We just got done recording our 'first album' - we are a garage band with professional sound tech. We mixed everything using a Behringer USB board and ran it via a USB out to Audacity. The recordings seem fine, however - our lead vocal singer's talent is to be desired. Is there any effects/EQ to make his vocals sound a bit better? We have the master recordings in .wav format, and the music we play is rock/alternative.

  • For migration to SD please Tim – Rory Alsop Jan 27 '14 at 16:06

In my experience, the best way to fix a bad vocal recording is to make a good vocal recording. Good recordings start at the source.

Failing that, the most important thing is that the vocals be on pitch. Again, a proper vocal performance is the best thing for this, but pitch correction tools like Antares Autotune or Gsnap can help in a pinch. The tradeoff, of course, is quality - autotune is always going to sound like it's somewhat mechanical and "like an effect," because it is. Some people don't care, some people hate it, and for some it's a desirable sound.

If you're on pitch but don't like the singer's done, and for whatever reason can't replace the singer or get him/her to improve (perhaps you're on a schedule?) beyond mediocre, then it's time to make it the best sounding mediocre performance you can:

  • Use EQ to boost the frequency range of the vocals that you like best, and cut the parts you like the least, or that interfere too much with the other instruments. You can find these by dialing in a sizeable boost with a fairly narrow Q ("effective range", basically) and sweeping it up and down the spectrum on the vocal track to see what you like and don't.
  • Use a compressor to make the quietest and loudest parts of the vocal closer together. This creates a more intimate sound, and at more extreme compression levels gets into that sort of mildly distorted radio-rock vocal sound.
  • Finally, use reverb and delay to add space and echo to your vocals. Don't overdo this unless your music specifically calls for it, or it'll sound heavy-handed, as Jon mentioned in his answer. Add enough reverb so you can hear the effect, then turn it back a bit. Experiment to taste. Add delays if you want to create a vocal echo.

These are just general answers to serve as a guideline and starting point for using these effects. If you aren't already familiar with them, research the heck out of them online and find out what all the knobs do. You can't just slap one on and expect it to sound decent, you're going to want to make sure it's tailored to help your sound in context.

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You can always try using auto-tune. I know it's gotten a bad reputation because of its heavy use in RnB and hip-hop, but the fact of the matter is that most producers use it when they're mixing and finalizing tracks. The key difference between let's say, T-Pain (auto-tune extraordinaire) and John Mayer (who has said he's used auto-tune on almost all of his albums) is vocal talent. John Mayer already sings well and is always relatively close to being on pitch, if not there already. T-Pain, on the other hand, likes the 'sweeping' effect of auto-tune, so he intentionally sings off-pitch. That, or he's just a really bad vocalist, which is well within the realm of possibility.

There are applications available that allow for fine-tuning of vocals, down to the individual notes of vocals and instrumentation, but I'm guessing you're seeking a solution using the resources you currently have.

If you're willing, adding filters and effects such as reverb can mask less-than-stellar vocals. You'll have to be careful though so you don't ruin the integrity of the song. Audio filters are much like filters in Photoshop. Usually when people first learn them, they overuse them to the point where something is just obnoxious to listen to.

This wasn't the most helpful answer, but perhaps it will give you a few ideas. Food for thought.

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If I understand you correctly, you have recorded the whole band in one single take on a single stereo track. While recording in one take is not a bad thing, recording everything on one track is, it gives you virtually no possibility of post-processing. You should record at least the vocals on a seperate track, with a multichannel audio interface and/or by first recording only the instruments and then adding the vocals later on as overdubs. I suggest the latter, as it gives the singer much more time to do his lines as good as possible. Because this is where you want to start: good post-processing can make a badly recorded track just good enough so that it's not annoying, but the result cannot be really good unless you started with an at-least decent track.

Pitch correction is only good when you want exact chromatic pitches. You usually do want this in pop music, but in many other styles they are not generally desirable at all, blues is the extreme case. Rock/Alternative also tends to be better when the singer has the freedom to sing whatever pitches he likes, not only those that are theoretically considered "correct". Even in classical music, pitch correction is a bad thing because even though the singers painfully train to sing exactly in tune, they also train to sing wide vibrato, something a good autotune can cope with but which still gets it into trouble. (If you're not careful, an autotune can always do weird things – this even happens on some professional records, listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers, By The Way, The Zephyr Song 3:00) What's more, even when there is a perfect tuning it usually is not the chromatic tuning, but rather a type of microtuned diatonic scale, which is not easy to find.

If there are some notes that are just plainly wrong, I suggest you use not an autotune but rather a tool like melodyne, with which you can alter the pitch of specific notes much more controlledly. If there are lots of notes that are plainly wrong, I suggest you redo the vocals recording.

Once you have a track that sounds ok, you can start spicing it up. The most important tool is a compressor, this can greatly improve the presence of the singer in a recording. An equalizer also can. Both are used on virtually all professional recordings (except in classical music), but you need to be careful not to overdo it and to boost the right frequencies. Another very useful type of effect is analog-style saturation, as provided by real tube microphone preamps or digital plugins for simulating tape saturation.

You should do a lot of comparison to professional records that you like while doing this, and be sure to use decent studio monitors and/or headphones.

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All the posts here seem to be crammed full of good advice for trying to get a decent sounding vocal track that sounds as natural as possible. If things still sound just tooooo rubbish, you might want to try getting more creative with effects. Whack on some distortion or a phaser/flanger or try an octave pitch-shifter, then experiment with the balance of wet and dry versions of the vocals in the mix. It aint gonna sound natural, but it may hide the crapness ;)

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There are loads of singers out there who can't "sing properly". Having a distinctive voice, loads of personality and something of interest or inspirational to say are all massively important factors. That being said, it was said that John Lydon did take singing lessons, so that may be worth a look too. Bottom line is that - clearly depending on the material - what could be considered as out-of-tune vocals can still work as an effective instrument.

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