There are a lot of effects that can be applied to your vocals when mixing. So how do you know where to put what? Does the order of plugins even matter? Where can a beginner start to demystify their quest for the best vocal mix?
In this FAQ guide, I want to cover some basics on where to place common effects plugins within your vocal’s signal chain. Hopefully, the answers to these common questions will lead you to a better understanding of vocal mixing.
- Quick Disclaimer on These Guidelines
- The Best EQ Compressor Reverb Order?
- Does the Order of Plugins Matter?
- Should You Compress Vocals Before or After Reverb?
- Should You De-Ess Vocals Before or After Compression?
- Should AutoTune Go Before or After Compression?
- Should You EQ Before or After Effects?
Quick Disclaimer on These Guidelines
Music (and it’s mixing process) can be very subjective. Oftentimes, there is no one “right” answer to these questions because the best signal chain heavily depends on factors like genre, style, singer qualities, and how the vocals were recorded.
As such, the answers in this guide are meant only as general guidelines for beginners. I encourage you to consider the suggestions below but always experiment with different effect orders if something doesn’t work. The most important thing is getting a good mix, which can only be obtained by you listening to your song and adjusting your effects as needed.
The Best EQ Compressor Reverb Order?
There is no one “perfect” effects order that will give you the best-sounding vocal because every vocal performance will have different mixing needs. With that in mind, there is a general blueprint you can follow when ordering your effects plugins. It will give you an idea of what plugins work best before or after others.
The blueprint is:
- EQ and/or De-essing
- Pitch correction
- Tone coloring effects (saturation, extra compressors, etc)
- Fun effects (reverb, delay, phaser, etc.)
We usually want corrective effects that shape the sound of the vocals (reducing dynamics, removing problem frequencies) to appear first in the chain. And effects that are meant for expression or tone-shaping will usually come later. That way they don’t amplify harsh sibilant/consonant sounds or exacerbate a problem with room noise…which can lead to vocals sounding a bit boxy.
My personal signal chain usually looks a bit like this:
Compressor → Subtractive EQ → De-Esser → Auto-Tune → Additive EQ → Saturation → Delay → Reverb
Does the Order of Plugins Matter?
Yes, the order in which your plugins appear on a vocal track matters a lot because each plugin will have an effect on the ones that come after it. Plugins do not act independently on the audio signal but rather like layers built on top of each other.
Whatever changes were made in the previous layer will be amplified by the plugins that follow.
For example, let’s say you place a reverb plugin on your track followed by a saturation effect. Because the reverb appears first, it is processing the audio (drenching it in reverb) before sending the sound to the saturation tool. The saturation effect will then add distortion not only to the vocals but the reverb tails as well.
Should You Compress Vocals Before or After Reverb?
Compressors are usually added before reverb unless you specifically want to boost the reverb tails. Remember that whatever effects are applied before the compressor will be amplified along with the actual vocal signal.
In most circumstances, we want any reverb or delay to be subtle and act like accents to the voice. Therefore, boosting the reverb by placing it before compression will make the echoes and trailing sounds a bit too apparent.
Sometimes adding an extra compressor intentionally over the reverb could be a design choice. Some genres of music really like reverb that drenches everything, after all. But, if you’re just trying to make some general pop or rap vocals, I suggest that place the reverb after the compressor as a starting point. You can always experiment and switch around the order of plugins while you mix.
Should You De-Ess Vocals Before or After Compression?
So where do you put the de-esser on a vocal chain? You can place your de-esser either before or after, and I recommend trying both positions to see which sounds more natural. I’ve gotten good results with my own tracks by placing it after EQ and compression. But either option is valid as long as it works in your mix.
The most important point is to make the vocals sound better, so listen to your track with the de-esser in various spots within the vocal chain. Some vocals may be recorded more sibilant than others (and some people have harsher-sounding “s” sounds).
Likewise, some plugins (like a compressor or saturation tool) may over-emphasize sibilant sounds. In those situations, you’ll want the de-esser after the offending plugin in order to tame it.
Where Do You Put the De-Esser on a Vocal Chain?
Music producer sentiment is split on this issue, but honestly the de-esser can go anywhere as long as it still gives a natural sound. The best locations for a de-esser in a full vocal chain will depend heavily on the vocal you are editing. Some common locations for de-essing are usually:
- after the compressor but before any reverbs or delays, or
- either at the start of the chain to dampen the “S”s before they ever reach the effects, or
- at the very end of the signal chain to clamp down on any “S”s that were specifically amplified by an earlier plugin
In reality, you can use multiple de-essers in a single chain: one at the beginning and another at the very end. If you do go this route, keep both of the de-essing plugins to a subtle level so they don’t cause a lisp effect by the end of the chain.
Likewise, you can do a mixture of manual and automate de-essing by:
- Using manual fader adjustment to lower the volume on noticeable sibilant sounds, then
- apply a light de-esser effect later in the mix to catch any leftover offenders
Should AutoTune Go Before or After Compression?
Auto-Tune plugins should go before compression and EQ because it cleans the signal up a bit. By squeezing the audio a bit and cutting out the ambient frequencies, you are handing a more precise version of your voice. That allows Auto-Tune (or whatever brand you use) to work more efficiently on the actual notes of your voice.
Of course this is only a suggestion; there are no mandatory methods to mixing. Conventional opinion dictates that vocal tuning effects should be the first plugin in your chain. I cannot tell you exactly why people suggest that but I can hypothesize.
It may be due to professional producers using a hardware compressor and equalizer while recording. If a vocal take has already been recorded through those effects, then the producer won’t need to add duplicate digital plugin versions at the start of his vocal chain.
Should You EQ Before or After Effects?
A good guideline is to apply subtractive EQ before any other effects, but then apply a second additive EQ later in the mix.
Subtractive EQ would be equalization that involves only cutting and reducing frequency ranges: no boosting. On the flip side, additive EQ is when you boost certain frequency ranges but don’t apply any cuts or filters.
The idea is to clean out any muddy, clashing, or ambient frequency ranges from the track before boosting it’s signal with compression, saturation, etc. That way the boosts only occur on the frequencies we actually want to hear.
If any areas of your vocal take still sound thin, even after compression, then add another EQ plugin later down the chain. This second EQ is meant to shape the tone of the vocals by strengthening the mids and highs that are most responsible for word clarity.
There are a lot of plugins to use while mixing your vocals for a song. But there’s no need to get overwhelmed trying to position them all in the “perfect” spot within the vocal chain. I hope this guide has given you a starting place, and that you experiment with your signal chain to get the best sound for your track. If you found this content helpful, here are a few more articles to consider: