“Insert Scene” by Erin Barra: Creating a Vocal Chain in Ableton Live

SonicScoop readers, say HI to Erin Barra and the first edition of her series, “Insert Scene”. Geared towards those who seek a higher sonic standard without a high price tag, Erin’s blogs cater towards producers, engineers and artists at the novice/ intermediate level.  Always a strong supporter of the idea that EVERYONE and ANYONE should be able to capture the intangible, here you will be met with no pre-conceived notion of prior knowledge or experience (or judged for a lack thereof).

Erin Barra is on your side.

Who is she? Well, put it this way: If Alicia Keys and Nelly Furtado collided with Daft Punk and Esthero in the vast circuitry of an Akai APC 40, you’d probably end up with an experience as rich and soulful as Erin Barra. Joining the likes of MNDR and Tokimonsta, Erin is part of a brave new digital audio live performance armada of female artists riding a tech savvy wave of musical and electronic innovation. Currently on the ‘Dn’A’ Tour (Digital n’ Analog), her new power trio is crossing the US in support of her sophomore album, Illusions which is distributed by Meryl Music Distribution, Blackheart Records Group’s third party marketing and distribution company. Erin also runs Ableton Live User Groups and Workshops across the country. So without further ado, let’s kick in.

Creating a good vocal chain is not the easiest thing to do, especially as a beginner and with limited tools, but it’s also not rocket science.

Most blogs and articles you find online will be from big-time engineers who have been working FOH or studio settings for a decade or more and have access to fancy outboard gear and tools that perhaps you and I don’t. So I’m going to take you through my own vocal chain and also the general components of how to generate a more-than-decent sound using only digital plugins via Ableton Live and a $100 mic.

Not to say that anything we’re potentially working with here is subpar, but this process of taking something like a dry vocal and turning it into gold records is often referred to as Turd Polishing… WARNING: this may require gloves, but I promise to hold your gloved hand the entire way : )

For those of you who learn visually, please refer to the accompanying video where I take you through the ‘point and click’ step by step of creating this particular vocal chain.

There are general rules as to what order a vocal chain should be created in, but as they say, rules were meant to be broken and I highly suggest and promote experimentation.  If you wanna try throwing three different types of reverbs onto one vocal chain, more power to you my friend — just please, use your ears. Playing it safe never got anyone a GRAMMY, but for the sake of clarity, I’m going to show you how I would go about creating a very straightforward and universal vocal chain in Ableton Live 8.

Usually when you’re capturing audio in a studio setting you go through the recording process first and then into postproduction, but with the use of Ableton we will be using digital plugins to create a LIVE vocal chain, which will be somewhere in between creating an optimal situation for the studio and the stage.

These tips will also be useful in a studio setting, but since you cannot undo compression or other audio effects when you record through them, most engineers would prefer to capture a dry vocal and then tweak everything afterwards (or put the effect on a monitor bus that the vocalist can hear but isn’t being recorded).  This really depends on your knowledge of the tools and the tools themselves. I will be using all the universal options for each Ableton audio effect, meaning I’m dragging the entire folder onto the audio track rather than choosing from the drop down menu under each digital audio effect.

Let’s start with the mic itself, since this is an important variable to consider. A typical live vocal mic is an SM58, but the more resources you have, you may want to experiment with some different options. If the vocalist (perhaps this person is you) maintains a generally consistent distance from the mic while performing you can choose something with a tighter pattern to it which won’t pick up as much stage noise.

Conversely, if you’re got someone who likes to move around a lot you need a mic with a wider pattern.  This obviously will pick up more leakage, but it’s somewhat of a tradeoff at a certain point — I personally have major issues trying to compete level wise with my drummer. He is invariably louder than I am, at which point I turn up my volume and then it just picks up more of the drums… it’s somewhat of a vicious cycle and one that you should try to avoid.  Additionally, each mic has it’s own gain needs and keep in mind that if you’re using a condenser mic you’re going to need an interface with phantom power.

After you’ve got your mic all set up, the next obstacle is getting a good level and proper compression.  When you initialize a new ALS (Ableton Live Session) you will automatically be given an empty Audio and MIDI track. Either choose to run your vocal through this Audio track or create a new one (“Apple T”).

When you’re running your live vocal through an audio track in Ableton, this means that it’s also going through your interface and most likely a DAW or two.  All of these “middle men” have meters, which will give you a general sense of how much or how little signal you are sending/receiving.

However, these meters are not always an accurate indication as to whether or not you’re peaking.  This could be because you’re metering after the plugins or because certain instruments — like keyboards — distort inside themselves if their output level is more than ¾ of the way up.  For instance, my Nord is notorious for distorting even though all of my meters tell me otherwise, and in that particular case it’s up to my ears to lead the way. Get as close as you can to a good amount of signal without distorting before you add any compression.  The human voice is highly dynamic and in order to get the vocals to compete in a live band or electronic setting, tasteful and intelligent compression is key.

