Video: 3 Tricks to Make Pop Vocals POP

If you examine modern pop vocals on Top 40 radio today, you'll notice a few things to be true—the vocals take up a large amount of sonic real estate, stay front-and-center in the mix, and are (with some exceptions) crisp and clear.

Today, producer, engineer, and mixer Jay Maas is here to tell you how you can get big-budget pop vocals without big-budget studios, by keeping just three things in mind. Even if you're not interested in making radio-friendly pop music, learning how to record and mix vocals in this manner will only help the clarity and strength of vocals on your non-pop projects too.

Use the Right Microphone

Getting the right vocal sound starts, of course, with a microphone. The Shure SM7B, famously used on Michael Jackson's Thriller and countless other albums, is very affordable, about $280–399 USD on Reverb. If you're able to spend a little more money, you should consider entering the realm of large diaphragm condensers. While this class of microphones can reach astronomical prices, Maas uses a Soundelux U-195, which can be found for around $1,000–1,249.

Don't Be Afraid to Compress Heavily

Because pop arrangements often leave a lot of room for the vocal tracks, you can be fairly aggressive in how you apply compression. This will also help the vocals stay front-and-center in the mix, whether it's a softer or louder passage.

To demonstrate, Maas uses a Waves plugin version of the studio-mainstay 1176 compressor called the CLA-76 Compressor. However, most DAWs will come with their own 1176-style plugins—and most studios will have an outboard compressor modeled after an 1176, if not the real-deal. Any of these variations, hardware or software, will work.

For the vocal passage Maas uses as an example, singer Emily Rubico was relatively quiet except in one moment. Maas set the 1176 plugin's Ratio to 8:1, Input gain at about 10 o' clock, and Output gain at 2 o' clock. By setting the Attack at its quickest setting and the Release at its slowest, Maas is able to meld the vocal part into a fairly consistent volume, without taking away any of the punch from the louder notes.

To hear the full song, "We Go On," visit Emily Rubico's Bandcamp page.

Treat Long and Short Vocal Passages Differently

You may find that you have two broad categories of vocals in a pop song—one being the long, sustained notes of a chorus, and the other being the shorter, more staccato notes of a verse. When applying effects, you should treat each according to its needs.

For the soaring chorus vocals, you have the ability to add longer effects—delays, reverbs, and others—that can strengthen those soaring qualities. For the verses, however, you don't want those effects to get in the way of the quicker vocal pace.

The song in our video above has a few verse passages that contain two triple-tracked lines (two vocal takes that each get a center, left, and right track. Maas uses Soundtoys Little Microshift to introduce just the slightest pitch variation between the multi-tracked lines. (It's like a digital version of Alan Parson's layered, detuned acoustic guitars trick.)

For the soaring chorus vocals, Maas takes a different approach, using a long, diffuse reverb courtesy of the Valhalla Shimmer plugin, and a deep echo thanks to Soundtoys EchoBoy. Both are a great example of the type of lush processing you can apply to longer-note passages that would absolutely get in the way of verse-style vocals.

Little Microshift
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EchoBoy Jr.
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