Cosmic Academy's "Start Up Vocal Chain" for a Great Sounding Vocal in Minutes
Updated: Sep 17
Here at Cosmic Academy we get questions from producers and our students about vocal processing every single day. And for good reason! A great sounding vocal can turn a good song into an absolute hit. We want to help get you started with a classic processing chain that works!
Yes...we know...there are many, many other things we can do to get an amazing result in processing a vocal, but today we want to share a tried and true chain that can achieve a good result in just a few minutes! This is a great way to immediately start working with the vocal and vibing in the studio with something that should get you pretty close to where you need to be!
And remember, plug-in order matters here! With that said, let's jump into the good stuff.
1. Basic Corrective EQ
Your first step should be to take a bit out of the low end with a simple low cut filter. Try not too go too far, though! If the vocal begins to lose its body, that's a sign to ease up. The goal here is to remove low end rumble from the recording, which just adds necessary noise and could cause problems in your processing chain.
You can typically cut some mid frequencies as well, where frequencies tend to build up in a vocal. 250 hz is a starting point to look at—it tends to be an unpleasant frequency and a great place to start.
2. De-Esser to Remove Harsh “Sibilant” Sounds
This one is incredibly important! Those harsh "ess" and "shh" sounds can really wreck a good vocal or even make a track unlistenable if not carefully managed!
In an ideal scenario, you would go into the audio of the vocal and do some manual de-essing first, before the audio even hits your processing chain, by literally going in and finding those harsh "sibilant" sounds and manually turning them down. That way you don't have to rely solely on the de-esser plug-in to do this job for you.
But even if you do have the time do that manual process, we still recommend some light de-essing to make sure you capture any spillover spots.
Managing those harsh sounds will save your listeners' ears!
3. LA-2A to Gently Manage Dynamics
This one does absolute magic on vocals. The LA-2A is one of the most classic and ubiquitous pieces of hardware audio gear ever made. Attack Magazine even named it the best compressor of all time!
At Cosmic Academy one thing we suggest trying in your chain is to use the LA-2A in limiter mode to tame the loudest parts of the vocal overall. When the vocal performance gets loud, try to aim for about 3 dB of gain reduction. This compressor is hard to make sound bad, so it's okay to lean into it a bit, but it won't be the only compressor in your chain, so no need to ask it to do all the work, either!
The goal with this one is not really to shape the really fast aspects of the performance, but more to gently manage the overall levels and catch the louder parts and keep them in check.
The definitive LA-2A emulation is the Universal Audio version (and a free version of the "legacy" version of the plugin comes with the purchase of most Apollo interfaces), but the Waves Audio version, called the CLA-2A, also gives a great sound!
4. 1176 to Shape the Vocal
The 1176 is another absolute classic that works wonders on a vocal! Unlike the job of the LA-2A, which is meant to gently tame the loud parts of the performance, this compressor is used to tame and shape the performance. It's fast enough to even shape the way the syllables and change the perceived aggressiveness.
Feel free to be a little more heavy-handed on this one to really get the result you're looking for, and utilize the attack and release to fit the style of vocal you’re using.
Again here Universal Audio and Waves Audio both make great emulations!
4. Reverb Delay Bus / Send
This is a subtle but effective one. Instead of putting a reverb or delay on the actual channel of the vocal itself, try using a send to send the signal to a bus / aux that has the reverb on it! You can then do the same thing with delays. Lots of different types of reverbs and delays work here, but plate reverbs and a nice half note delay sound 👌
The reason to try this is because it allows you to have separate control over the dry vocal signal, separately from any mixing decisions you make about the reverb or delay signal coming off the bus or return channel. This allows for better precision, and also enables you to process the effects separately with EQ, saturation, and even sidechain, while also allowing the dry vocal to remain unaffected and up front in the mix.
We hope this helps! Share this article with a fellow producer who you think could benefit from it!