Although Ableton Live is known mostly as the best tool for producing electronic music, it is also a powerhouse for recording musical performances such as vocals. While many producers shun the stock audio effect plugins in Live for more advanced VST plugins for mixing by companies like Waves Audio and Slate Digital, there is still something to be said for the plugins that come with Ableton Live Suite.
In this article, we are going to take a look at some of the best Ableton effects for vocal processing. But before we get into the list, let’s brush up on the basics of mixing and its application to vocals.
4 Steps To Mixing Vocals
1. Control the Dynamics
The dynamic range of a piece of audio is the difference in volume between the loudest and softest parts. Dynamics processors (aka compressors) are used to control the dynamics of a recording such as when a vocalist gets a little too loud in some parts of the recording.
2. Achieve Tonal Balance
Tonal balance of a piece of audio is achieved using equalizers. This step is necessary to make the recording shine through the mix and sound as realistic as possible.
3. Add Some “Room” with Reflections/Reverb
These devices were made to add a “room” sound to a recording that is done in an acoustically treated environment. The best way to record vocals is in a soundproof vocal booth but the recording itself will sound dry because of it. Reverbs bring that sense of depth without making the mix sound muddy.
4. Warm it with Distortion or Saturation
This may sound strange but small amounts of distortion, particularly saturation, help a great deal by adding warmth and fullness to a vocal recording. Incidentally, analogue preamps do add saturation to the recording itself, which is why they are so in demand, despite the advances in digital technology.
Best Ableton Effects for Vocals
Ableton Live’s stock compressor is probably one of the most underrated devices in Live’s arsenal. It is a transparent digital compressor and the settings on it are accurate down to a hundredth of a millisecond.
When using this device for vocal compression, a good starting point is a preset called “Gentle Squeeze”. This preset has soft attack, release and ratio settings making it ideal for controlling the dynamics in a vocal performance without completely getting rid of them. The Compressor also has a preset called the “De-esser” which is quite effective in controlling sibilance by compressing a small band of frequencies around 6 kHz.
When Live 9 was released, the developers introduced a new compressor called Glue. This plugin was designed to emulate an analog compressor that was used on a famous 80’s mixing console.
While it can be used on individual tracks, like Live’s original compressor, it is actually meant to be used on group tracks or even on the master channel to “glue” multiple signals together. This makes it ideal for use on a vocal bus to bring together two or more vocal harmonies.
This beast is a multiband compressor that enables you to compress up to three frequency bands individually. While this may be considered overkill on a single vocal channel, it is very useful on a vocal bus to have more control over the dynamics of different voices, especially while mixing a choir that has voices ranging from bass to soprano.
This device is a parametric equalizer that offers up to eight filters per input channel. These filters can be used to shape the tone of a vocal recording to add warmth and air while removing muddiness, sibilance and resonant peaks.
The EQ Eight has three modes – stereo, left/right and mid/side – giving you tonal control over the whole signal or each input channel individually. The mid/side mode can be particularly useful in shaping the tone of a vocal recording that contains lots of harmonies that are panned to either side.
Convolution Reverb Pro
Two of the most popular devices in Max for Live are the Convolution Reverb and the Convolution Reverb Pro. These devices take samples from a real world location and apply them to a signal to give it the effect of having been recorded in that space.
The presets for these two devices include many real world spaces such as cathedrals, stadiums and famous studios, as well as the impulse responses from old analog reverb devices such as Stocktronics RX-4000, Uniton Swissecho 2000, Farfisa Spring Reverb, BOSS RX-100 and more.
And if you are feeling somewhat experimental, you can simply drag any audio file into the device to create a reverb that doesn’t sound realistic at all!
Ableton Live’s Saturator device is a very useful mixing tool for any kind of sound. It is a waveshaping effect that, when used subtly, can add dirt, punch or warmth to your vocal recording, and when used liberally, can completely distort your vocals à la Nine Inch Nails.
For a traditional approach to vocal mixing, Saturator has a couple of great presets to give you a starting point. “A Bit Warmer” gives a slight boost to the midrange frequencies, giving your vocals, as the name suggests, a bit of warmth. “Warm Up Highs” gives a slight boost to the higher frequencies, adding clarity to the sound and slightly boosting the breathiness of the singer’s voice.
This device is not meant for vocal mixing but when used subtly, it can give you similar results to the Saturator. For example, there is an Overdrive preset called “Enhance” which adds a tiny bit of distortion to the high frequencies. You can even adjust the built-in equalizer to boost other bands such as the mids or the lower mids. This preset works particularly well when placed after the Saturator’s “A Bit Warmer” preset in your effects chain.
The Vocoder plugin was designed to combine vocal recordings with synthesizer sounds to create that classic robot voice effect that was made hugely popular by Daft Punk. It has a built-in equalizer that consists of up to 40 bands, depending on how much control you want over the tonal shape of the sound. It also has a switch to toggle between “precise” and “retro” mode should you want your vocals to sound a bit more vintage.
This plugin uses two parallel time-modulated delays to create chorus (thickening) and flanging effects, making it great for adding space to a single vocal track. It works by splitting the signal into two, panning one to the left and the other to the right, and delaying one of them ever so slightly to give the vocal recording a “wider” sound.
Why do my vocals sound muffled?
This is a common occurrence in vocal recording which happens because there are a lot of “moving parts” between the vocalist and the recording output. Very often what makes a vocal recording sound “muffled” is the high frequencies that get lost or at least a little bit attenuated during the recording process. The solution to this is to use an equalizer to boost the high frequencies with a high shelf filter.
Should vocals be louder than the beat?
This is a tricky question since these are two very different signals we are talking about. Vocals are mostly a sustained melodic sound while drums are a very punchy, transient sound. Comparing the loudness of the two is like comparing apples and oranges.
How loud should vocals be in a mix?
A good rule of thumb is to take a step back and ask yourself if you can understand the lyrics and hear enough of the character of the singer’s voice, such as the sound of his or her breath. If the answer is yes, then the vocals are loud enough. Just make sure that the drums are punching through sufficiently.