A couple of people have asked me how I processed the vocals for my latest release “Shots in the Dark”. There are a number of different layers and I approached them with the thought that I wanted them to sound complex and distressed. The whole theme behind the song is about how I felt compelled to write the track and couldn’t really help myself, despite knowing that it wasn’t a genre I was overly familiar with.

With that in mind, the vocals were intended to sound confused. Multiple voices to represent the different thoughts. At one point I use a very narrow band sound with the line “Should I just stop now?”, where the normal voice responds “Yeh right, if I could.”

I used different sounds on the sides, and layered up 3 recordings of the voices. I’ve broken down each section a little in the videos below, but first, here’s and excerpt of the song so that you can get a feel for it.

Recording the vocals

The vocals were recorded with an Aston Origin Spirit microphone. I originally bought this microphone to do the voice recording for an audio book. To me it has a very nice sound for this kind of work. I like the tone and the intimacy which worked well for the feeling I was going for. These voices are supposed to sound like they are in my head.

The mic was plugged into a Focusrite 4i4 3rd Gen and recorded in Reaper. Nothing very special here, except a lot of takes! I would say I probably ran through each verse 30-40 time to get it right. I took the main centre channel as the canonical source and would then slightly adjust the timing of the L/R channels to match. This involved slicing and moving and occasionally time stretching them. There weren’t terribly out, but since the sides had a lot of editing anyway, I was OK with the slight odd artefact from the stretching.

Here you can listen to the original Centre vocal take with only the reverb on it. I don’t show it in the video, but it’s Seventh Heaven. I love this reverb a lot, and I set it to a slightly longer tail than I would usually for vocal work, just to give me an extra feel of disorientation.

The ubiquitous auto-tune

I know it’s cliched, but auto-tune on rap is something of a mainstay. It also helped to reinforce the feeling I wasn’t thinking quite right, and was confused. I had a few options available to me. Reaper’s Reatune would definitely have made for easier editing, but some of the other options I’ll talk about later meant that bx_crispytuner was the right choice for the job here. I chose a few notes from the backing tracks original key. You’ll notice that my voice is quite low and sometimes the effect doesn’t catch, but that’s what I like most about this. Choosing only a few notes from the key makes the pitch dance around a little and I think gives it a melodic tone without it sounding too controlled and too singy.

Compress me once! Shame on me!

In the next clip we hear the addition of the first compressor and the EQ. I really love how the EQ transforms my voice with really quite a small adjustment! The SSL 9000 J console plugin was the perfect choice for this and the compression is driven hard. As I said, the aggressive growl nature of the voice, was one of my main wants for this track and I think these settings worked well for it.

Compress me twice?

Yes, I added a second compressor in this chain. The Supercharger GT gave me the extra tone I was after. It’s not doing a lot in terms of function, but what it does do, I like. It was crucial in giving me the sound I was after and made the vocal line stand out from the mix a little more. Is it overdone? Perhaps a little but, I like it a lot and at the end of the day, that’s what this is about.

Hear me on the left side?

The sides were independent takes recorded shortly after the centre. As mentioned before, I’m new to this genre and so my timing was not perfect. I did choose to record the entire verse as a whole take as I wanted the authenticity of being able to know that I could perform it live if I wanted to. I also practised with the song at 1.1x and 1.2x speed to get the speed and flow right, before dropping it to 1.0x for the recording. This gave me the illusion that I have more time to breathe. The funny thing is, post-release and after singing these lines through multiple times, I could easily record them now at 1.1x.

Here are the original sides unprocessed. (Yes, the wording differs slightly on the sides and though it wasn’t intentional, I think it adds a layer to the confusion.)

Formant shifting for odd tones

On the sides, I added formant shifting to the vocals, to give it a gruffer, lower pitched quality. This was something I hadn’t experimented with much before but I really like the tone and the way the vocals sound very off-putting. I also chose different auto-tuned allowed pitches in the Left and Right channels, compared to the Centre. All three are picking different notes from with the same key. There is a cohesion there, but it’s not natural by any means. This was all done through the bx_crispytuner plugin and I really love the effect

Here are the sides with all their effects; compressor, EQ, super charger, reverb and auto-tune.

The complete package

When put all together, the vocals sound like this. I really like how the annunciation comes through even with so much going on. It’s clear and precise and the sides just give it a different quality and tone. The volume of the sides is varied throughout the piece. In some sections it’s quite strong and in others I dial it rights back.

Back to the original

We arrive back where we started with the complete excerpt. I really hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive in the vocal processing chain for “Shots in the Dark”. You can use the link to go and hear the full version of the song, but for now, here is that excerpt once more.