Vocal mixing: silence is golden

There are a lot of little noises that can sneak in between phrases. These extra noises are not noticed while the vocalist is singing but you don’t want to hear bleed from headphones, rustling paper, or any other distractions in between. It is quite common in the home recording studio world to put a noise gate on vocal tracks to eliminate these types of problems. Tuning a noise gate to correct this can be a time consuming process which is prone to creating one or two unnatural sounding words here and there. I prefer a more natural sounding approach.

Noise gate on vocals

The problem with putting a noise gate on your vocals is the ease with which the vocals can end up sounding gated. If you want them to sound gated this is fine. Most often it is the case that we don’t want them to sound gated but do want them to sound clean, polished, and professional. It is possible to configure a noise gate to produce natural attack on vocals. Often the noise gate settings that sound great on one section of the song don’t work on another sections. This leads to much automation of the noise gate settings to change throughout the song. It is also not uncommon to think you have the noise gate set up perfectly for the vocals, but on the hundredth listen while mixing, you discover there is one word right in the middle that sounds gated and unnatural. Sure, you can fix this one occurrence, but a few hours later (on the 150th listen perhaps?) you will hear another word that has started to sound gated. Working in the home recording studio world of modern DAW software, we can forget the noise gate altogether and quickly clean up the vocal tracks ourselves.

Manually cleaning up vocals

Instead of using a noise gate we will manually trim each region of vocals to eliminate silence. This gives us complete control over where the vocals come in and out without the pains of trying to balance a noise gate’s threshold, attack, release, and hysteresis controls. Take a look at this bit of a raw vocal track I recently recorded in my home studio:

raw vocal track, untrimmed
Raw, untrimmed vocal track

The sound clip pictured represents a single verse with four vocal phrases. Notice the circled low level noise between each phrase? This is what we are trying to eliminate. In order to use this technique you are going to need to know how to use your home recording software enough to split sound regions like this one and resize them (usually by dragging their edges). If your studio software has any kind of snap to grid feature, be sure it is off. The first step is to split the sound region right in the middle of each section of silence to be removed.

vocals, first cut
Split in the middle of each noise section

You can see my sound file has been split basically around the middle of each of the previously circled sections of noise. The next step is to grab the edges of individual regions and roughly bring them in around the beginning and end of each phrase. You will end up with something like the following picture.

vocals roughed in
Sound regions have been roughly resized

Once you learn your way around your home recording software you can get up to this point in about twenty seconds. Now we are to the slightly tougher part. We are going to finely tune the beginning and end of each vocal phrase. Zoom in on the beginning of the first phrase.

vocals first breath What we see here is the vocalist taking a breath in preparation for singing the first line, followed by the attack of the first vocal syllable. Since this is the first vocal phrase and is preceeded by a portion of musical silence, I have decided to leave this initial breath in to create a moment of anticipation of the vocal grand entrance. Rather than trim out this human element, I’m going to create a short fade to enhance the excitement.
I have chosen to add a logarithmic fade (blue line) that starts at the beginning of the breath and ends just as the actual vocals are about to kick in (white line). I have chosen to keep the view zoomed in which doesn’t show you the whole fade but better illustrates the successful removal of the noise at the beginning of the file. Compare the view to the right with the view above. Both are at the same zoom level but now the breath is not preceeded by extra noise. vocal breath saved

With the beginning of the first vocal phrase trimmed, we are ready to move on to the end of the first phrase.

vocal end of phrase raw

There are three things easily noticed at the end of this phrase. A very pronounced ‘t’ sound at the end of the word beat. This is followed by a sharp click which was probably caused by plastic adjusting on the headphones as the vocalist grooved while singing. Then you see the onset of the bassline bleeding from the headphones and being picked up in the vocal mic. We want to keep the ‘t’ sound and remove the click and headphone bleed.