This Live technique works live or in your studio.

From there, let’s begin our digital vocal chain with Ableton’s universal compression.  Generally speaking all compressors work the same, but their appearance will differ from program to program and plugin to plugin.  Compression isn’t the most straightforward of concepts, but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to break this down to a few easy rules of thumb:

1)    Basically, you want the volume of your vocals to be audible and clear throughout your set, whether or not it’s a loud or soft song.  To achieve this we have to even everything out, meaning that the softer phrases will need to come up and the louder ones need to remain below certain threshold.

If you look at Ableton’s digital compressor, the threshold adjustment is on the left and the lower this setting is the more it will boost up the softer frequencies. So if there’s a part of a song that you’re singing softer than the rest, or you don’t get as much projection from the lower end of your range, this will even everything out (and sadly, also whatever leakage you have on stage).  The output will raise the all-around level.  When you raise the output you should raise it to a reasonable level and always err on the side of subtlety since it will easily distort if you’re not careful, and digital distortion is not a good thing 90% of the time.

2)    Another thing to be aware of is that over-compressing live will potentially result in more feedback.

3)    Also, you want to avoid over-compressing your vocals because one of the beauties of the human voice is how dynamic it can be, and if you take away too much of it’s best quality, you’ve done yourself a huge disservice.

Next we will add Ableton’s EQ 8. An art form in and of itself, proper EQ is where your ears really and truly come into play.  I’ve been told that in general, when EQ’ing a vocal, it’s a very vague rule of thumb to cut the lows and boost the highs. This is definitely not always true and I would think of that statement as a good place to start rather then an end all of quick EQ.

In order to properly EQ a vocalist, you have to listen to the quality of their voice and try to supplement them wherever necessary. For example if you have an aggressive singer, you may want to watch the high mids when they really get ripping, or if your dealing with a female with a lot of power up top, you might want to cut some of the highs. Also, take into consideration that every single room you play in will sound different, so if you really want to get nitpicky with this, you’re going to have to address this EQ issue every time you hit a new stage.  This may be a slight pain in the ass, but totally worth it for overall quality.

After the EQ let’s add some reverb. Reverb is one of those things that is very subjective and definitely needs to be adjusted from room to room. Depending on the shape, size, walls, materials and amount of people in a room the natural amount of reverb could be anywhere from drenched to completely dry.

The two parameters I would generally pay attention to with this plugin would be the Dry/Wet ratio, which will determine how much reverb you’re adding, and the Decay Time, which dictates how long each sound will take to ultimately cease.  For my live set I like to go a little crazy with the reverb during some of the more Dub influenced tracks and also for a spacey dream-like feel.  One of the beautiful things about Ableton is that you can adjust these parameters live and use the audio effects as another form of expression.

Erin sez: Delay is OK...every day.

As they say, “a little delay will take you a long way” and I absolutely stand by that statement.  I use Ableton’s ping pong delay pretty much across the board and am generally very happy with the results: Speaking from a vocalist’s perspective it makes me feel like I’m singing better, which may or may not be true, but anything you can do to enhance the way someone’s voice sounds in their own ears, the better.

I run all my delays through a return so I can send them to each individual track depending on when and where I need them. For instance, I use the same delay send on my vocal that I do on my Moog when I’m ripping a sweet solo, or even a bass part that I’ve pre-recorded into my session. This approach will also save you CPU.

After you’ve created your own personal vocal chain I suggest you SAVE these settings to an audio effects rack.  This way each time you start a new session you already have your vocal sounding great. Also, if you’re using Ableton in conjunction with an APC 40 or a Launchpad you can selectively MIDI map certain parameters you wish to adjust live to corresponding knobs.  This is when we begin to truly separate the boys from the men…

At the very end of the day, all of these suggestions are just that, suggestions. Each and every producer/engineer has their own special tricks and magic settings they have stumbled upon at one point or another, as you will soon discover.

But when it comes down to it, the most important tool and priceless piece of hardware in your possession are the two receivers on either side of your head. Using your ears and critical listening are the two things will make the most difference in sound quality — and also are the first two things most people overlook.  When you’re sound checking I suggest pressing “record” and then listening back a few times as you adjust your chain.

I hope you find this helpful in your journey to creating your own vocal chain.  If you follow these few guidelines you’ll be sounding like a semi-pro even though you don’t have the sicky outboard gear and years of experience.  Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section below.  Best of luck and happy days!

ERIN BARRA:  Singer/Songwriter/Producer/Multi-Instrumenatlist/Ableton-Enthusiast/Nationally-Touring-Aritst. Also visit her on Facebook or Twitter @erinbarra.