In the first part of this series, we discussed the different vocal layering and arranging techniques common in pop vocal production, in order to help singers produce their own vocal arrangements. Just as crucial to a successful vocal arrangement are the effects a producer uses. A judiciously applied reverb, delay, distortion, or autotune can affect the style and overall sound of the vocal, and make all the difference to the arrangement.
Effects can perhaps be the most daunting aspect of vocal production to singers, because the lingo and technical knowledge needed to apply them can be a barrier. It’s important to remember, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of using vocal effects, that you probably already know what these sound like, even if you don’t know the proper terminology to describe them or how they’re achieved. If you listen to pop music, you’ve heard these effects. Once you have the terminology for them, you’ll be able to listen closely to how they’re used; and once you learn a bit about how to apply them, you’ll be ready to experiment and find the effects you like best for your own sound!
We will continue analyzing Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You for vocal effects, along with select other recordings when necessary. As you listen to these effects, bear in mind that you will accomplish most of them with either effects pedals, which are hardware, or plug-ins, which are software in your DAW. Both of these will have knobs that you can turn to adjust the parameters of the effect, and I will discuss what those knobs would typically do. After we’ve explored what these effects sound like, I will provide a basic description of how to apply them in Garageband, which should generally translate to other DAWs, along with some beginner mixing tips and gear recommendations to get you started.
Perhaps the most well-known effect, reverb is an absolute must for any pop vocal track. It’s called “reverb” because it makes the sound reverberate—you can always tell if reverb is being used when the voice stops but you can still hear it hanging in the air, or reverberating. Generally, turning up the reverb will make the sound hang in the air for longer. The amount of reverb is sometimes described in terms of wetness—a “wet” sound has a lot of reverb, where a “dry” sound has very little. Types of reverb are often named after the spaces they are imitating—“hall,” “chamber,” “cathedral,” and “cavern” are common reverb types. There are a couple of notable types of reverb: “spring” and “plate.” Spring reverb is typically used with guitars, but could be used with voices. It is created by placing a metal spring in a guitar amp, was popularized by surf rock, and has a kind of bouncy sound. Plate reverb is an old-school studio technique where the sound was sent to a chamber with two parallel metal plates and allowed to bounce between the plates. Plate reverb consequently has a distinctly metallic sound.
Both Billie Eilish and Lizzo use reverb throughout their recordings, but I picked two songs where their voices are soloed or sparsely accompanied so that the reverb is clearly audible. “Cuz I Love You” also includes a delay in this example, which we will discuss in the next section.
These are effects that reproduce the vocal line a given amount of time after it is first produced. The difference between delay and echo is a matter of personal preference and semantics, but generally speaking, a delay is a short amount of time between the line and the delayed line, and an echo happens a longer amount of time after the line, so that it can be heard as a distinct iteration. If the delayed lines sound more like a stutter than a repeat, then it’s a delay; if you can hear a distinct repeat, that’s an echo.
When using delay or echo, common parameters that you could adjust would be the time after the initial line that the delay occurs, the number of times the delay repeats, and the volume of the delay. Some plug-ins will also allow you to adjust the effects you’re using on the delayed line itself, like the amount of reverb. At the end of Lizzo’s “Cry Baby,” you can very clearly hear the multiple iterations of the delay on her last “cry,” and on Eilish’s “goodbye,” not only is there a clear echo, but there is also an echo that has been lowered to an octave below with an octave effect, which will encounter later.
Tremolo is a wavering of pitch and volume—it is most often used with instruments like electric guitar and very seldom heard in vocal production, since it mimics the vibrato that a voice can already achieve on its own. However, some pop producers have used it to achieve a unique, shimmering sound. Parameters that can be adjusted on tremolo typically include the speed and depth of the oscillations. Eilish uses this effect often on her album, usually paired with distortion.
Distortion of various types is popular in certain types of pop music, usually those that are influenced by rock or have a darker sound. Predictably, Eilish’s dark aesthetic means that she favors this vocal effect. To define the term, “distortion” is simply noise. Any crackle, fuzz, hiss, or rasp heard in the voice that isn’t coming from the voice itself is a type of distortion, and there are many types. Most distortion plug-ins will allow you to adjust the level of distortion, which is to say the amount of noise added to the sound, as well as volume. Some different words you might encounter on effects that mean distortion include “drive,” “overdrive,” and “fuzz.” When you listen to the distortion on “xanny,” notice that it has been combined with tremolo as well as an effect that makes the voice sound like it moves from left to right—this is a panning sweep.
While some singers may opt to use layering to achieve an octave above or below the melody when arranging, others might opt for an octave effect, which will artificially reproduce the exact vocal line an octave below. This can be layered below the lead vocal or used on its own for an other-worldly deep vocal sound. As mentioned in the last section, this can be heard as a layer in Eilish’s “bury a friend.”
A related effect to the octave one, some producers will use a detune or drop, typically at the end or beginning of a line or song, to affect the pitch dramatically in a short space. Eilish clearly uses one at the end of “goodbye,” although it’s not clear whether the detune is actually affecting her voice, the synths, or both. The one leading into the chorus in Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” sounds as though it is autotuned as well, and isn’t as dramatic as the one in “goodbye.”
Probably the second most well-known effect after reverb, autotune is virtually ubiquitous in pop music today, even if we aren’t always aware it’s being used. At its most basic, autotune corrects pitches, which means that any notes that are slides or in-between pitches will get moved to the closest clear pitch. This creates the characteristic pops we hear when an autotuned voice moves between pitches. Autotune can be applied to an entire vocal track or only part, as obviously or subtly as the producer would like. An early example of obvious autotune would be Cher’s “Believe.” The background vocals in “8” are another heavy autotune example, while the autotune in “Like a Girl” is much subtler, but can be heard when the voice moves between pitches.
