Tips & Techniques #002: Working with distorted vocal tracks

During the first part of the Sean Paine Workshop (credits: Gucci, Future, Young Thug, 2Chainz, Migos, Fetty Wap, Waka, Sosa, and more) at RAC, Sean spoke about his journey through the industry and how he started, followed by revealing some of his own techniques. As most engineers start out, Sean stuck to a certain guideline of what to do/ not to do, until his mentors taught him a few tricks of the trade.

Its the first time you’ve been hired to record a singer/rapper, you’ve setup everything and you’re ready to nail the session. Everything is going well, but then the singer/rapper decides to belt during the hook and clips the converters! You are now left with a distorted track.

How can you fix a distorted track?

With technology growing many companies are working on products that can remove clicks, repair distortion and even remove the room ambience from a source. One of the best companies I can think of when it comes to audio restoration is IZotope. But what if you don’t have to repair the audio and actually use it to your advantage?

One of two techniques I want to share, to hide a distorted track is simply by distorting the track even more! If your recording a rock/metal/indie style of vocals you can saturate the vocals more to create an even tone. When it comes to distortion, I can’t think of any other plugin besides “Decapitator”. Decapitator is my go to plugin for any saturation. You have the option of 5 analog emulations, High/Low pass filters, EQ, gain knob and when you need more PUNISH MODE!!! The best knob on this plugin which is the must have on any product in todays market is the Mix knob. You can drive the plugin extra hard than dial back the mix knob to get a blend of original vs processed sound.

If you distorted a hook or ad-lib, you can try creating a telephone effect on the vocals to fool the listener, that sound was done on purpose. To create this effect all you need is a basic eq with a low and high pass filter. Generally you would roll off the highs all the down to 2 kHz or 1 kHz, and cut the lows up to 300Hz maybe 400Hz. Your end goal is to have this mid rangy sound no lows and muffled highs, causing the distortion to be masked into the effect. You can achieve this effect with the plugin Decapitator as well, and add some saturation and play around with the mix knob.

What can you do when you don’t want distorted vocals?

If the worst has happened and your song does not call for this effect you once again have two options. If you have received a mix with distorted vocals, you can try and repair them with tools such as IZotope RX plugins. Even plugins have their limitations, over using these plugins can cause the source to sound out of phase, robotic and more off putting which leads you to the last resort. If the production calls for a clean sound, no crazy effects or saturation and RX does not work, than you have no choice but to re-record the vocal tracks.

How much is too much?

If the production calls for a clean sound and RX isn’t happening than don’t use it and re-record your source. If the production allows to get away with using these techniques than be creative with it. Don’t apply the effect on every track but maybe on one or two is fine. You can have the lead vocal centre, two dubs panned left/right and a telephone track panned centred or off to the side. Each production will have its own sound and you must respect that sound and not over do it. That also means re-starting from scratch at times.

This is an excerpt from a recent RAC Workshop, featuring Sean Paine. His message reflects the contents of this article.

When the worst happens in any future sessions, don’t panic but be creative!

Happy Mixing!

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