One of the most difficult things to get right in any mix is the vocals, which is the reason that most engineers obsess over their vocal chains.
The good thing is, getting a great vocal sound doesn’t have to be challenging, as long as you know how to get where you want to go. While you’ll always have a bit of tweaking to do, even with the best vocal signal chains, having one handy can help you quickly dial in a professional vocal sound.
Today, I’m going to walk you through one of my favorite vocal chains that works for pretty much any vocal mix, regardless of the genre. I’ll also take you through a few of my favorite plugins for the job, though the processes I’ll explain can be done with alternative plugins.
Of course, mixing is a subjective art. There are so many variables to consider when mixing vocals. Different vocals will require vocal chain manipulation. You may end up having to use more plugins than are on the list or none at all.
To help you build a foundation on which to mix, we want to get you started.
Note: this article may contain affiliate links, which mean that I receive a commission for any purchases you make, at no added cost to you.
What Is a Signal Chain and Why Plugin Order Matters!
When a mixing engineer talks about signal chains, they are referring to the pathway your signal (audio) takes to get from point A to point B.
Typically, signal chains are made up of various processors arranged in very particular orders to get the results one desires.
The order of plugins can have a MASSIVE impact on the final sound. For example, one might choose to use an EQ on a vocal to get rid of the unnecessary low end before sending it into a compressor. However, some mixing engineers may want the compressor to react to that low-end, in which case they’d put the EQ with the high-pass filter after the compressor.
Here's an easy signal chain experiment you can try. Take a signal (a loop, vocals, whatever) and first try running it into reverb and then delay. Then try running it into delay and then reverb. You should notice a major difference.
Given that most vocals have a dozen or more plugins on them, it's really important to get your vocal signal chain order set correctly.
Overview of the Best Vocal Signal Chain
There is one underlying theory behind all this guide to vocal signal chains: get rid of the unwanted aspects, control the dynamics, then enhance. So the first few plugins remove bad frequencies, harsh sibilance, and unwanted noise. Then we use compressors to take the clean signal and control it, stacking them elegantly to get full, consistent vocals. From there, we use various tools to bring out the best in the vocals, from EQ to saturation.
Throughout the vocal signal chain, I recommend using plugins that emulate vintage analog mixing hardware. These types of plugins can do so much to add extra richness, warmth, and depth to your vocal productions, compared to using more sterile digital tools.
Pitch Correction with Antares
Before you start changing the tonal qualities of your vocals, you need to make sure the singing is actually in key. As a first step, I manually tune my vocals in my DAW's sequencer to make sure all of the notes are in the ball park.
Then I use Antares' Auto-Tune to help me fine tune the vocal pitch subtly. I AM NOT GOING FOR THE T-PAIN EFFECT. In fact, when used right, Auto-Tune shouldn't be audible. It simply provides some gentle tightening to the pitch that allows the vocal to sound more consistent and clear. If the vocal is especially problematic, I might stack two Auto-Tunes in sequence, and have each of them do a subtle amount of work, instead of trying to force one of them to do all of the work.
Auto-Tune even sounds great on rap vocals, as it will help enhance the melodic content of a verse in a very musical way. Just be sure to properly set the key of the song and the vocal frequency range!
Subtractive EQ with Pro-Q3
One of the first steps I usually take with a vocal is subtractive EQ. There are almost always small portions of frequencies in raw vocals that I know I don’t like or don’t want to use in my final mix. Plus, subtractive EQ is one of the most powerful tools for shaping vocals early on in the mix.
When it comes to subtractive EQ, I’m thinking about attenuating parts of the vocal that I do not want to amplify with compression or additional processing later down the line. Of course, don’t limit yourself if you hear something that you want to amplify slightly. For example, sometimes, I like to give my raw vocal a slight high shelf to bring out a bit of shimmer above 8-10kHz.
One of my favorite EQ plugins for the job is FabFilter Pro-Q3 (read my Pro-Q3 review here).
For starters, Pro-Q3 has an ultra-clean interface, which is even easier to navigate than it is to look at. The real-time analyzer is extremely helpful for clearing out unwanted low-end and room resonances, which often appear in raw recordings.
It’s easy to solo various bands and pinpoint the frequencies you want to attenuate as well. Plus, if you have other instances of Pro-Q3 running on other tracks, such as your bass, guitars, or drums, you can see where, if at all, if your vocal is masking or being masked by another instrument.
Lastly, FabFilter makes some of the cleanest processing tools around. FabFilter Pro-Q3 is a great example of a clean and transparent parametric EQ that works marvels for surgical work. With the ability to create several bands and easily manipulate the various parameters of each band to shape your vocal, it is a must-have plug-in for any modern mixing engineer.
