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Technology 101 for Vocalists: Part II

Last Week Bill Gibson began his response to this cry for help:

“I’m a gigging singer who is also a technophobe who can’t really see
past his mic. My band-mates discuss technical stuff and I just
pretend to know what they are talking about.”

Today, Bill completes Technology 101 by discussing dynamic processors and effects devices.

The Dynamics Processor (Compression)

The polished, professional, and blended sound that you hear in a high-quality live performance or on a great recording is created, at least in part, by the way the engineer has used compression.

Compressors, limiters, gates, expanders, and duckers are all dynamics processors because they influence the signal’s dynamic range.

A compressor automatically controls the volume of the signal it receives—strong signals are turned down according to the settings on the devise.

So, when you’re singing a song that has some passages which are quiet and tender along with other passages that are really loud and aggressive the compressor will react to those loud and aggressive passages by automatically turning them down in a direct proportion to the strength of the signal.

This is an invaluable tool for the serious vocalist or engineer.

The device is essentially set up so that the quiet passages are just right. The listener should be thinking: “Oh, wasn’t that nice and somehow those lyrics are making me want to cry” not: “I couldn’t hear a single thing that bozo just sang and just that fact that I’m standing here makes me want to cry.”

By adjusting the controls just right (and may I recommend The Hal Leonard Recording Method to help you with that) you can make it so that even when you’re screaming at the top of your lungs the listener is thinking, “Oh my, those vocals sound great and they blend so well with mix and I can really tell this vocalist is passionate about the lyric—that makes me feel inspired and happy inside” instead of, “Oh my God! I think my ears are bleeding because that moron won’t stop screaming at me—I will be so much happier when I get outside!”

Vocal Effects Devices

Effects are all related to delays in some way and are comprised of reverberation, delay/echo, and oscillating effects like chorus, flanger, and phase shifter.

Reverberation and delay effects add a third dimension to a simple left-right panorama, creating a perception that the performance is taking place in an active acoustical environment such as a concert hall, skating rink, classical chamber, or coat closet.

This size dimension is the element that can make the vocal sound large and impressive on a recording or in a live performance.

Simple delays can provide a dimension of size without being quite as intrusive as reverberation but they can both be very effective when used tastefully.

Chorus, flanging, and phase shifting add an interest to the vocal sound that typically simulates a group of singers or even just unique sound effects.

All of these effects require some practice and a little knowledge in order to ensure that you are optimizing their creative potential without simultaneously creating technical problems (and may I recommend The Hal Leonard Recording Method to help you with that too).

No Longer a Technophobe

Your voice, mic, preamp, dynamics processor and vocal effects devices: all of these considerations all work together to shape your vocal sound—they’re all important.

You can purchase different devices for each task but some processors contain all of these ingredients in a single high-quality device (check out TC-Helicon’s VoiceWorks Plus—it matches your personality and creative style).

If you’re recording on a DAW (digital audio workstation) there are also many excellent plug-ins available for both dynamics and effects processing tasks.

So there it is folks. If you’ve learned just a little more about these five fundamental areas, then you’re well on the road to getting an appropriate handle on vocal technology.

You can send your technical question to Bill Gibson’s “Gear Guts” through the VoiceCouncil editor

Bill Gibson is the author of 30+ books about recorded and live sound, including his most recent six-book series, The Hal Leonard Recording Method by Bill Gibson

  • great and sound advice and information….



  • Stillwater

    Unfortunately most singers will bypass a good article such as this. They feel that dealing with vocal technology is a bit to techie, and that it belongs to engineers. What I found out is that a little knowledge about effects goes a long way. I can't even begin to tell you of how many live soundguys I had to tell about what effects I would like on my voice. My quest of vocal technology came about when early on in my career I used to get frustrated of singing with bad sound through quality P.A.'s. All because the soundguy had no clue of what he was doing. I used to be the typical singer that would have no clue about microphones or how to operate effects or eq. So guess what? I always ended up explaining to my peers that my poor performance was due to bad sound. That might sound like an excuse but it's not. Try being free on stage, while an idiot is putting the reverb to 50% in large space with tiles. Other mishaps were like somebody overly compressed the vocals that took the whole soul out of it. The typical is where the improper millisecond delay applied to a fast song. Or what about when the minimalist soundguy runs your voice dry and flat in a outside event and it feels like you are singing through thick air. The opposite is true as well. I am talking about the tasteless soundguy that feels he has to put a dozen effects just because he bought the latest TC Electronic rack. The craziest experience of those sorts when I did a mini festival and found later that my voice went through chorus, delay, compression, flanger, phaser(WTF?), and to top it all off the sound guy used an auto wah kind of effect cause he said it made “impact”! It was some college guy that had no experience of running sound and he got the gig, because his uncle was a investor of the festival. After screwing the sound up for half a dozen bands he was canned and a experienced sound guy took over. My point is that don't leave sound and effects to somebody else's hands just because you are not a techie kind of guy. Embrace this vocal tech information. Now ever since I learned about effects I never since had a bad performance. The reason for that is because my bad performance before was not based on my singing. It was all mental. When I heard an effect that was off, or simply bad sound where you can't hear yourself it started to affect me mentally and that would slowly permeate my performance. If you are a perfectionist it would wear you more down. I have found out that the difference between gifted musician A and gifted musician B will comes down to sound. The section in this article about the guy that is screaming without a proper setting on the compressor says it all. Proper effects with a good mix to me can make or break a show. That one lyric that could have grabbed a fan was distorted by a moron who put a cathedral reverb setting on a fast song making you sound like a monk sing rock on acid. I hope you guys get my drift.