From Polished to Raw, Pop Vocals Today Take On a Wide Range of Character

One of my favorite aspects of popular music today is the wide range of production styles and techniques. This is most true for the vocals. When you listen to any given top 40 track, you’re likely to hear everything from raw, seemingly unedited vocals to highly polished and heavily tuned vocals. In this article, we take a look at how this is achieved and some of the key characteristics to getting your vocal production just right for your track.

Breaths

One of the major elements of a natural vocal performance is breathing. Does the singer take long, heavy breaths before phrases, or do they take short and shallow breaths? These add a lot of character and play an important role in the overall sound of the vocal.

When editing vocals, this is an important element to consider. If you want a super polished performance, it might be best to cut them out entirely. You could leave a few in place for stylistic effect.

If you’re looking for a very raw sound, you might leave them in place, or even turn them up in certain places. Using a tool like Waves Vocal Rider is a great way to automate the levels, and with the right settings it can create a very nice “raw” sound.

Tuning

Melodyne 4 Editor

Melodyne 4 Editor

This is another major consideration to make when editing a vocal – is it going to be tuned or left in its natural state?

Unfortunately, you might not have a choice. If the performance isn’t up to snuff, then you might need to do a little corrective tuning. But that doesn’t mean you need to make it sound like it’s being tuned.

My favorite tool for natural, transparent vocal tuning is Celemony Melodyne. It sounds incredibly natural and leaves the track with a great character while fixing up the problematic tuning.

If you’re looking for a more tuned sound, I generally tend to rely on Antares Autotune. Don’t get me wrong – Autotune can sound natural as well. But it’s easier to get a “pitch perfect” performance with Autotune. I also enjoy the tonal characteristics of the plug-in on vocals.

It’s pretty obvious that heavily tuning your vocals will make them sound more polished. But let’s say you want to give your performance a little more edge? De-tuning your vocals very slightly in the right spaces can give it a nice character. This works well on “blue” notes in the scale (3rds, 7ths, and sometimes 6ths) – and can create a nice nuance in the performance.

Comping

Pro Tools Comping

Screenshot of Comping Vocal Tracks in Pro Tools using Playlists.

Comping is the act of taking multiple performances and splicing them together into a single performance. This is used heavily when trying to go for a very polished vocal, but it can also be a useful tool when going for a raw production.

It’s important to remember that comping doesn’t necessarily mean picking the most “perfect” performance, but the one that fits the track the best. For example, you might choose a phrase that is slightly out of tune over one that is perfectly in tune simply because of the emotion of the performance.

A production technique that I like to use is the “Marvin Gaye” recording style. Marvin Gaye recorded in a time where comping wasn’t so easily done. It had to be manually punched in and out on the tape. In order to “comp” takes together, they had to punch in and out and have the vocalist sing over and over until they got a single take that they liked.

While DAWs and computers have made this process much easier, it’s still a valuable production technique. It allows you to focus on getting each phrase perfect along the way, and to think about how it fits together in the bigger picture.

It’s important to remember that how you comp (or not comp) will depend on what makes the vocalist comfortable. Sometimes, a single take is the best way to convey a raw emotion.

How to Decide What to Do for a Particular Track?

These three techniques and how you use them can create a variety of styles of vocal track. The best way to determine how to use them is to listen carefully to tracks that you like. Listen carefully to how they use tuning and how they leave the breaths in. Determine how to use comping to create the perfect feel. Pay attention to these three crucial elements and you’ll have even more control over the effect your vocals have on the track.

About the Author

Dean Palya Jr is the Director of Digital Media at Westlake Pro and a producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist based in LA. He works with artists of all genres and loves taking a creative vision and turning into reality. When he isn’t producing music or videos about pro audio, he enjoys exploring new places and binge watching Netflix shows. Check out his website here.