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How To Create Your Perfect Vocal Chain

Whether it’s the Italian opera or East Coast battle rap, the sweetest pop ballad or the most sinister growl, the human voice has had a special place in music for as long as music is around. The vocals not only convey the textual message, but also a large part of the emotional content of a song. After all, we learn from an early age to evaluate the finest emotional vibrations and modulations in the human voice.

Some (I’m one of them) even claim that in popular music you can often get away with average overall production quality if only the vocals are produced professionally, and the rhythm section creates the proper groove.

However, vocal production doesn’t simply mean “recording”! The creative use of voice-altering effects has not only been an integral part of pop music production since Cher’s Autotune-hit “Believe”. Often not even noticed by laymen, the trained ear recognizes in productions across all musical genres the creative intervention of the sound engineer, who – sometimes more, sometimes less subtly – helps shape the sound image.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that vocal production has a high significance in modern music production, and that it’s not uncommon to spend a small fortune on the right equipment to capture exactly the kind of result that perfectly flatters the voice in question and perfectly matches the desired musical effect.

What belongs to a vocal chain?

As great as the influence of acoustics, vocal technique, microphone placement, editing and mixing may be, when people talk about a vocal chain, they are usually referring to the technical components of the recording chain. In the simplest case, this is a microphone, a cable, and an audio interface, but can also include multiple microphones, amplifiers, compressors, reverbs, tape recorders, equalizers, carefully selected converters and clock generators; and not to mention effects such as Auto-Tune, vocoders, pitch shifters, harmonizers, chorus, and so on. In short: it can get quite complex (and also expensive)!

Let’s start with the basics: To turn acoustic sound waves first into alternating electrical voltage and then into digital data that can be recorded (we’ll ignore purely analog recordings here), a total of two conversions are necessary. The first is done by the microphone, the second by a digital converter. To ensure that these two get along well in terms of level and impedance, a microphone amplifier is the linking element.

Even the simplest desktop interface consists of a preamplifier and converter, which are combined in one housing for the sake of simplicity. In some cases, these two components are even placed inside the microphone housing (so-called “digital microphones”). However, many professional sound engineers appreciate the possibility of being able to freely combine different devices in order to have maximum control over the sound design.

How big is the sound impact of which device?

In practice, one rarely has the opportunity to compare hundreds of microphones, amplifiers, compressors, converters, etc. and to explore the often complex interactions. And your test vocalist will probably (rightly) leave the studio in a rage after the tenth preamp switch. So it makes sense to be able to realistically assess the influence of the various elements in the recording chain, so that you know where to start and what to expect. There is no substitute for practical ear training, but I would like to give you a rough guide that you can build on with your own experience. …….

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