Modern Song Production: Vocal Layering

There is a lot of back and forth in music about “genre” and “sub-genre” mainly because everyone likes to think of themselves as different from everyone else making music. Truth is, most of us are looking for the same thing- radio play. If you haven’t noticed, radio is still the primary medium that most of us hear our new music. Getting played on the radio equates to money, mullah, dinero, cheddar, cake etc.... Furthermore, it means that the more our songs are played on the radio, the higher up the Billboard charts the song will climb, hopefully landing in the Hot 100 and Top 40. Look at the Billboard charts today and you will see music and bands from every genre imaginable: dance, hip hop, country, rock, whatever it is you want to call it; but Pop Music is what it truly is. Now that we have that out of the way we can start looking at what most of these songs have in common.

If we start listening to what a lot of the Top 40 songs have in common, it becomes obvious that there is a lot of presence in the vocal sound and tone. Listen to songs by Usher, Carrie Underwood, Lil Wayne, Five Finger Death Punch, Kylie Minogue, and even Justin Beiber, we start to see how present and “big” the vocals of these songs sound, right in your face! The sound is telling you “this is something to pay attention to”. DISCLAIMER: Even though we are talking about vocals, this same technique is also utilized for instruments as well, such as guitar, drums, key’s, etc… This “popular” sound utilized by top producers today is accomplished by vocal layering and placement techniques. Let’s look at some basic principles to help you with layering.

Get comfortable with repetition. It amazes me when singers/musicians give me that blank stare after I tell them to sing the part two or three times. So get comfortable with the idea of doing takes several times so you can have material to work with. If we look at lead vocals in hit records, it is not uncommon to use three tracks of individual lead vocals combined to make “THE LEAD VOCAL” in the song ( as even done with the recent hit “Call Me Maybe.”) Within these tracks, one would be the “main,” panned center, and the other two would be panned left and right. You can see in the picture below, the three tracks called Vox-L, Vox-C, Vox-R that represents the Lead Vocal part for this song. There is also some routing going on to allow us greater flexibility. First off, the singer sang the lead part 3 separate times. Each track did require a series of punch-ins and an overall comp to get the best possible takes for each track. The singer did not try too hard to sing the left and right parts exactly the same as the Lead in the center since we are not trying to create a Harmony with this. No lie, this does take a while, it will generally take you / the singer a bit to record, re-record, edit, and comp everything together, but the payoff is beautiful sound. Once you’ve finished with the recording and editing, make sure you Pan the tracks accordingly, Left, Center, Right, thus spreading each of the tracks to a different spatial position. Furthermore, you will have to decide, according to your taste, how to blend these tracks together. Notice in the picture, the Center vocal is sitting a lot louder in the mix than the Left and Right tracks. For your own songs, play with this until you find a nice balance between the tracks, there is no right or wrong way to do this.

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To further help you with the “mix” there is also some creative routing you can do utilizing signal flow within Pro Tools. Here, we are utilizing an Aux track to control the combined signal of our three vocal tracks. This serves us a few ways, a unified volume fader for overall level control, unified Insert points for processing such as EQ and Compression, and also unified Send points for time based effects processing. Setting this up is actually quite painless and only requires a few steps to achieve.

Create a new Stereo Aux Track: Track Menu New Mak sure to give your new Aux Trak a name once you create it.

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Go to the Output of each of your vocal tracks and select an available Stereo Bus. Do this for each of you tracks that are part of the layer.

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Finally, select the Input of your new Aux Track to be the same Bus point as you used for the output of the Audio Tracks.

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I have chosen to name my Bus points to “Main Vox”. Once again, documentation is the key to survival in the studio. If you don’t keep track of what’s going on it all becomes a mess. You can quickly rename any bus by Right-Clicking on the Input or Output button and Selecting “Rename”.

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This entire process should only take a minute or so to set up

At this point, a few things should become apparent:
The volume fader on your Aux track is now controlling the final output level of your “vocal”. You can control the balance between L, C. R. with each track’s individual fader, and control the overall with the Aux track. This is especially handy once you get to the volume automation stage of a mix where you need to “ride” the vocal at different parts of the song. Furthermore, since the audio signal is flowing through the Aux Track any Insert you launch on the Aux track affects the overall signal of your vocal tracks. For example, you can put an EQ on the Aux track to fine-tune the vocal tone. You don’t have to apply three different EQ’s to three different tracks, this saves processing power in your mix as well. You will notice in the picture below, the Insert section of the Aux Track has an EQ first, followed by a Compressor.

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As you can see, the technical side is quite easy to set up, but as always, the creative side can be a little more difficult. Is there a “right” way to use Equalizers, Compressors, Delay’s, and so forth? Well, it’s all about taste and who you ask. Many known mix engineers have a specific “sound” they like. The main thing a good Mix Engineer will do is to make sure the parts sound good together, as a whole- and yet those individual parts often sound strange to the ear when soloed. Therefore, don’t be afraid to EQ things in a way that might sound odd or apply Compression in a way not recommended by a manual. Make sure your final judgment of changes is made while the music is playing so you can truly get a sense of what it sound like in a mix. It doesn’t matter how good the vocal sounds when you press the Solo button; it has to sound good with the music.

It’s always about the music.


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