De-Ess with Stock De-Esser
When it comes to de-essing, there are plenty of excellent plugins out there. Weiss De-esser and FabFilter’s De-esser plugin are two great options. However, I most often find myself using my stock de-esser.
Well, it just sounds great! The stock de-esser on Pro Tools is easy to navigate and has everything I need to get rid of harsh sibilance. Just about every DAW comes with a stock de-esser, so you shouldn’t need to worry about spending money on one.
You can also use a multi-band compressor in place of a de-esser, or in conjunction with one. Here is our guide for how to use a de-esser and the best de-esser plugins.
Noise Gate Using Stock Noise Gate
Again, when it comes to stock plugins, the gate that comes with your DAW should be able to get the job done. The beauty of gates is that they can save you time from having to go out and edit out any parts in your vocal recording that you don’t want to be present.
Plus, gates can help reduce breaths and background noise without cutting them out completely, leaving you with a far more natural sound.
I like to set my gate so that it attenuates the sound of the vocal when it dips below the threshold instead of setting it to cut out the signal completely. Be sure to listen to the vocals a few times through with the gate on to make sure your not unnecessarily cutting short any words.
And if you have some real trouble spots, don't hesitate to manually use the sequencer to edit out any random noise!
Gain Stage with a PreAmp Emulation
We've now finished with the first stage of our vocal chain, which is removing all the harshness. The next steps will all involve control and tone shaping. Which will require us to pay more attention to levels.
Throughout the rest of the process, we will be using vintage emulating plugins to get your sound even warmer and lusher. For these plugins to work their best, though, you need to feed them a signal of the appropriate loudness.
Typically, we want to shoot for -18dBFs, as measured on a VU meter. You don't want to add any additional gain with each plugin in your chain. Rather, you want each plugin to keep passing along a signal that is -18dBFs. So if you boost some frequencies using EQ, you need to be sure to bring the overall level of the EQ plugin back down to -18 dBFs.
Similarly, if you reduce the volume of the vocals using compression, you'll need to use make up gain to boost the levels back up to -18dBFs so the next plugin in the chain can do its job.
At the start of this part of the vocal signal chain, I like to add a vintage emulating preamp to add some harmonics and saturation, and to set the gain properly for the plugins that follow. I don't usually use any built-in EQ at this stage. I'm purely using the preamp for warmth and level control. When it comes to great, warm preamps, there are a lot of fantastic choices.
If you're looking for something chunky and warm, like you might hear on Motown classics, the SoundToys' Radiator is your choice. If you're looking for that pristine tone that defined so much of the '70s, then Arturia's Pre-1973 is sure to deliver. And if you're looking for the smooth, rich tones of hip hop, the Avalon Preamp by Universal Audio is silky delicious (but note that you need UAD hardware to power it).
Tape Saturation with SofTube Tape
SoftTube Tape is one of the best tape plugins around and one of the most affordable. Using tape emulation on vocals is a great way to impart that “vibe” we were talking about earlier.
But adding tape will do more than just add vibe. It can also be used to subtly enhance your track. Adjusting the tape speed and high frequency trim can help you get the high end of your vocals to sound just right. SofTube Tape also adds subtle, natural amounts of compression and saturation to your vocals, helping to organically fatten them up.
SoftTube Tape emulates THREE classic tape machines, giving you plenty of sonic flexibility without confusing controls like many other effects plugins. Every control on the SoftTube Tape plugin, including Character, Type, and Tape Speed, can be found on the main screen.
Beyond the control and flexibility, SoftTube Tape is very easy on the CPU, making it great for those who often record lots of vocal tracks with multiple busses. While we believe SofTube's tape plugin is a great choice, check out our guide to the best tape emulation plugins for more ideas.
Compress with SoftTube FET Compressor
Once you’ve shaped your vocal with subtractive EQ, it’s time to even out the dynamics.
There are so many 1176 emulations out on the market today, though one of our absolute favorites for vocals has to be the Arturia Comp FET-76. It takes the sound of the 1176 further, providing users with tons of different parameters to mess with to dial in the perfect amount of compressor.
One of the best things about this FET compressor is that it can give vocals the punch and grit they need to cut through a mix. If you push it hard enough, you can even get a bit of distortion, great for high-energy rock or metal mixes.
The reason I like to use the FET compressor first is that it catches peaks really well because of its fast attack nature. The amount that you need to compress depends on your needs, so don’t let anyone tell you not to go above 3dB.
