Getting great, clean Pop Vocals!

Tom Jun 14, 2021

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Getting great, clean Pop Vocals!

What’s up producer!

In this blog, we walk you through some steps to get great, clean sounding Pop Vocals. The secret to getting great Pop vocals is to first make sure  that you clean up the vocal recording first; and then apply any creative processing.

There are a lot of amazing sonic tools out there and available. But, we've narrowed it down for you a bit. The main tools you will need for cleaning the vocal performance are strip silence, gain, pitch correction and sibilance control via a dedicated de-esser (or if you like, you can create your own using a compressor and EQ). We’ll do a blog on that technique soon!

Here are the steps (be careful to follow them in order) to getting a great Pop vocal sound: To help you see and hear this in action, we’ve also asked Bronwen from to do a video demonstrating the various steps.

1.Clean up the vocals & Strip silence
Some DAWs offer this as an automatic or intelligent process; and it’s a  great way to remove all the silence between sections and phrases of the vocal performance. However, it is sometimes better to just manually go through the vocal performance; in solo mode; and have a close look at the breath noises any clips and clicks as well. You may need to zoom in a bit on the waveform to really get to them to properly clean up.  Then, use the fade and gain tools to tame or even remove those breaths that are distracting. 

However, sometimes it is necessary to leave a few noises in just to make the performance sound ‘human’. This really will depend on your project and probably personal or even professional preference.

2. Gain Automation:
When you watch the ‘big guys’ working on the large format SSL, NEVE, HARRISON and so on mixing consoles; they usually ‘ride’ the vocal. This is a really good mix and recording habit to get into; as you basically become a part of the performance and as the vocal part is playing in real-time, you move the fader up and down (ride) to get the vocal to ‘sit’ in the mix. What’s cool about the DAW world is that technology has made it possible to not only automate those functions, but also to refine them.   

In order to get good, clean vocals (not only for the Pop genre, but other genres too) you have to clean up your original vocal recorded performance by automating the gain to get a nice consistent level. You can either automate this using your faders or your automation tools in your DAW. Whatever method works well for you.

Typically the dynamic range in pop vocals is small; so you’re going to have to use a compressor to reduce the dynamic range further, but if you use compression without first making your vocal take a bit more consistent in level, you could land up applying too much gain reduction form the compressor and the vocals will be lifeless. More on Pop vocal compression as you read on!

3. Pitch Correction:
In the modern Pop genre, it’s pretty much a standard requirement; as well as a great production tool for meshing different genres together and creating some special effects. If you are going to be working on Pop, R’n'B and Hip-Hop tracks, then invest in a pitch corrector plugin. A high quality plugin. Some DAWs have their standard plugins, and they are great too! There are also some cool ‘freebie’ autotune software options out there, be sure to do some research!

We all know that in these genres, the pitch correction is used creatively as an effect, but hey, having the ability to do pitch correction is especially crucial if you’re not able to get the vocalist back in the studio to re-record. With the higher end pitch correction plugins, you can remove a bit of vibrato from sustained notes; and introduce your own synthetic vibrato.

The placement of the pitch corrector is important for keeping the lead vocal on point, and so a great place for pitch correction tools are further down the processing chain; after the  initial compression and EQ stages.

4. Sibilance Control via a de-esser:
Pop filters are fantastic and necessary in a studio session, it’s just good professional practice for managing plosives. Those ‘bs’ , ‘ps’ , ‘ts’ and ‘ks’. The pop filter however, does very little, if anything, to tame sibilance.

Where you place the de-esser in the processor chain is important, as those ‘ssss’; ‘tt’ and soft ‘chh’ sounds can trigger compressors early if they slip through unfiltered; and can really make a vocal sound harsh. Place your de-esser before the compressor in the processor chain.

Although this blog is really all about vocals and specifically Pop vocals, de-essers can be used to help tame harsh cymbals, string noise on bass guitars and other instruments with excessive high end.

5. Subtractive EQ/ Top End
There are some nasty resonances that can appear in any vocal performance. These are typically due to the recording environment, sound of the vocal itself; the microphone used and possibly clashes with other instruments in the mix itself. These artifacts and resonances can  muddy the sound and reduce clarity. So, you need a really great EQ tool; preferably one that has a spectrum analyser (another really important plugin to get to know and work with) for you to be able to see the frequency content of the vocal performance.

As a rule, don’t solo the vocal track when you are making EQ adjustments, as you won’t be able to hear how that vocal is working in context with the other elements of the mix. As a general starting point to clear up  the vocals and create room for other low end content in the mix, try using a high pass filter with a gradual/gentle slope somewhere around 100Hz. If you are working with a female pop vocal then you may even be able to move that high pass filter to around 150Hz.

Dynamic EQ
There are two types of EQ to think about here. Static or dynamic EQ. Static EQ will  apply gain reduction regardless of input level. Dynamic EQ is a lot more transparent, as it can target resonant frequencies when they become problematic or cross a set level, and leave the rest of the vocal unprocessed when they are not.

Top End

Typically pop vocals are mixed to be upfront and present. This is described in engineering terms as ‘lush’ ‘ bright’ and ‘airy’. In order to achieve this, select an EQ that will add some ‘colour’ or character to your track; and use a high-shelf filter that boosts the top end of your vocals. Some where in the 8-15KHz range. Keep checking your vocals. Make sure that the top end isn’t too ‘crisp’ or ‘bright’. Spending some time to set this will get your pop vocal to really ‘sit on top of the mix.

6. Peak Compression:
Compressors are used to manage the dynamic range of your audio signal. They can be used in many different ways, but when it comes to handling pop vocals, peak compression is a popular  choice for many engineers. The trick here is to use a compressor with really fast attack and release time options. If the attack and release times are set too slow, you will risk missing dealing with the transient material and rather land up compressing the tail end of the transient. 

When set up correctly, a peak compressor will clamp down on transient material, and leave the rest of the audio signal relatively unaffected. Also, watch the input meter on the compressor, don’t squash the dynamic range of the vocals too much, even though it is a pop vocal performance.

7. Vocal Doubles and Harmonies
One of the hallmarks of Pop songs are full, wide vocals that fill the stereo image of the mix. There are quite a few ways to achieve this in the mix. Basic Steps to a nice wide vocal:
1. Use a chorus effect; and really make that effect width as wide as possible.
2. Duplicate the main vocal track and then pan them each hard  left and hard right, delaying each of them slightly (maybe around 8 to 15ms). You don’t want the delay to be easily identifiable by the listener. Check out the Haas Effect tutorial video.
3. Applying some pitch modulation will also add some depth and width to the vocals. If you need to create a bit more separation, try filtering the duplicate signals. EQ them slightly differently.

A useful production technique for Pop tracks and creating vocal doubles and harmonies is to use a vocoder synth.

Conclusion So,
these are the basics to creating good, clean, clear pop vocals. Once you’ve gone through these techniques; it’s time to start having some fun with delays and reverbs. The basic professional approach to mixing pop vocals is: clean first; process creatively later.

Let your imagination fuel your creative passion!
The r-loops team.

USED SAMPLE PACK (2Deep - Billie):