In this post I’ll share my 5 favorite tips on how to use and treat vocals in minimal house.
In particular I’ll tell you the following things:
- where you can get vocals;
- basic treatment to get them sit in the mix;
- creative effects than you can use.
If you are a minimal house or micro house music producer, you surely came across the desire of adding some vocals to your track. That’s in fact a great way of making your track standing out and be more easily remembered. Another great thing about vocals is that they can carry a message for the listener, or just give you an idea for the title of the track. If, for instance, the vocal keeps repeating “I like pasta al pesto”, probably you’ll name the track “Pasta al pesto (Original Mix)”. Less likely you’ll call it “Mac & Cheese” (lol).
Jokes apart, here are few tips that might help you leveling up your tracks with the use of vocals. In the article I’ll be referring to my tracks for some examples, feel free to check them through the links.
1 – Where to find vocals
The first thing you need to decide is whether you need sung vocals or vocal phrases/spoken words. Let’s talk about both of them.
Good sung vocals are more difficult to find, also considering the fact that they need to be in key with your track. Yes, you can adjust the pitch, but sometimes that means completely changing the nature of the vocals. Not always a sung vocal still sounds good after lowering the pitch of 5 semitones.
That being said, there are mainly 3 sources where you can find them and each one have pro and cons:
- Sample packs: Loopcloud, Splice, Samplesound are some of the best places where you can find them. Vocals from sample packs are made in recording studios and so they sound perfect. You find vocals for every genres of music, but probably you may want to look for soul vocals or world vocals (that’s what i like the most). The downside of vocals from sample packs is that in most of the cases I find them a bit cheesy. For this reason I almost never use them.
- Acappellas: if you look carefully on the internet (also on You Tube) and if you are lucky, you can find good quality acapellas of famous songs. This is the go-to way for making banger edits. Or you can use small slices of the acapella for your original mixes. Be aware that you are violating copyright, so that’s risky. Most of the times producers who do this, release their music on vinyl or Bandcamp, so it’s less likely to bump into problems.
- Songs: the third way of getting vocals is sampling them from songs you like. You can both keep them like they are (with all the other instruments around) or try extracting only the vocal. For this second purpose, you can get good results with softwares like iZotope RX8 (Standard version). Again, be aware of the copyright issues you may have.
Personally, I’ve used sung vocals in many tracks and achieved very good results. And I can definitely say those vocals leveled up the tracks.
Here is an example in my track Very Sample Song, out on Storytellers, where I used an Ariana Grande acapella.
Vocal phrases and spoken words
This is where I feel most comfortable and it’s a quite common use of vocals in minimal house. It’s the easiest way to add something more to your tracks, without having key or copyright issues. Also almost everything works good.
You can find this kind of vocals in sample packs too, but personally I have only one place I use and it’s free: YOU TUBE.
The best videos where to find them are vlogs and interviews (i particularly like vintage interviews). But you need to find those ones that don’t have music in the background. Here are some channels I’ve used in the past: Isabel Paige, Julie Nolke, Daphne de Baat (yes I prefer female voice, I’ll tell you why later in the article).
To download the audio from the videos I use 4k You Tube to MP3. As the name suggest the audio file format is MP3, but trust me, for a background vocal you don’t need super quality stuff, also because in vlogs there is always background noise and so the quality is already cheap (and also, to be honest, I like to have a bit of background noise).
2 – Basic treatment
The first operation when you import the sound is cleaning it with an EQ and get rid of the low hum and unwanted frequencies. Vlog vocals, in fact, carry a lot of noise. If the vocal is too dark, I brighten it up a bit boosting around 2kHz. A basic eq’ing always help to give value to the voice. Here’s a picture of a typical EQ curve that i use on vocals:
Acapellas might sound better than vlog vocals so they need less treatment. Unless you are sampling them from a track. In that case you need to do your best to isolate voice frequencies and get rid of all the other instruments. It’s quite impossible to achieve a perfect result, but keep in mind that alongside with the rest of the sounds of your track, after some EQ work, residual sounds in the vocal sample will be negligible. That’s what i did in my edit of “Cocaine cool” by Laidback.
If the vocal has a wide dynamic range (like it happens with vlog vocals), I highly suggest to control it with a compressor. I use Ableton Glue Compressor, setting ratio to 4, fast attack (0.3 to 1 milliseconds) and fast release (0.6 milliseconds). The threshold level depends on the vocals. If the dynamic range is very wide I can set it in order to have up to 10 dBs of gain reduction. But as usual, use your ears to judge how much is the right amount. The idea is that you don’t want to have parts where the vocal is to quiet and parts where it’s annoyingly loud!
3 – Manipulate the audio waveform
The use of the sample or samples you selected can be very straight forward or involve a lot of processing.
If you have a great vocal you can use it like it is. That’s very common in edits, where producers use the hook of a song right before or in the drop.
