What is the best vocal chain?

Use this guide to perfectly mix your vocal!

Average readingtime: 17 minutes
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Singer in studio

You’ve recorded a perfect take of your vocal, and now you’re looking for the best vocal chain. It’s important to know what effects to use on your vocal in order to make it sound professional. Should you use a compressor or equalizer first? Do I need to remove any frequencies from my vocal? How do I make my vocal sound in key with the right hip hop beat?

The answers to these questions can be found in this article. I’ve written down my personal vocal chain order for rap vocals. It’s important to use the same order as written down below. That way, you’II get the best from your vocal when following this guide.

Table of contents

Start your vocal chain order with autotune

The first Virtual Studio Technology (VST) you need to add to your vocal mixing chain is autotune. This makes your vocal sound more professional and removes any bad notes or minor pitches. Moreover, it makes the vocal more in key with the beat.

Don’t be afraid to use autotune. Most nowadays artists are using it in order to achieve a professional sound. Most singles from the radio have autotune applied to them, and it’s absolutely no shame to use it.

How to get started with autotune?

I like to use ‘Autotune Pro‘ from Antares. It’s very easy to use and has a pretty good interface. Furthermore, it is one of the best vocal plugins to use right now. It comes with an auto-key plugin, which detects your vocal for the right key. This comes in handy when you don’t know what key you’re in. Simply put the plugin on your vocal and start playing it. The auto-key VST will tell you what key your vocal is.

When you’ve found the right key of your vocal recording, select this one in the Autotune Pro VST interface. There’s a drop-down menu next to the logo of Antares. Click on: “Key” and choose the right one for the vocal.

The most important knobs from this plugin are the ‘Retune Speed’ and ‘Humanize’ ones. ‘Retune Speed’ sets the rate at which the input audio is moved to the target pitches. This means how quickly your vocal gets corrected. Keep in mind that a faster speed results in a more ‘robotic’ sounding vocal. Moreover, the ‘Humanize’ knob adds realism to the sustained notes at high retune speeds of your vocal. If you pull the knob back to zero, it also creates a really robotic sound.

Start by pulling the ‘Retune Speed’ back to around 40. Next, push the ‘Humanize’ knob to around 60. Then, take a listen to your vocal recording. It should sound a bit robotic, but you can work further from this starting point. Try messing with both knobs to achieve your desired vocal sound.

EQ stage 1 – Subtractive & low end

Now it’s time to add an equalization (EQ) to the vocal chain order. I’ve written down two different stages of EQ. Both ways have different outcomes, and it’s important to use the right way of equalization at the right moment.

Stage one of EQ is where you need to remove the low end of your vocal. That way, the vocal won’t clash with the lower bass and sub frequencies from other instruments. Furthermore, subtractive equalization means removing any bad frequencies from your vocal. These frequencies often sound very ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’.

Removing the low end

Let’s start by removing the low end from your vocal. Start by EQ-ing the vocal with a high pass filter around 100hz. The frequencies below this number are the ones which need to be removed. That way, the vocal isn’t going to clash with the kick and bass.

Don’t forget to use your ears when doing this. It might be necessary to remove some more frequencies if needed. It’s possible to change the slope of the high pass filter. Keep it mind to not make it too steep, as this makes the vocal sound unnatural. Below can be found an example of the right shape.

At this part the low frequencies are removed from the vocal, and it’s time to look for any weird frequencies in the equalization spectrum.

Scan for any bad frequencies

First, you create a new knob in your equalizer spectrum and boost it upwards around +6db. Second, make it narrow until it’s very tight. This way, it’s very easy to find frequencies which might sound harsh. Furthermore, because of the tightness, you’re removing the frequency very specific, so the vocal won’t get destroyed.

Once you hear any ‘harsh’ or ‘hissle’ frequencies, pull the EQ band down to around -6db. The weird sound should be gone now, and the vocal should sound better.

If you don’t hear any bad frequencies after a few sweeps, that means the vocal is clean and free of any weird noises. Keep in mind to not overdo this part and only remove frequencies when needed. The vocal will become thin if you remove too many frequencies from its spectrum.

I like to use FabFilter Pro-Q3 for equalization, but you can use any stock plugin as well. Below, I have an image of how your equalization can look like. As you can see, I removed the lower frequencies from the vocal. Furthermore, the three cuts are there for learning purposes. This is how your cuts should look like. Keep them tight and don’t cut them more than -6db.

vocal chain subtractive & low end EQ
FabFilter Pro-Q 3 plugin for vocal chain

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Add compression to your vocal mixing chain

When you’re recording a vocal take, the outcome won’t sound constant. There are many parts in the vocal which are much louder or quieter than the rest. This is where compression offers the solution. Compression means reducing the higher and lower parts of the vocal. It makes the vocal more upfront and constant in volume. That way, the vocal will sit in the mix better which sounds professional and more pleasant.

How to start compressing?

Start by lowering the ‘Peak Reduction’ knob until you start to hear some compression. The loudest part of your vocal should now be more consistent with the rest of the sample. The dB meter of the VLA-3A plugin is really helpful, because you can exactly see how your compression settings are affecting the vocal.

