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Mixing lead vocals in Reaper using free plugins

Some people will tell you that you can’t get a great sounding mix without using premium plugins. I can’t help but feel people who say that are mixing with their eyes – not their ears.

Here’s how I’d tackle a lead vocal in Reaper without any of the premium/paid plugins I usually have at hand.

You can download the audio tracks and the Reaper project to try this yourself.

Recorded vocal parts

The vocal part I’m mixing comes from an as-yet unreleased track from my own grunge band Inner City Traders.

The three track EP was recorded entirely in my home studio. Two hours every Wednesday night over the course of a few months.

I recorded two parts for the lead vocal in the chorus. The same melody, just doubled, with the intention of panning them left and right – which we’ll get to a little later on in this post.

Here’s a stereo export of the unprocessed (dry) vocal tracks.

EQ part 1

Pre-Compression Instance of ReaEQ on VOCALS Bus

Lets remove any plosives using ReaEQ by taking out everything below between 80-100Hz.

I’m adding ReaEQ to the VOCALS bus. Lead Vocal A and Lead Vocal B are both routed to this track. This means I can apply effects to both tracks without having to duplicate the processing on each track.

Compression

ReaComp on VOCALS Bus

Using ReaComp, tame the dynamics of the vocal. If you set your attack too quick, the compressor will steal the transient, too slow and it won’t control the dynamic range. Start with a ratio of 2:1 and aim for around a 3-6dB reduction in the loudest part of the track. You may want to try a higher ratio e.g. 4:1 with a lower threshold and a reduction of only 2-3dB but I find a lower ratio generally sounds more natural. The release should be somewhere between 20ms to 80ms, experiment with this and find where it sounds most natural.

Make sure you level match the output of the compressor to the pre-compressed signal so you’re hearing the true result and not just the dB gain.

EQ part 2

Post-Compression Instance of ReaEQ on VOCALS Bus

Insert a new instance of ReaEQ after the compressor and filter out everything above 18-20KHz, A-B the EQ’d and non-EQ’d signal to make sure you’re not loosing any important detail.

Give the vocal some clarity with a small boost somewhere around 4.5-5KHz. Some classic hardware equalisers, including the Neve 1081 console EQ, had a fixed value of 4.7KHz for just this purpose. To keep a nice natural sound, use a wide bandwidth. Aim for around a 3dB boost.

Give the vocal some body with a boost somewhere between 100 and 220Hz. There’s no magic frequency here, it will largely depend on the singer. But if you’re after some ideas of where to start, 100Hz, 180Hz and 220Hz are all classic outboard EQ fixed frequencies.

Delay

Delay Aux Track

Create three new delay tracks to be used as auxiliary sends: Haas Delay, 8th Note Delay and 16th Note Delay.

These tracks receive the audio from the VOCALS bus and output to the Master send.

We’re going to use Valhalla FreqEcho for each of these. FreqEcho is a great free delay for Mac and Windows that not only gives you great control over the decay through its low-cut and high-cut filters, but also gives you the option to sync the delay to the tempo of the song.

Haas Delay

The Haas Effect describes how our ears perceive sound and determine the position of sounds. We’re going to use this psychoacoustic effect to add some space between the singer and the microphone. Read more about the Haas Effect on Wikipedia

Depending on the singer, you’ll want to keep the delay time between 20 and 50 milliseconds. With a shorter the delay, the singer will sound like they are closer. With a longer delay, the singer will sound like they are further away. Too much delay and the vocal will start to sound unnatural.

This is a subtle effect but it gives an illusion of space without adding any artefacts or muddying up the vocal like reverb can.

As with reverb, you can use filters on your delay to get a cleaner effect. In my Haas Effect preset, I have the Delay time set to 30 ms, the Low Cut set to 1240 Hz and the High Cut set to 9420 Hz. These aren’t hard and fast rules, it’s just what works for me and I rarely adjust them. I also have the Mix set to 20% by default but I adjust it to taste in every mix.

FreqEcho FX on Haas Delay Aux Track

8th Note and 16th Note Delay

How you use the 8th note and 16th note delays will largely depend on the tempo of the track. For a slow track, use the 16th note delay as the primary and a small amount of the 8th note delay. For a faster tempo, use the 8th note delay as the primary and a small amount of the 16th note delay. You may even find that only use one or the other.

The setup of these two delays are primarily the same as the Haas Delay above accept this time the delay is sync’d to the tempo of the song e.g. 1/8 or 1/16 and the Mix is set to 100%.

FreqEcho FX on 8th Note Delay Aux Track
FreqEcho FX on 16th Note Delay Aux Track

Use the send volume in the track routing to adjust the amount of delay applied to the vocal.

Send Volume Routing for Delays on VOCALS Bus

Reverb

Typically I’d use Soundtoys Little Plate or Lexicon MPX Native and select my favourite plate reverb preset, you can find out more about that over on my add reverb to your session or mix article.

Today I’m going to use a great free reverb: Voxengo OldSkoolVerb.

Reverb Aux Track

Create a new Reverb – Plate track to be used as auxiliary send.

Start with the Plate Reverb preset in OldSkoolVerb, but pull down the Pre-delay to 10 (the lowest setting) and make the reverb Time quite a bit shorter, say around 800 milliseconds.

Because we’re using this as an aux send, set the Reverb Gain to 0 and mute the dry signal.

OldSkoolVerb FX on Reverb Aux Track

You may also want to consider De-essing the signal on the way into the reverb, and EQ’ing the reverb send and return. See my using reverb on vocals article.

As with the delay, use the send volume in the track routing to adjust the amount of reverb applied to the vocal.

Send Volume Routing for Delays and Reverb on VOCALS Bus

Panning

Let’s get some stereo spread. It’s super quick and easy but ultra effective in the mix.

Panning on Lead Vocal A and Lead Vocal B

Pan one of the doubled vocal takes left 10% and the other right 10%.

I must mention here that I would typically use Boz Digital Labs Pan Knob for this. If you have a spare $50 I’d highly recommend it. Pan Knob uses an algorithm to keep low frequencies in the center image while panning higher frequencies wherever you choose in the stereo field. This helps your mix translate better in headphones which often favour bass-heavy instruments.

Saturation / excitement

Using an exciter or saturation plug-in, add some excitement to the track with a touch of high-frequency enhancement. This can help to give the vocal a slightly more aggressive feel or presence.

Typically I’d use Klanghelm SDRR which is an incredibly diverse saturator, compressor, equaliser, bit-crusher, stereo-widener and tone shaper but today I’m going to use Klanghelm IVGI, SDRR’s little brother and Klanghelm’s free saturator and distortion plug-in that can deliver everything from subtle master buss compression to cranking distortion. It’s also worth mentioning Klanghelm DC1A, which is a great free two-knob compressor that just does what is says it can do, and that is; nice crunchy saturation, gentle levelling or even heavy pumping. It works great on instruments, including drums.

Saturation Aux Track

You can add this directly to the track or set it up as an aux send. I have several Saturation aux tracks in my standard mix template, including IVGI because I like to save time wherever possible and if I’m going to spend time getting a plug-in to sound great, I don’t want to have to do it all again from scratch the next time I want to use it.

IVGI FX on Saturation Aux Track

The result

Let’s take a listen to the result, below are the unprocessed (dry) vocals. The processed (wet) vocals and the same section of the song with our processed vocals in the overall mix.

Lead Vocals CH2 – Dry
Lead Vocals CH2 – Wet
Lead Vocals CH2 – In Mix

Hopefully this has helped and gets you on the path to great sounding vocals.

If you’ve got any or feedback or ideas please leave a comment below.

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