In other cases, and this can happen both with sung vocals or with dialogs and monologues, you can manipulate the audio waveform and achieve very interesting and original results. Here are some:
- Lowering the pitch: deactivate “warp” on the sample and lower the pitch (usually from 2 to 7 semitones). This will also slow down the track and the effect will be a sort of stoned/lazy voice which I personally love. And that’s the reason why I prefer female vocals. If you lower the pitch of a male voice it will be too low in most of the cases. But that’s probably my personal taste. Experiment with both options.
- Stretch the waveform: another great way you can experiment with sound is stretching the waveform. In this case activate “warp” and start setting markers here and there on the sample and moving them to stretch the audio. Try both in Beats and Complex/Complex Pro mode. And see what sounds best. This technique can create a really nice glitchy effect. Another thing you can do is trying to play with the pitch modulation on the audio clip. This is the technique I used on my edit of “Makeba”. You can hear it in the break from 2:17 min.
- Collage technique: this is a name I just invented. I don’t know how else to call this technique, which consists on cutting the waveform in slices, and then putting together the slices in order to achieve a sort of rhythmic pattern with the vocals. For this reason, it is very important to select parts where the spoken words have a sort of cadence that fits with the track you are working on. You can also stretch the audio waveform to adapt it to the rhythm of the track. It’s harder to explain than to do. Check an example on my unreleased track “I wonder if you remember” at min 23:43 of this mix. Or check the clip here, i just bounced the vocal from that projects.
There is no fast way to achieve good results with techniques number 2 and 3. Unless you are very lucky, you need to dedicate quite few time to create a rhythmic pattern slicing the vocals or a good sounding effect stretching them.
4 – Effects for vocals
Here I’ll share my favorite effects for vocals, in the order I usually put them in the chain:
- Vocoder: you can use this effect in two ways, as a sort of filter/gate or for creative purposes. Here I will show you the first. I set the Vocoder to Modulator mode and start tweaking Depth and Formant parameters until I reach a sound that I like. Using the vocoder in this way will filter the vocal a little bit, giving to it a sort of “Telephone Effect”. Not only, it will also work as a gate for background noise, since Vocoders needs a certain input level to be triggered. If there are some annoying frequencies, you can reduce them using the pencil on the black screen of the effect. You can start from my settings in the picture and the tweak it to your taste. If you want a more LO-FI effect, move from “precise” to “retro” mode and reduce the numbers of Bands from 40 to 20, for example.
- Chorus: it’s probably my favorite Live native effect, and I use it for a lot of purposes. In the case of vocals the main thing I use it for is to widen the sound and push it on the sides. So that you can clearly hear the vocals in the mix, even if they’re set to a background level. I use it less often on sung vocals, cause I prefer to have those ones on the center. For the settings, it really depends on your taste. I often leave it like it’s set by default. Try moving the ring around the black space e find the sweet spot.
- Grain delay: another great Live effect, as you may know already. Be careful with this, cause it can rapidly go out of control. I always set the dry/wet around 20% and in this case leave it in Sync mode. The magic happens if you couple it with an LFO and start moving the Pitch. Keep the LFO depth very low (from 3% to 5%) for little pitch variations, or exaggerate for crazy pitch shifting. In the pic below you find the settings I’ve used in one of my tracks. I set feedback to 0% cause i didn’t want to use it as a delay, but more as a pitch modulator.
- Delay: another effect you can use. There is not much to say about delay, it just makes the sound more interesting. You can both set it on the channel or on a return track, maybe together with a reverb, to give a space context to the vocals, if they don’t have already.
5 – Creative effects for vocals
When I talk about creative effects I mean everything that can change your vocals at a point that it is so different from the original that you can’t compare them. Both for creative effects and for “standard” effects, showed in the previous paragraph, I’m only giving you some ideas. The potential amount of possibilities is infinite. So here is a couple of creative effects you can use on your vocals.
- Vocoder: yes again. But here it’s used in the classic way, so using an external source as carrier and the vocal track as modulator. Put the Vocoder effect on your vocal track channel and set Carrier to “External”. Then, from the drop down menu that appears, select another track of your projects to use as carrier. It can actually be anything: a synth, drums, a background. In the picture below I show the settings of the vocoder that I applied on a vlog voice, using as a carrier a percussion loop. Check the audio clip to hear the result.
If you put this together with a drum line in a track it can really add groove, but in a different way from just using a percussion loop.
- Guitar Rig 6: this is an effect by Native Instruments made initially for guitars. So you have amp simulators and pedals. But in reality it’s a super versatile effect rack that you can use on everything, since you have any sort of effects inside, from pitch shifter to beat repeater, filters, delays, distortions, LFO’s and much more. And the presets..they get really crazy, so just try them out.
Check the result on this clip.
These are my 5 tips for vocals that you can use in your minimal house and micro house productions.
As always, the keyword is experimentation. In fact, these are only 5 tips but you can add many more to the list. But hopefully I gave you some new ideas on how to be creative when making music.
If you’ve found this helpful, share it with your friends.
If you want other ideas on how to stay creative, check my post about Sound Design ideas.
See you next week!