Really, a vocoder is a synthesizer effect using the voice, and one of the more complicated effects to create. Not only do you need a vocoder plug-in or effect pedal, but you will also need a keyboard or synthesizer to run through it (some keyboards come with vocoders built into them). To create the effect, you sing into the mic running through the vocoder and play a chord on the keyboard. The vocoder duplicates your voice so that your voice “sings” the entire chord. It creates a rather haunting choral effect, and was perhaps most famously used in Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” Another likely example comes from Eilish’s “goodbye;” although it can be difficult to tell whether the effect in this case comes from a vocoder or from vocal layering and distortion, my guess is that it was a vocoder based on how evenly the voices slide together.
Radio/Megaphone and EQ Filters
If you’ve ever wondered how producers achieve the effect where a voice sounds like its coming from a tinny radio or a megaphone, or over the phone, consider the size of the speaker on those items. Small, right? Small speakers, like the ones built into your phone or an old-school portable radio, don’t reproduce low frequencies or high frequencies very well—they only reproduce the middle frequencies effectively. So, in order to achieve a radio/megaphone type sound, you would use an EQ filter. If you’re unfamiliar with EQ, it’s simply the act of turning up or down certain bands of frequencies in the track, usually in ranges like “low,” “mid-low,” “mid-high,” “high,” etc. An EQ filter would cut off a certain band of frequencies entirely, usually high or low or both. Typically on your DAW, EQ would be part of the track you’ve already created, with no need to add a plug-in. Simply decrease the volume of the high and low frequencies to zero or close to it, and you’ve got yourself a radio voice. You can hear this effect in the shouts at the beginning of “Better in Color.” It can also be heard in the background “oh baby, baby” in Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and in both the spoken intro and sung bridge of Green Day’s “Holiday.”
These next two effects are dramatic and specific—not often employed, but can be a lot of fun to mess around with. A robot effect is exactly what it sounds like—the voice is monotone and tinny/metallic sounding. This effect is popular in EDM and electronic-influenced styles, and can be heard clearly in Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” It is also utilized briefly in the background vocals in Eilish’s “when the party’s over.”
This effect makes the voice sound very bright and pointed. It was initially achieved by speeding up singing to twice as fast, so that the voice was raised an octave. It was famously used to create the Alvin and the Chipmunk’s songs, which we presume is where the effect gets its name. Eilish uses it in her song “8.”
How to Apply Layering and Effects
Now that we’ve discussed all the major types of layering and effects you might use to produce your vocal, let’s explore how you’ll go about applying what you’ve heard! Layering is the simplest—if you’re going to layer different vocal parts, you will need a DAW, a microphone, an audio interface, and headphones, preferably ones that fit over your ears to minimize sound bleeding. You can use the microphone on your device, but you will achieve better results with a different microphone. I recorded demos with my Shure SM-57 for years, and it will do the trick, but a condenser microphone is best. Some people use USB microphones to bypass the audio interface, which connects the microphone to your device. Blue Yeti is a commonly recommended one of those. For audio interfaces, the Focusrite Scarlett is standard, and if you don’t want to invest in one, you can use an iRig, which will plug your mic directly into the headphone jack of your device. Some common DAW’s include ProTools, Ableton, Garageband, and Logic. Garageband is free with Apple products, and Audacity is another free DAW you can download to experiment. Simply add another track to create multiple vocal parts. Alternatively, you can purchase a loop pedal, like the Boss RC-1 or 500, and use it to layer vocal loops.
To apply vocal effects in your DAW, you will typically need to add a plug-in. If you’re working in Garageband, select your track and in the controls, scroll down until you see “Plug-ins.” From there, you can add effects. Below you will see some examples of what various plugins might look like—some are simple boxes with numbers, while others look like effects pedals with dials and knobs. Of course, you can also purchase hardware effects pedals to achieve these sounds; one of my favorites is VoiceLive Play, which has many different pre-loaded effects made famous by various pop songs. You can use the effects as they are or tweak the parameters to make them your own. To use any vocal effect pedal, you will need a mic, a speaker or amp, and cables to connect them all.
If DAW’s are intimidating to you, I recommend beginning with Garageband on the iPad and using either the on-board microphone or a mic with the iRig. Garageband on the iPad has some of the simplest workflow I’ve seen in a DAW, and it is easy to figure out enough to get started and play. When you want to add a vocal track, you’ll choose “audio recorder” from the menu and tap on voice. You’ll be able to choose from “studio” effects like compression, drive (which is distortion), and vocal hall (which is a type of reverb), or “fun” effects like robot, chipmunk, monster, and sci-fi.
Before we conclude, a few notes about mixing: this is not my area of expertise at all, but I like to offer advice, singer-to-singer, about what works for me as an amateur mixer. After you get all the effects and layering you want, but BEFORE you adjust volumes for your mix, you will want to pan your vocals. Panning places sounds in the right-to-left spectrum, and no two sounds should be directly on top of each other on this spectrum. When you’re panning, try to think about where the voices or instruments would be in the room or on the stage as you imagine the performance of the song. Panning can greatly affect the perceived volume levels, so after you pan, you can adjust the volume of each part. It is also a good idea to apply compression to your vocals—this evens out major differences in volume throughout the track and can be applied as subtly or obviously as you’d like, much like autotune. If you’d really like to get technical, most engineers will then solo each vocal part to root out any pitch issues or noises, like mouth noises or pops, and correct them or cut them out.
I hope this exploration of producer techniques in vocal effects and layering has made you feel empowered to experiment and try them for yourself. The only way to know what effects and arrangements you might like when you arrive in the studio is to try them on your own—so download a DAW, pull up some plug-ins, and try out some sounds!