Early in my days of recording, I noticed the lead vocal was very dull in a mix I was trying to do. At this time I didn’t have many plugins, and mostly relied on the stock EQs, compressors, etc. that came with Pro Tools.
At this time I knew the main concepts of recording and mixing, however I didn’t have many tricks up my sleeve, but I was starting to rack them up one by one. So I wasn’t quite sure what to do about this dull vocal.
Making My Custom Exciter
Obviously my first thought was to use an EQ to add some high end. This fixed little bits of the vocal but I found that the highs would push through way too much at some points and still be very dull and muddy at other points.
In my quick search online, I found an article suggesting that I add an exciter to help brighten up a track. I looked up what an exciter was and another article suggested that it would compress the high end of the sound source and boost that up.
Because I didn’t have an exciter plugin at the time, I figured I’d make my own.
So I sent the vocal to an aux track. Then I added a high pass filter and pushed it way up to around 3-4kHz. I then put in a compressor, dialled in a fast attack, fast release, high ratio and set the threshold so that it was just tickling the quietest vocal parts, meaning that the loudest parts were getting well and truly squished.
When I slowly brought the plugin in alongside the original vocal channel I noticed a massive difference in the tone. Suddenly the vocal had a beautiful sense of life and air that it hadn’t had before.
Now, there are enhancers that have this kind of effect as standard, but I didn’t know much about them. There are also multiband compressors/limiters that do this too, but many of them are costly and can also be quite CPU hungry.
My version is extremely versatile in comparison to many of these plugins too, as you have all the setting of both the EQ and compressor at your fingertips. And you can change which compressors/EQs you want to use. Or you can throw a distortion or chorus in the middle to change the sound a bit.
After I got the sound on the vocal I wanted, I made another Aux track for the drum overheads and copied the plugins across. Suddenly the cymbals and snare came to life and, with a few tweaks here and there, I got a bright and beautiful drum sound.
I then did the same thing with the guitars, keys, and many other instruments with varying levels of success in the sonic results. This was very exciting for me because I felt that I’d created a whole new set of plugins out of the free stock plugins. And they were MY sound.
I still often use this technique on many of my tracks.
Bring Back That Stock Reverb
This technique of altering the sounds you have at hand is extremely helpful when it comes to delays and reverbs. Finding the right delay and reverb sounds can be quite a time consuming and costly task, but it doesn’t have to be.
Many times I have trawled through each of my reverb plugins, checking each and every convolution reverb, trying to find the one that sounds the same as I have in my head. Every time I would find one that was “close enough” but not quite hit the spot.
If you do the same, try instead picking the most stock standard reverb that you have (this technique only works if you use an auxiliary reverb channel). Pick a basic setting, something like hall or plate, whatever gets the basic vibe of what you’re after.
Now put an EQ plugin before the reverb. Put in a low pass and high pass filter in and shift them around until you get a sound that works for you. Why not try adding a bell frequency in the midrange and boost and cut it, sweeping it around until you find a sound that sounds right for your track.
It’s important to note that because you’ve placed your EQ before the reverb, you’re affecting the sound going into the reverb. Now you can put another EQ after the reverb and play with that for even more versatility. Suddenly your standard, basic reverb has a whole new dimension of sounds.
Vintage, Warm Tape Delay
There are a million Delay plugins out there and many that boast a warm tape sound. These plugins usually have a nice vintage interface look and a price tag to accompany. Sometimes they come with some fairly cool modulation effects as well.
Before you go and start shelling out all your hard earned cash on all these delays to get your songs sounding tip top, let’s have a look at what these plugins are actually doing. Most of the time there are some fairly basic processes going on that give the plugins these desirable sounds.
If you want to make the sound a bit warmer, try putting a low pass filter on the delay aux. If you want the sound a bit more “lo-fi”, put a low and high pass and bring them right in so you get a telephone sound and then compress it. Try adding a distortion sound and see what that does.
For those modulation tones, try your stock chorus, flanger or phaser and see what that does to your delay tone. It could be just what the doctor ordered. Suddenly you’ve got more sounds than you’d have if you paid for that expensive tape delay emulator. Plus, you’ll probably get the sound you wanted quicker than if you searched through heaps of different delays.
All Your Modulation Plugins
These same ideas can be used on chorus’, flangers, phasers and heaps of other types of plugins. You can easily use stock plugins to change the flavour of pretty much any modulation plugin that you want to use.
With sounds that you’re running parallel, you have to make sure that you have delay compensation so that you don’t get any dodgy phasing issues, so make sure that you have that feature enabled.
Adding a distortion before or after a chorus sound and then blending it lightly with the original track can add a type of tone that adds a whole new dimension to your sound. And the best part is that a lot of these kind of sounds have never been heard before. Some will be completely original.
So next time you feel like you need a whole bunch of new plugins to get some great sounds happening, just remember that you may not be using the plugins that you have to their full potential just yet.
I think some of the best sounds have come from the creative use of the plugins or equipment that is at hand. Don’t forget that the basic plugins that come with your DAW are more often than not of a very high quality.
Good luck and happy mixing!
If you have an comments or questions, feel free to let me know in the comments section below.