Got this question today from Alex:

Is it a good idead to add an expander plugin on my vocal track? Could I make an AUX track and use it as a send for my vocals?

I notice how it kills the background noise in my headphones and just really pick up my vocals.

Thanks Alex.

If you’ve listened to my podcast, watched any of my YouTube videos, or bought any of my tutorial products, you’ve heard me using an expander/gate on vocals.

For all tutorial videos I shoot, I use a gate to help cut back on any extra noise in the system. I’ve used both a hardware gate and software expanders, both work pretty well.

What’s the point? If you’re recording vocals in a home studio, chances are your tracks have some noise on them (computer fan noise, hard drives, lawnmowers, etc.). You might actually be considering building a vocal booth to combat some of this noise. Before you do, though, spend some time playing with an expander.

With a little work, you can make your recordings sound like they were tracked in a vocal booth. Granted, if the noise is SUPER loud, you’ll still hear it while the vocalist is singing, but if it’s really just background noise, a gate/expander will essentially get rid of it.

How does it work? Essentially, a gate/expander turns the signal down whenever it drops below a certain level. If you’re not familiar with gates/expanders, go watch this video: Intro to Gates/Expanders.

Let’s say you’re mixing a lead vocal, and you need to use a lot of compression to get the tone you want. But now (since compression turns up quiet sources), there’s more room noise on the track, and you hear it during the sections when the singer’s not singing.

Enter the expander. Set up an expander/gate plug-in on the track, and set it so that it turns the vocal down by 6 dB or so whenever he’s not singing. BAM. Cleaner vocal.

Will it work every time? Nope. But it’s definitely worth adding to your toolbox.

Leave a comment below and tell us how YOU deal with noise in your recordings.

  • Learner Forever

    Hello Joe, Thanks, very clear explanation. I have an external channel strip (dbx 286s) which has a gate / expander built in it. After reading this article I’m confused; shall I apply the gate pre-recording via my dbx hardware, or later in the mix as a plug-in? In other words, how do I decide between hardware and software gates (assume I have both). Thanks again!

    • It’s up to you. Try both. See what you like. I personally never run tracks back out to hardware after I’ve recorded them, but there’s no reason you couldn’t.

  • Dude! I run the Solid State Logic Duende channel strip for my go-to EQ and compressor. It also however as a gate/expander section I have never really found a use for, until now. Ive used gates for guitar pedals and the gater effect on vocals like in typical DJ style. I knew exactly how they worked but I never really put two and two together (ive never been good at addition) and realized what it could do in a mixing application. Thanks so much!

  • Maybe this is a silly question, but why not just cut out the parts where the singer is not singing?

    • That’s certainly an option, but it takes time to do. Setting an expander is fast and doesn’t require lots of edits. Neither way is wrong, though.

      • Then I guess it’s ok to use expander as a quick solution, but even then to go on and edit the tracks and cut the garbage out later when you get the time. It certainly saves up computing power and CPU.

        • BUT…you could argue that lots of edits creates more work for the hard drive.

          Also, something I didn’t mention is sometimes you don’t want to completely remove the noise between phrases. Editing will completely get rid of it and may sound unnatural, whereas using an expander will simpler TURN DOWN the noise. This can sound much more natural.

          • You’re right about that, but I’d say it only applies to cleaner recordings (in studio, vocal booth, etc…) For amateurs like me that record in their rooms, maybe cutting the noise out is still better solution…?

            • That’s all this website is for…people who record in their rooms. I’ve tried it, and I think it sounds more natural (sometimes) with a drop in volume rather than a cut altogether. You need to just try it and decide for yourself.

              • Thank you very much.
                I just stumbled upon this site today and the little I already saw here is some really great stuff. It seams just like the thing I was looking for, so I guess I’ll stick around 🙂

  • Excellent Article, even though I don’t have room treatment and record Right in my Kitchen in the corner of all places, I don’t notice much room noise but that could be because my ears are not elitely Trained enough to notice it., I must try a vocal expander to see if it adds an element of tighteness to my vocal/track sound ratio

  • Preshan

    Would you use the expander before the compressor? I would think this would give the expander more dynamic range to work more effectively?

    Great post Joe! What’s with the Studio One screenshot though?? 😉 It is a great DAW though..

    • Yeah before the compressor usually makes sense. (Been messing around with S1 a little bit, pretty cool.)

    • Yeah before the compressor usually makes sense. (Been messing around with S1 a little bit, pretty cool.)

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  • I cut it all up, the gates in logic pro aren’t really that good on vocals so I usually end up just manually cutting up a mix and getting rid of all the parts where there is no singing and then top and tail (fade) the cut up pieces.

  • Good advice Joe!! I’ve done some voice-over work and other vocal recordings and my outboard expander (DBX) kept the the little noises in my studiio in check. 🙂