just completely swimming in reverb. Maybe drowning is a better word. It was like I wanted the whole wide world to know that I knew how to use reverb.
The truth of the matter is that reverb is becoming less and less prominent in popular recordings today. Just listen to one of your favorite tracks from the 80’s. Now listen to one of your favorite tracks from this decade. Notice anything? In just about every popular genre we’ve witnessed the lead vocal become more and more dry and in-your-face.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. It can make it more difficult on a singer. In the 80’s a singer could hide a lot of his/her mistakes behind a big wall of reverbs and delays. Today the lead vocal is more exposed, more bare. This, I believe, is part of the reason for this “perfect vocal” craze that’s going on in pop music. (More on this in the post Thoughts on Auto-Tune.)
What effects to use?
I’ve got nothing against effects…honestly, I don’t. They can add a LOT to a recording, especially if they’re used properly. (Think “subtle” rather than “obvious.”)
When you think about reverb, you tend to think about a big cathedral or something like that. As I mentioned before, the popular production style of today is leave the vocal fairly dry and not to use a lot of long-tailed reverbs.
You may wonder, then, “Why use reverb at all?” Well, if you leave a vocal completely dry, chances are it will just seem TOO in-your-face. Using even a small amount of reverb will give it some much-needed depth.
All a reverb does is simulate a room. You don’t have to pick the “Concert Hall” setting to get a good reverb sound. A lot of time the smaller room settings are perfect. It puts the singer into a room rather than a vocal booth. Nobody wants to hear a singer in a vocal booth. They sound much better (and much more natural) in a room. Reverb can make that happen.
When using reverb, it shouldn’t be obvious. You should use just enough so that you would notice it if you were to take it away. That’s all you need.
Now, there are certain situations where a big ‘ol reverb makes perfect since…but I’m thinking more along the lines of orchestral music rather than a pop vocal.
To be honest, I don’t use a lot of delay when I produce a song. More often than not, I’ll use delay to give a doubling effect to the vocal. I’ll set up a delay plug-in with a very short delay, like 20 ms.
If you want to use longer delays, it can be really cool. Sync the delay to the tempo of the song, then set it to repeat the delayed signal every eighth note or quarter note. Or if you’re feeling feisty, try something funky like a dotted eight note.
When using longer delays, you probably won’t want the delay “on” all the time. You may only want it on certain phrases or on certain sections of the song. In this case, simply automate the send up and down, so it only sends the vocal to the reverb when you tell it to. (You can also automate the send mute to achieve this.)
How do you set it up?
I’m not going to go in-depth into how to set up a reverb and delay in this article. I’ve actually already created a video explaining how to set up a reverb track in Pro Tools. All the same principles apply for delays, except you just use a delay plug-in instead of a reverb plug-in.
What do you think about vocal effects? Leave a comment and let us all know.
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