Moreover, you’ll need to bring these reductions back up with the ‘Gain’ knob. Check how much dB is lost after the compression, and start adding these dBs back with the ‘Gain’ knob. A few dB would be good for your vocal.

The VLA-3A compressor comes with the option to switch between a ‘limiter’ and ‘compressor’ mode. I like to use the compressor mode, because I don’t want to have huge peak reductions on my vocals. Furthermore, a gentle amount of compressor is enough for vocals, and you have more control over the overall volume.

The limiter mode is mostly used on a mix bus. Limiting is an extreme form of compressor, and will most likely destroy your signal when placed on an individual instrument or vocal. Keep in mind that the goal of a limiter is to bring up the overall volume of the project. That’s why I highly recommend not using a limiter when mixing vocals only.

I like to use ‘Black Booster VLA-3A’ for this one, but any compression plugin works well. Start playing with these knobs, as these numbers will not work for each vocal recording.

VLA-3A compressor plugin

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De-essing

De-essing means compressing any ‘sharp’ sounds, such as the ‘f’ and ‘s’. These letters can become much louder when recording a vocal. The de-esser helps to make them quieter to fit the mix better. These sharp sounds depend on what microphone you use. Moreover, if you apply hard compression to your vocal when recording, it’s going to create sharp tones in the vocal.

My favorite de-essing VST of my vocal mixing chain is the FabFilter-DS. It has a pleasant interface, and it’s very easy to use. You can use other plugins to your taste, but the walkthrough might be a bit different compared to the FabFilter one.

How to use a de-esser on the rap vocal chain?

Start by lowering the ‘Threshold’ knob for a quick example. You should see some green highlighted points in the waveform. These are the parts where the de-esser plugin has detected some harsh frequencies. This means, the ‘Threshold’ knob lets you decrease harsh frequencies in a gentle way.

Now, put the ‘Threshold’ back up and start with the filter below. It’s found below the ‘Threshold’ and ‘Range’ knobs. With this filter you can highlight certain frequencies where most of the ‘ssss’ sounds are.

After you’ve selected the right area with the filter, use the ‘Threshold’ to lower the sharp part of the vocal. Put the knob all the way down to the left. You can use the headphone button to hear the trigger of the ‘Threshold’. It gives you a great hearing of when the plugin is de-essing the unpleasant parts to overcome uncertainty.

Finally, the ‘Range’ is the amount of reduction it does to the vocal. There’s a meter found on the right-hand side of the FabFilter plugin. Simply start with putting the ‘Range’ all the way up, and work your way down from that. It’s important to keep listening to the vocal as you reduce the ‘Range’ knob. Once you’ve set up the right amount, your vocal sounds a lot more pleasant and professional now.

vocal chain De-esser
FabFilter-DS plugin for vocal chain

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EQ stage 2 – additive

This is the stage where you’re going to add color to your vocal. This gives more clarity and air to your vocal. In additive equalization, you are going to boost some frequencies, instead of cutting some.

Start by creating a ‘High Shelf’ shape in the higher range of the frequency spectrum. Boost this section by a few dB until you start to hear a difference.

vocal chain eq additive

The final effect of the vocal mixing chain – saturation

Saturation is a soft version of distortion. It gives a warm and pleasant sound to your vocal chain order. Not only makes it the vocal more full, but also increases the presence and thickness. There are a lot of versions of saturation to choose from. Some of these are: tubes, tapes, amps, and transformers. Each version has its own unique sound, and it’s up to you what effect or feeling you want to achieve with it.

I recommend ‘Audified VocalMint Saturator’ for mixing rap vocals. The plugin has only one knob, which makes it really easy to use. Even if you don’t know anything about saturation or mixing in general yet, this might be a good choice. Simply put this plugin on your sound and start playing around with the big knob.

VocalMint saturator plugin for vocal chain

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Use the right plugin chain order

You’ve now read what plugins to use to give your vocal the professional touch. It’s important to follow these steps in the right order, so your vocal doesn’t get messed up. Work your way from top to bottom, and start with the right plugins.

For example, you don’t want to use a compressor before an equalization, as it will blow your signal. Also, use an EQ after any distortion or saturation plugins, as these effects may add more unwanted lower frequencies to the vocal.

It is also possible to outsource the mixing part to a professional mixing engineer. They offer a wide variety amount of mix and master services, and the result is in high quality.

Start using the right plugins for your rap vocal chain!

The plugins I used are available on Plugin Fox. I really love this website when it comes down to VST’s. They offer a lot of different plugins for an affordable price. Moreover, has Plugin Fox plugins for all different treatments. You can find plugins for mastering as well as equalization. Furthermore, do they have a various amount of saturation and distortion VST’s.

A great feature of Plugin Fox is their ‘instant delivery‘ service. This is amazing, because you don’t have to wait for hours to get started. The purchased plugin gets sent to your email within seconds, so you can get started immediately. Another great feature of Plugin Fox is the opportunity to save loyalty points. The more plugins you buy from this website, the more discounts you’ll save. These points can be used for discounts on future purchases.

Moreover, a small percentage of your purchase gets donated to the ‘Stand Up to Cancer’ non-profit organization. This is pretty helpful, because you’re also supporting cancer research with your purchase.

Press the button below to visit the website of Plugin Fox!

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