I pulled the end of the sound file to just after the ‘t’ sound and again added a short fade (blue line) to smoothly bring the vocal out before the click comes in. At first you’ll have to do quite a bit of auditioning to get the timing of the fades just right, but as you familiarize yourself with your home recording tools the process gets much faster. The ends of phrases are where vocalists tend to divert their attention and rustle lyric sheets, adjust headphones, smack lips, or make other undesirable noises. Pay special attention to these areas. vocal end trimmed

Follow these same techniques for the beginning and end of the other three vocal phrases and you may end up with something like this:

trimmed vocal track

I have modified the zoom levels on this track to show all the fades and edit points. Pay special attention to the custom fades at the beginning and end of each vocal phrase. This is the type of organic, changing treatment per phrase that you will lose with a noise gate. The breaths we save at the beginnings of some of vocal phrases are especially troublesome for a noise gate. A breath will often not be much louder than the noise or sometimes it will even be quieter. This causes a problem for a noise gate which might open momentarily only at the loudest part of the breath. Noise gates can also harm the initial transients of the first word in a phrase which is part of what gives the vocal that gated sound that is so artificial.

This technique is not difficult to learn and is easy to master quickly. I can do this type of editing on a song in about ten or fifteen minutes. You would easily spend that much time (likely much more) setting up a noise gate and you won’t have as natural a sound. Drop those noise gates and get to cuttin!

Your home studio is your playground, have fun!

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10 Responses to “Vocal mixing: silence is golden”

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  1. HogieWan says:

    I really like your articles. I found you when hunting for patches for my POD X3.

    I do something similar to what you’ve got here, but probably more complicated. When tracking vocals, I do at least 4 takes straight through the song back to back (usually topping out at 8 – you’ll see why). Then I listen to each phrase from each track and pick the best one. By automating the gain faders and having each track output to a separate bus, you can have one track with the best phrases of all the takes. The nice side effect is that you can have it bring the gain up at the very beginning of the phrase and back down at the very end like your article shows here.

  2. bvesco says:

    Sounds like you got a system that really works for you. That’s great! I’m planning on doing an article about vocal comping in REAPER soon.

  3. Edrod says:

    I would love to see an article about vocal and reaper/ Also suggestions on how to make a vocal patch. It seems vocals are rarely mentioned when using the pod X3 :(. I have been having a hard time getting a patch for metal and clean vocals

  4. pastaman says:

    i am really enjoying your site- do you have any plans to do a tutorial on MaxxVolume??

    thanks again

  5. bvesco says:

    @Edrod
    Well, this article is about vocal and REAPER. I’m also planning on doing an article about comping vocal takes. It will have examples of how to do it in REAPER, of course!

    @pastaman
    Glad to hear it! I will add MaxxVolume to my huge list of articles to write.

  6. SylvainB says:

    Would it be a good idea (or not!)to put an expander plugin (blockfish i.e) on the vocal track to diminuate the mic and breath noises?

    And on the master bus?

    Thanks

  7. bvesco says:

    It can be a good idea to use an expander (I even put an expander as an integral part of my custom vocal plugin, Provoker). However, unless you want to get into parameter automation of the gate/expander throughout the whole song it will still only be tuned to really work properly for as little as one phrase or one word. The rest of the song will be a compromise of those settings. The quick and easy way is not often the best way for the song. Expander settings that sound great in verse 1 might sound terrible in the chorus and might give verse 2 and unnatural attack while chopping off the ends of words in two spots in the bridge. I always prefer putting in the time to edit the vocals as described here.

    Are you making art or doing a job? If you’re cutting audio for local tv commercials the expander approach might be better for the speed at which you have to work and no one is analyzing the music bed under the car ad. You’ve got to take it all into consideration.

  8. SylvainB says:

    THANKS FOR YOUR ANSWERS!

    You asked me:Are you making art or doing a job?

    In fact, I’m a french music teacher in a secondary school and also a composer (not professional)
    I want recording,mixing and mastering my songs at home.
    But my classical music studies haven’t brought me
    any tricks for the art of sound.
    I’d would like to work seriously and It’s why I asked you some questions today.

    Many many thanks to answer and trying to help me.

  9. TyRique D says:

    Whoa, that looks like it could take quite a while XD Never thought about putting fades on breaths, though. I’m working on a song now, so I’m gonna have to give it a shot (and remove that noise gate XD ). Thanks for the article! :D

    -TyRique D

    • bvesco says:

      Once you get good at it you can complete editing a vocal track for a whole song in 10 or 15 minutes. Good luck!