In this blog article we’ll walk you through one of the most revered vocal mixing techniques made famous by the legendary Andrew Sheps. This technique makes your vocal stand out in a mix really well, and it’s a commonly used technique in the music industry for vocal processing.
Andrew Sheps is a three time Grammy award winning mix and recording engineer. His resume reads like a who-is-who of modern pop and rock music and includes artists like Adele, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ziggy Marley and Metallica. He has been working in LA for most of his life but moved to the English countryside recently. He is known for his innovative parallel mixing techniques such as the one we are going to go over here and his mixes are often described as balanced, modern sounding and often loud.
The idea behind this trick is to use a parallel processing chain which is usually done with a send and return track. On the return track you can process the vocals differently to the source track and then mix the return channel in with the source track to your liking.
On the return channel Andrew uses three pieces of gear (or plug-ins).
You don’t have to use these exact pieces of gear. You can use whatever feels right to you and there are plugins which do similar jobs to these hardware units.
With the first EQ you want to cut the low frequencies out and boost the upper mid-range and high frequencies.
After that you want to compress the signal a lot. As stated before, Andrew likes to use a LA-2A compressor but you can use a different compressor just as well. (see “The LA-2A compressor – why people still use a 50 year old design” for info on setting your compressor to behave like a LA-2A)
After you compressed the hell out of your vocals you want to add another EQ. Again, Andrew likes to use a Pultec here but you can use other EQs if you like. Just make sure you have a wide and smooth EQ curve for a natural sound. With this second EQ you want to “reverse” the first EQ. That means boosting the low end and cutting the upper mid-range/top-end. This might sound counterintuitive at first. Why would I boost the low end when I just cut it out and cut the top-end when I just boosted it before?
The answer has to do with the compressor in the middle. With the first EQ you control how the compressor reacts to the incoming signal. By cutting the low-end and boosting the top-end the compressor compresses the low-end less and the top-end more. This way you increase the small details of human speech and therefore increase the intelligibility of the vocals.
The EQ after the compressor smooths the tonal balance of the vocals back out to retain the natural tone of the voice. The resulting signal is extremely consistent in the upper mid-range and super present.
Now all you need to do is mix the return channel in with the original signal.
The pultec EQ is a passive tube equalizer that was introduced in the 1950s by the American company Pulse Techniques. The company was “rebirthed” in 2000 and has reissued the original hardware EQ. It has a very distinct “vintage” sound that is a result of the push-pull tubes that are used for amplification. They produce a very warm and harmonic sound.
Because the pultec EQs are hardware and use real electronic components the curves for boosts and cuts are not linear and have their own characteristics resulting from the inherent properties of the components. These “imperfections” are what sets this EQ apart from other pieces of gear and gives its sought-after sound. The frequencies that can be boosted or cut are also fixed which makes the equalization very gentle and musical.
There are many plugins which replicate the Pultec EQ, or the push pull technique made famous by the Pulltec EQ, for example the Universal Audio EQP-1A, the Waves EQP-1A and the denise God Mode.
The LA-2A Leveling Amplifier is a hand-wired, tube-based compressor invented by James F. Lawrence II in the 1960s. So why do people still use this rather old compressor?
This has to do with the design of the compressor. It uses a photo-optical detection circuit consisting of an electroluminescent panel or a “light bulb” in combination with a light dependent resistor to determine the amount of gain reduction. The higher the input signal, the brighter the light bulb glows. This light bulb is paired with the light dependent resistor which increases its resistance when light hits it.
These components determine the attack and release times which cannot be changed but vary depending on the material that is fed into the compressor. This gives the LA-2A a very distinct characteristic which is described as smooth, natural and musical.
The average attack time is 10ms and the average release time is around 60 ms for 50% release while the release curve is not linear which also separates it from other compressors and gives it a very smooth sustain.
Additionally the LA-2A uses a vacuum tube for amplification which results in a warm and rich sound. This is aided by the fact that the compressor has a soft knee which makes the compression smooth and natural.
To emulate the LA-2A characteristics you need to set your compressor parameters as follows:
The Dragon Fire plugin is a plugin built around the above mixing concept, and features a push-pull style EQ curve with a compressor between the push and the pull, so this above technique can be replicated very easily with one unit. Try out the plugin for yourself for an unlimited time from the denise website.
Written by: Monty Schütze
Additional input: Enrico Tiberi
Sub editor: Joe London