However, this will be the first compressor in our two-compressor serial compression series, so don’t feel the need to obliterate your dynamics just yet. It's just there for the harshest spots. Don't be afraid to experiment with the Comp-FET 76's wet/dry knob if you're going for more extreme settings. If you need help setting up your compressor, this article will show you how to use compression.
Compress with Summit Audio TLA-100A
The Summit Audio TLA-100A is an emulation of the classic LA-2A compressor from Universal Audio and delivers a sound that is very close to the original. There is no better duo in modern music than a FET compressor paired with an optical-style compressor. When placed after the SoftTube FET Compressor in a mix, the TLA-100A helps to smooth out vocals while catching any final peaks that passed the first compressor.
And both of these compressors working together will also have the benefit of enriching your sound with warm, subtle harmonic saturation.
Its smooth compression characteristics are much more transparent compared to the FET Compressor, though it has a unique way of adding presence to any vocal you slap it on. Plus, with the ability to adjust parameters that aren’t on the original LA-2A, such as Attack, Release, and Saturation, you can manipulate your vocals in ways that weren’t always possible.
The bottom section includes a “Parallel Inject” knob, which allows you to dial in heavy compression and saturation settings and mix it in with your dry vocal, giving you the best of both worlds. There’s also a unique sidechain feature, which allows you to trigger the compressor with another signal in your track.
You won’t find an LA-2A emulation with this kind of versatility anywhere else. If you're interested in more compressors, here's our rundown of the best compressor VSTs.
Level Automation with Outlaw
Automating a vocal manually can be a MAJOR pain. While compression can do the majority of the heavy lifting needed for dynamic control, you will typically need to ride the faders to dial in that final 10%.
Why do you need to automate your vocal levels, though? Because you want your vocals to alway sound clear, clean, and upfront. So when the sing may be singing a little quietly, you'll need to add some additional volume. And for those notes where the singer really lets it rip, you may want to pull back on the fader to keep the vocals from jumping out. Frankly, volume automation is the only way to ensure that your vocal is present the whole time. When done properly, it should be totally transparent.
If you don’t want to spend hours automating each vocal track, we recommend checking out Outlaw by W.A. Production. This gain-riding plugin listens to your incoming vocals and compensates for any changes in volume automatically. In many ways, it works like a robotic mixing desk, moving the “fader” as an engineer would.
It’s so easy to set your target volume and let Outlaw do all of the hard work. That way you don't have to manually set the volume for every second of the song. Especially on songs where you have lots of vocal overdubs!
Tone Shaping EQ with TubeTech EQ
By now, your vocal should be sounding clean, consistent, and powerful. But it may not be feeling captivating yet. That's where the next stage of vocal signal chain kicks in - enhancement!
When it comes to tone shaping and accentuating the best parts of your vocal, we recommend going with the TubeTech EQ from SoftTube. In my opinion, it’s always best to use analog-style EQ plugins for additive EQ, as it imparts unique color and characteristics on vocals. Engineers often use the word “vibe” to describe this kind of color and character, and the TubeTech EQ collection has plenty of vibe.
When you buy the TubeTech EQ collection, you get two emulations of classic EQs: the PE1C and the ME1B.
The Pultec sound is one that has been coveted for many decades, as it provides clean, punchy low-end and silky, shiny high-end. If your vocal is lacking fullness, dialing in a slight bit of low-end with the low boost filter can give it the ‘oomph’ it needs. However, the high-end is where this plugin really shines, as it can make the dullest-sounding, home-recorded vocals sound expensive.
Another thing we love about the TubeTech EQ collection is how straightforward both of the EQs are. Unlike digital parametric EQs, you don’t have tons of parameters that you need to worry about. There are only a few notable onboard controls, each of which has a musical characteristic. No matter how you dial your TubeTech EQ, you’ll come out with an excellent sound.
Plus, if you notice that your vocal is sounding a bit too ‘digital,’ yet you don’t feel like it needs any additional boosts or cuts, you can simply place the TubeTech EQ as an insert on your vocal and allow it to run through the emulated mechanics to give it warmth and fatness.
If you still want additional help, we've put together this guide on how to EQ vocals.
Using Effects Sends for Further Shaping of Your Vocal Chain
For any further vocal shaping, we recommend resorting to sends instead of inserts. Using sends allows you to maintain the solid foundation of your vocals you've just created through your mixing chain, while building in additional depth and character.
For modulation effects, time-based effects, heavy distortion, and anything else beyond what we’ve mentioned above sends are the better choice. For starters, you can send multiple vocals to one instance of reverb instead of placing a reverb plugin on multiple vocal busses, saving your CPU.
