ULTIMATE POP VOCALS: THE BREAKDOWN

#1: BELTED + PRESENT

Ever since launching the Ultimate Pop Vocals pack for Logic Pro X back in April, I’ve had requests from lots of users asking me to explain some of the thinking behind the vocal templates - what exactly are the plugins doing at each stage of the vocal chain? What kind of vocals can I use them for?


You may have already seen my video breaking down the "In Your Ear" preset but I didn’t want to just stop there.


Following on from that video, I wanted to give you a series of breakdowns where I explain the chains in a bit more depth, talking about the kind of vocals each preset was built for, and how you can maximise the potential of each vocal chain to achieve a killer vocal sound.


So without further ado, let’s take a look at a vocal chain…


First up in the pack is the “Belted + Present” template. Over the years I’ve recorded many vocalists with an incredibly dynamic range. The kind of singers who can go from super quiet to absolutely belting out a note in a single breath. These performances are great and often evoke tons of emotion but they can present a challenge for engineers. It’s up to us to find a way to keep the vocal sounding consistent without squashing the life out of it with a compressor.


So how do we retain dynamic consistency and keep the vocal upfront without squashing the life out of it?


Once we’ve got the gain staging set with the Gain plugin, the first move is to clean the vocal up with the Channel EQ.

Channel EQ plugin in Logic Pro X

The Channel EQ in this chain is cutting out everything all the way up to nearly 200Hz. This may seem extreme but in the case of a vocalist who is really going for it, vocals can quickly become boomy and introduce unwanted resonance in the lower frequencies so cleaning it up pretty hard is useful. You can back it off a touch if it’s too much.


We’re also taking out some 2kHz - this is the range that can become piercing and shrill so dipping a little out around this area can make the vocal much smoother and easier on the ears, particularly on smaller speakers and headphones. Again, dial this in to taste.


Finally, a 3dB boost at 5kHz and upwards helps to open the vocal up, adding some air and keeping the vocal sitting above the track.


Next up in the chain is the Vintage FET Compressor. Modelled on the legendary 1176 compressor, this compressor is fast and perfect for grabbing the transients on a vocal, taming any wild peaks.

Vintage FET compressor plugin in Logic Pro X

You’ll notice we’re using a fast attack along with a reasonably fast release, as well as a 4:1 ratio. The fast attack and release settings will help to grab the vocal and bring it upfront to the listener, sitting nicely above the mix.


We’ll then set the threshold so the compressor only engages on the loudest peaks of the vocal. Note that we’re not trying to squash the vocal right down here, we’re just trying to iron out the loudest transients of the vocal and add a touch more consistency to the performance.


Now that we’ve dealt with any problematic transients, we’re going to use a second compressor to smooth the vocal out even more, helping to squeeze some extra tone out of the performance. The compressor we’ll use here is the Vintage Opto - an emulation of the LA2A compressor. The 1176 into the LA2A is a classic vocal chain combination so this should give us exactly what we want.

Vintage Opto compressor plugin in Logic Pro X

The LA2A famously only had two controls - gain reduction and makeup gain. The ratio was variable on the original meaning that the further the compressor was pushed, the more the ratio increased. Things are different on the Logic version, which introduces more features such as attack and release times, as well as a ratio control.


In this instance, we’re going to use a relatively fast attack, coupled with a medium release. This will allow the very fastest transients to pass through untouched, whilst the longer, sustained notes will be smoothed out by the compressor. The threshold can be set so that only the quietest parts of the vocal are left unaffected.


Using these settings means we keep the vocal clear and intelligible but keep the overall dynamic of the vocal under control.


Once you’re happy the dynamics are under control and the vocal is sitting in the right spot throughout the track, it’s time to sweeten it up with some additional EQ. I’ve chosen the Vintage Graphic EQ - modelled on the API 560.

Vintage Graphic EQ plugin in Logic Pro X

This EQ is not always a go-to for vocals but I personally like what it adds. We’re dipping some of the midrange bands out to remove some harshness and clean it up a touch; boosting around 280Hz to add a little more body; then boosting the top frequencies some more in order to really open the vocal up and help it shine.


Next in the chain is the Phat FX - arguably one of the best sounding and most versatile plugins bundled with Logic Pro X. I personally love the distortion and saturation options in this plugin and that’s what we’re going to be using it for.

Phat FX plugin in Logic Pro X

A small amount of ‘soft saturation’ and ‘tube’ saturation adds some harmonic excitement to the vocal, blended in around 80% should give your vocal the extra bump it needs to come alive.


As always, set this to taste - you may find your vocal wants a little more grit to it, or perhaps the saturation is adding a little too much colour. Whatever works!


Last in the chain is the DeEsser 2. Adding a bunch of compression, saturation, and boosting those upper frequencies is almost certainly going to introduce some sibilance issues. That’s completely natural and to be expected, but it is a problem we’ll need to deal with.

DeEsser 2 plugin in Logic Pro X

Set at around 7kHz, the DeEsser 2 will help clean up any sibilance and harshness in the upper frequencies. Every vocal is different though, so play around with the threshold and frequency to make sure you’re dealing with any problematic areas.


Now that your dry vocal is sounding great, it’s probably time to spice it up with some reverb and/or delays. I’d recommend pairing it with the ‘Big Vocal Verb’ Bus preset, and maybe even some ‘Natural Room’ too.


Go ahead and try this vocal chain out on your next mix and let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear the results!


Happy mixing! 🙌


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