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Learning to Plug-In — How to Track Better Vocals

Learning to Plug-In — How to Track Better Vocals

From Raw to Revolutionary — Transform your Vocals with UAD Plug‑Ins

A well-sung lead vocal can make your tracks soar. But producers far and wide will also tell you that vocals can be the single most difficult element of a production to get just right.

For a recent demo project, I experimented with a handful of UAD plug-ins to help me tune and tweak, deepen and sweeten a raw performance towards a polished, powerful vocal track.

Compelling vocals are arguably the most important element to your track's success.

Go to the Chorus

“Nobody’s Savior” is a new original song that I recently had to work up as a demo under a very short deadline. The vibe is meant to be saucy and a little bit anthemic, somewhat similar to Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” when it comes to bluesy, rhythmic character — but with a bit of an “Eleanor Rigby” chamber feel in the arrangement.

Here’s a snippet of the first chorus vocal, with minimal accompaniment and just a little EQ.

Since the tracking and production timeline was very tight — start to finish in a few hours — lots of vocal editing, comping, and re-tracking was not an option.

I liked the quality and attitude of an early take, so I ran the whole thing through the Antares Auto-Tune Realtime Advanced plug-in to see if it added the perfect amount of pitch polish.

Given that the vocals were solid to begin with and had an expressive, earthy quality to them, I didn’t want to over-process and iron out any vitality. Instead, after tweaking a few variables, I found this very subtle Auto‑Tune setting.

This setting with the Antares Auto-Tune Realtime plug-in helps hold the vocal in place, without being overbearing.

Listen to how smoothly and transparently the plug-in locks the vocals’ pitch into place, especially where it’s most needed on key notes like the words “savior” and “fool.” The vocals had some bluesy slides in them, and I loved how this setting left the character and grit of those glissandi in place, yet made sure that the sustained notes on words like “rules” and “go” were right on, allowing them to gel more organically with the instrumental arrangement.

Manley Vocal

Next, I wanted to add some compression, warmth, and sizzle to the voice, so I dialed up the Manley VOXBOX, scrolled through a few presets, and discovered this setting:

Using the Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip in a mixing scenario, this setting quickly added a professional polish to the vocal.

The VOXBOX is a powerful sonic Swiss Army knife that includes a tube mic preamp, EQ, compression, and de-esser/limiter. Several years ago, I recorded an entire album using a hardware VOXBOX as the primary vocal chain preamp. Even though the settings that we used for that project were pretty minimal, I loved the warmth, color, subtle sizzle, shape, and organic texture that the box added to the album’s male and female lead and backing vocal tracks before the sounds were captured in Pro Tools.

The UAD version lived up to my memory of the hardware, and the VOXBOX plug-in made my quickly-tracked vocals sound meatier, far less digital, and much more alive. I paged through a few different presets and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Joe Chiccarelli-Rock Vox setting gave me the mixture of warmth, presence, grit, and electricity that I was looking for.

I started tweaking the input gain, compression threshold, and overall output, but ended up reverting back to the preset when all was said and done, since it sounded so good right off the bat. You can hear the result here:

Go Deep

Finally, it was time to add some depth. I pulled up the UAD Pure Plate Reverb plug-in and, as time was still very much of the essence, again started with factory presets. When I got to the RC-Long Warm Plate setting, shown below, I knew I had found the winner:

Just a touch of Pure Plate Reverb on an effects bus adds dimension, depth, and gloss to the vocal.

I had the Pure Plate set up on an aux channel and experimented with how much of my vocal signal to send, in order to get the depth and ambience that the arrangement needed. After some trial and error, I ended up with about 25% and love how, as a result, the vocal sounded not only more organic and in-tune, but like it was living in three dimensions:

Working with these UAD plug-ins, I loved how far I could take my raw vocal track — literally in minutes. When it came to the time-sensitive task of building a demo on deadline, this trio of UAD plug-ins gave me exactly what I needed.

— Michael Gallant