Secondly, you can manipulate your sends with inserts to shape your sound in more detail. For example, if you send your vocal to a reverb plugin, you can EQ the reverb send to get rid of any unnecessary low or high-end.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular options for vocal sends.
Plate Reverb Send Using Rev Plate 140
There are many different types of reverb you could want to put on vocals, from room to hall. And some tracks will benefit from them. But you should consider using plate reverb on your vocals for nearly every song you make. If you're confused about reverb, here is a guide to the different types of reverb & when to use them.
When it comes to sonic accuracy, Arturia nailed the sound of the EMT 140 with their invention of the Rev Plate 140 plugin, allowing users to dial in shimmering, analog-style plate reverb in the box.
Similar to the original EMT 140 Plate, which first hit the market back in 1957, the Arturia REV Plate-140 delivers the smooth and resonant tones that we know and love. It’s so easy to dial in the sound you have in your head with the straightforward parameter controls and the easy-to-navigate interface. Plus, Arturia delivered a true emulation with advantages over the original hardware.
For starters, you have three plate models to choose from when using this plugin, giving you plenty of reverb options.
The original EMT-140 was known for its evolving decays, which separated it from the popular chamber reverb sound at the time. Arturia took it a step further by adding chorus modulation, allowing users to spread and manipulate the outgoing sound to add even more character.
Even if you just want to dial in subtle reverb to your vocals, the modeled tube preamp can still deliver vintage character to help fatten up your vocals and give them the saturation they need to cut through the mix. You won’t get this unique analog-style soft clipping from other plate emulations.
By the way, here are some additional vocal reverb tips & tricks for getting the best sounding reverb around.
Delay Send Using Tape Echoes
Delay is crucial for vocals in just about any mix. In fact, I often find myself using delay on my vocals far more than reverb, especially if I’m working on a pop or rock mix where the vocals need to stay upfront. Here is our extensive guide for how to use delay effects in your music.
Plus, it’s easy to create some pretty cool effects with delay too, separating your vocal production from other producers out there.
If you want a side of dirt with your delays (and who wouldn’t?!), then I recommend checking out the Tape Echoes plugin from SoftTube. This vintage tape echo plugin delivers the behaviors of vintage tape delay, giving you a dark, uncontrollable sound to add elements of unexpectedness to your mixes. The sounds have been heard on countless records, including those from Radiohead, King Tubby, Elvis, and more!
While you can use it as you would a regular delay, I love dialing in the Dirt and Drive knobs to give the delay sounds something extra.
If you're looking for a more traditional delay, something clean and full of control, then you can't go wrong with the all time king of delay plugins - Echo Boy! It offers a ton of flexibility and control, great tone shaping features, and a wide variety of saturation options. Here are some more of the best delay plugins.
Parallel Saturation Send Using Decapitator
Whether you’re adding a slight bit of saturation to warm your vocals up and help them cut through the mix, or dialing in some speaker-annihilating distortion, Soundtoys' Decapitator is one of the best saturation plugins around.
For starters, the interface is incredibly easy to use, perfect for those who want to dial in saturation without complicating things.
Secondly, Soundtoys collects and analyzes vintage gear to create its plugins, meaning you get the sound of warmth and harmonic complexity that is hard to nail in the digital world. Decapitator packages up five pieces of distinct saturation and compression hardware, allowing users to dial in everything from the subtle to the extreme. It's great for aggressive rock and hip hop vocals, but it also can add just a touch of sizzle to help any vocal cut through the mix.
While you can use it as a send, it comes with a Mix knob and some low and high-cut filters so you can easily use it as a parallel insert.
If you're not convinced, here are some more of the best distortion and saturation VST plugins.
While it's always nice to record every harmony, it's not always possible. That's where tools to create additional tones can come in.
Eventide is one of the most famous hardware processor companies in the realm of effects. The Eventide H910 recreates the legendary H910 analog processor, which could be found in studios all through the world in the 1970s.
The H910 was the very first digital processor, and though it was simple to use, it could dial in some pretty incredible harmonizing tones to add unique flavors to your mix. The emulation is just as easy to use as the original piece of hardware, faithfully modeling this unique piece of 70s hardware.
If you’re in the market for a warm, analog harmonizer sound, I can’t give you any better recommendations.
And if you'd prefer something with more control and transparent character, the Eventides' Octavox will have you covered. It allows you to get massive harmonies that will instantly transform the vibe of your vocals.
If you looking for some great plugins for vocals, here are my top 16 vocal VSTs.
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