How to set up a vocal chain

By Jeremy Drakeford

Let me start by saying this: The effects chain on any instrument is completely subjective. 
Sometimes I don't have a single plug-in. Other times I'll have in excess of ten.
It really depends on how much processing the sound needs and what overall effect you're trying to achieve.

For beginners, sometimes it can be hard to know what effects you should put on your vocals.
Some people leave them too dry; others drown them with so many plug-ins that it no longer sounds like a human voice.

When I first started using Logic (almost 8 years ago) I brought up a preset vocal chain and used that, without actually understanding what the plug-ins were. 
Some of them were completely useless. I think there was an Ensemble/Chorus effect and an Exciter.

At the time, these plug-ins probably reduced the clarity of my vocals because I didn't know how to use them properly.
Instead of grabbing a random preset and hoping for the best, I wish that I had learned the fundamental effects and applied them myself.

In this article I'm going to show you what plug-ins you should have in your chain and why. 

Basic Vocal Chain

1. Pitch Correction (Optional)

2. EQ

3. Compressor(s)

4. De-Esser

5. Reverb (Aux)

6. Delay (Aux)









Pitch Correction is a handy tool for improving less-than-perfect vocal performances, adding smoothness to vocals or as an extreme robotic effect (the "T-Pain" approach)

Most DAWs have their own Pitch Correction plug-in and there are also some great 3rd party plug-ins such as Autotune.

If you opt to use Pitch Correction then place it before everything else in your chain so that it processes the vocal in its raw state. 



2. EQ

As we learned in Lesson 1, EQ is an important tool which allows you cut out undesirable frequencies (especially lows). 

If you're performing cuts, it's usually best to do this before the Compressor. Otherwise your Compressor will be triggered by these undesirable frequencies (e.g. a rumble or pop in the low end).

As seen in the image above, the engineer has made multiple cuts.
As well as a Low Cut, you can pull out any frequencies that are problematic (such as rolling off some mid-lows to reduce muddiness or notching out some harsh higher frequencies)
Every vocalist and every mic is different so use your ears and only make cuts where (and if) they're required.

3. Compression

Shown above is a typical vocal recording. You'll see that some notes are noticeably louder than others.
When listened to (without effects) the loud parts might poke out too much or the quiet parts may get lost in the mix.

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to even out a performance so that all the notes were of similar volume?
Well there is. It's called Compression.  

In simple terms,  a Compressor will essentially bring down the loud peaks to give you a more consistent performance.
There is a lot more to Compression but I won't get into it now. For a more in-depth explanation, see here. 

Shown above is the standard Logic Compressor with a basic preset which could be suitable for vocals.

If you're just starting out with compression, try using a similar Attack, Release and Ratio to this.
Your Threshold levels will depend on how loud your vocal is. 
You want to aim for around 4 - 6dB of Gain Reduction.
If the needle on the Meter is swinging past -10 then you're probably compressing too hard.
Raise the Threshold until it's sitting close to the -5dB mark. 

Note: Some Compressors (such as the Waves CLA-2A) don't have these 4 functions, so don't worry if they're not there.
You'll just have to adjust the Peak Reduction to make sure your Gain Reduction is around the 4 - 6dB mark on the meter.

If everything above is confusing, simply just bring up your standard Compressor and pick a vocal preset.
This is better than having no Compression at all. 

4. De-Esser

Vocal Sibilance is a harsh high frequency that commonly occurs when consonant syllables (like S and T) are sang.
When compression is applied to vocals it can exaggerate this Sibilance and make the vocal quite harsh on the ears.

To combat this, I present to you, the De-Esser (shown right)

As the name suggests, it helps to reduce all of those "Ess" sounds. 
Every vocal will have different characteristics so bring up a preset (or the default setting) and tweak it until it sounds good. 
Remember to use it sparingly. Overuse will result in the vocalist sounding like they have a lisp. 


5. Reverb (Aux)

You're probably wondering why it says "aux" in the heading. That's because most engineers put effects like Reverb and Delay on an Auxiliary channel, instead of on the vocal channel itself.
I'll touch on this in a future article. If you don't know how to do it, just put these effects on the vocal channel for now.

As we learned in Lesson 1, Reverb is a great tool for adding depth and character to a vocal but should be used sparingly.

If you're not using an Aux channel, you'll need to adjust the Wet/Dry settings on your reverb to make sure you're using a tasteful amount.

Somewhere between 5% - 30% Wetness is a good starting point but it will depend on the type of Reverb you're using and the desired sound.

If you're producing something atmospheric then you may wish to soak it a bit more. 
Remember that you can add EQ to your Reverb to take out the lower frequencies if your mix starts to get muddy. 

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 11.43.03 am.png

If you're not sure what settings to run on your Reverb, all of the presets are great! Just try them out until you find something you like.
"Plate" and "Hall" Reverbs are usually great choices for Vocals. 

I recommend Waves RVerb (pictured right) and Native Instruments RC48 if you can get your hands on them.
Otherwise you can make your DAW's standard Reverb sound great too!

Logic's Space Designer is an excellent choice as well and it comes with a built-in graphic EQ.


6. Delay (Aux)

Waves H-Delay is a great plug-in choice

Waves H-Delay is a great plug-in choice

The final plug-in in our vocal chain is Delay.
Delay is essentially echo (usually in sync with the beat of the song) which adds further depth and character to your Vocals.
Again, if you're not running it on an Aux channel then you'll need to adjust your Wet/Dry settings (or Output Mix).

As always, the amount used is subjective. Find a level that suits your song.
Keep in mind that overusing Delay will make your song sound chaotic and messy. Use it tastefully. Try 5% - 20% at first.

On the left is Logic's Stereo Delay, which is a very simple yet effective plug-in.
You'll find similar settings on most Delays. 

My advice is just to play with the settings until you find a sound that you like. There's no right or wrong settings. 
However, I always recommend using the Low Cut setting. 


So there you have it - the starting point for all vocal chains.
Once you've mastered this then you can start stacking Compressors or go crazy by adding a myriad of other effects to your chain.
For now though, stick to this format. I use it for most of my projects and it works great! 

Good luck and happy recording!
- Jeremy

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