The iZotope Vocal Chain Bundle is a collection of plug-ins curated to assist vocal production from the recording stage through to the final mix. To get the most of the bundle, this guide will cover four essential vocal mixing steps with each of the plug-ins included: RX Elements, Melodyne 4 essential, Nectar 3, and VocalSynth 2.
1. Noise reduction and repair with RX Elements
To elevate a vocal performance to professional standards, the first step after recording and comping is to reduce and remove all the unwanted noises in the take. As both a standalone editor and set of plug-ins that can be used in your DAW, RX Elements offers a range of tools to remove everything from common mouth clicks to complex hums spread over the spectrum. Most of the these are unavoidable, especially in home recording setups, making it all the more important to have RX at your disposal when prepping for a vocal mix.
For this overview, I’m working in the RX standalone editor and to get started, have dragged in a vocal file, which gets displayed as a spectrogram.
If you’re new to vocal production or want to solve issues faster (who doesn’t!?), I suggest using the Repair Assistant, which automatically finds noise plaguing your audio and offers up three possible repair options to choose from.
Scanning a recording by ear and eye and selecting the problematic areas for RX to process is also a reliable method if you know what you’re looking for, and if there aren’t that many issues in the performance. In this case, I can immediately hear a consistent hum with low and mid-range frequencies, as well as a number of spots with distracting mouth noises.
With a pass of the four modules in RX Elements—De-clip, De-click, De-Hum, and Voice De-Noise—I’m able to bring the vocal one step closer to a polished sound. The hum is down to a more manageable level and I’ll remove what’s left with EQ later on in the process. The vocal noises are gone too. Have a listen:
Note that the changes I made with RX are relatively subtle—the vocal itself isn’t thinned out or audibly edited, it just sounds more isolated. Unlike mixing vocals, I’m aiming for a neutral voice sound that is clean, but not necessarily nice or exciting. Most listeners never consider that the vocals in their current song-of-the-week were once coated in hum and marred with clicks and other strange sounds. And they don't need too either!
This is ultimately an invisible process. Take away only what you need to and stop short of making any moves that attract attention. If anything, listeners will be more accepting of subtle noise than the ugly artifacts of over processing.
2. Pitch correction with Melodyne or Nectar 3
Pitch correction is another tool in our arsenal to craft superhuman vocal performances. Whether it's used to adjust sour notes or to match genre aesthetics, nearly all modern vocals pass through pitch correction software. You may need to use tuning software aggressively when working with new vocalists, or if you only have one or two takes to work with. But even the best singers can benefit from slight adjustments to their voice.
There are two ways to go about it: either with a global pitch setting in Nectar 3 or by going note-by-note in Celemony’s Melodyne 4 essential. Since Melodyne allows you to get far more precise with editing individual notes, I recommend using it for editing erratic vocal performances that you want to keep sounding natural. Click a note and the corresponding pitch will be displayed, along with how many cents (sharp or flat) it is from the center. For a general rule of thumb, unless it's a really high note, I let digressions of about 10 cents slide, as long as the vocal is in tune with the music. The zero cent line is mathematically exact, but following it to a tee doesn’t translate to emotional impact or expression.
With a global setting in Nectar, every note is nudged back on track according to the scale you enter. This is better for vocals that don’t need much pitch correction, or when you want to use pitch correction as an audible effect. With high settings (i.e. strength and speed), you will get the sliding synthetic sound we can’t seem to get enough of in modern pop mixes.
Preview the differences between the last update of the vocal in RX, and the pitch corrected version in Nectar. My intention is for the pitch correction to be transparent, but you can still hear Nectar squeezing on the more wobbly sustained vowels in phrases like “someone else’s name” and “cause it’s time.”
3. Fitting your vocal in the mix with Nectar 3
Now it’s time to add processing to sculpt the tone of the vocal. Stocked with two EQs, a compressor, de-esser, reverb, delay, and more, Nectar 3 provides the core tools required to deliver a polished vocal mix. Like RX Elements, Nectar is equipped with assistive audio technology aka the “Vocal Assistant,” which will analyze your input vocal signal and suggest a starting point preset for you to tweak to taste.
Not only is the Vocal Assistant a huge time saver in terms of setup, but it will also catch errors or suggest mixing opportunities you might not have considered. This is handy for new mixers looking for answers or even seasoned pros with ear fatigue due to long studio days.
Here’s what my vocal sounds like with a modified preset. To get a better grasp of what actually happened under the hood, my Nectar signal chain is listed below.
- Gating to remove the remaining bleed and noise between words
- Subtractive EQs to suppress unpleasant frequencies before other processing
- De-essing to surgically remove sibilance
- Compression to even out the quiet and loud parts of each word
- Dynamic EQ to remove low-end (following the fundamental) and brighten highs
- 2 unison copies of the vocal in Harmony to create a double tracking effect
- Reverb and delay for space and depth
Adding this kind of processing to the vocal track itself will get you a long way toward a finished state. Carving out space for your vocal among the other tracks in your mix is the next step. EQ is used to cut frequencies in other tracks that may be “masking” the vocal. With Nectar 3, you can use the “Unmask” feature, along with the included Relay plug-in, to have Vocal Assistant automatically do this for you. Place the included Relay plug-in on any track that’s masking your vocal, and Nectar 3 will use Inter Plug-in Communication to notch out the masking frequencies on that track.
4. Adding creative effects with VocalSynth 2
As we reach this final step in the vocal production process, you may have considered how very little of what we hear in modern music is natural. Though processing was decidedly transparent in the early stages, the otherworldly line was crossed with Nectar and we can take it even further with the vocal effects engine in VocalSynth 2.
Like most processors, it works best when the audio source is free of clicks and artifacts (so they don’t get affected too), emphasizing another reason why the repair stage of vocal production is so important.
Since I want Nectar to process the original vocal and not the VocalSynth output, VocalSynth is placed after Nectar in my signal chain. Alternatively, it can be placed on a return channel routed from your vocal track. VocalSynth doesn’t have an Assistant feature, but this allows us to get more adventurous—either by modifying presets or building your own patch through the intuitive interface. Here’s what I put together, along with the audio.
Biovox, Vocoder, and Polyvox provide the low-end harmonic power, while Compuvox and Talkbox contribute texture and grit. The levels of each VocalSynth 2 module can be individually adjusted and blended to taste. To retain a tight feel, I used the gating feature to reel in the artifacts hanging around after words, then expanded vocal width.
I find the trick to getting the sound you want is through the “hidden” internal synthesis sections, accessible by clicking the down arrow at the bottom of each module. All but Polyvox include two tunable oscillators, filters, LFOs, noise, and panning, made to be combined together for dense, robotic vocals that elevate choruses and solos to anthemic heights.
To recap, we broke down four major steps of vocal mixing—noise reduction, tuning, mixing, and effects—and how the plug-ins in our Vocal Chain Bundle can lend a helping hand throughout the whole process.
To give emphasis to vocals, we featured only them in this tutorial. Getting them to sit in the mix with other instruments is another story altogether—and one that depends on the style of music you’re making, the tonal balance, and overall feel. To get insight into this process, follow our video tutorial, “How To Mix Vocals from Start to Finish.”