Harsh vocals can alienate the listener or distract them from the rest of your mix. Whether it’s a product or combination of recording technique, vocalist, microphone/placement, or environment, there are ways to treat harsh vocals post-recording. Let’s cover all the transparent options available for treating harsh vocals without ruining the track itself.
Harsh Vocals Fixes
As I mentioned in my overview on how to fix a harsh mix, these frequencies which begin to grate on the human ear begin around 1.5k. The same is true for harsh vocals, and these frequencies can go as high as 10k.
There’s different things going on between say the 2k and 6k points, though each can be perceived as harsh, albeit in different ways. It really depends on the vocal you have in particular, but this is the general area we’ll be targeting. Let’s get into the options for taming harsh vocals.
soothe2 from oeksound is a dynamic resonance suppressor. It’s useful for attenuating problematic frequencies as transparently as possible, leaving the rest of the audio intact. As the name suggests, its best use is to attenuate harsh frequencies.
Incidentally, soothe2 is a staple of my vocal chain because of its effectiveness in taming a harsh vocal. Whether I’ve got a pronounced issue with harsh frequencies in my vocal or not, there’s always an instance of this plugin on my vocals.
Target the 4-6k range with this plugin and experiment with the depth, sharpness, and selectivity dials to hear an immediate difference on harsh vocals. The prominent depth control in particular has the largest effect over the amount of attenuation applied.
While this plugin works to smooth out that harshness with as little a footprint as possible, applying too much depth to your vocal will have a similar effect as being overly aggressive with a de-esser, resulting in a lisp sound.
Always mix with a reference alongside your track to compare your vocal’s harshness to its on demand to avoid overdoing it.
As I covered in my guide on how to EQ harsh vocals (specifically just using EQ), we can apply a number of cuts to the problematic areas I alluded to in opening.
Try making some aggressive cuts like those shown below to more quickly find the source of your harsh vocal, then dial it back (using that reference for comparison):
Even better than an EQ cut is to make those cuts dynamic via a dynamic EQ so that they get pulled down only when those harshest points surge.
This keeps the vocal more intact as opposed to making static cuts with a conventional EQ, only attenuating when the harshness is a problem.
FabFilter Pro-Q 3 which I pictured above has the ability to make any cut a dynamic one on demand. Simply right click, select “Make Dynamic”, and adjust the threshold slider and max gain reduction accordingly (see my FabFilter Pro-Q 3 review). Play the most offending sections of the vocal in terms of harshness back on a loop to get the amount of attenuation right. I prefer sticking to the more conservative side to keep these adjustments and their effect relatively transparent.
A de-esser is used to treat sibilance, but you can also use it to treat harsh vocals.
This is essentially a very targeted multiband compressor (which you can also use) to set a specific frequency range to be affected.
FabFilter’s Pro-DS has a limited and simple set of controls; simply set the range you want to target with the slider (click audition to focus on that range and listen in), set the “Threshold” for how much of that vocal you want affected at that frequency range, and set the “Range” to how many dB at maximum you want that frequency range attenuated.
You can use a multiband compressor the exact same way, you just have to account for additional compressor settings like attack and release. Keep the attack in the 1-3ms range to allow for the initial “punch” of the vocal to hit before that range gets pulled down.
There you have three ways to deal with harsh vocals. Remember the key is to stay conservative with any adjustments you make to keep your processing transparent and natural. Also remember one last time to play that reference vocal alongside your vocal to keep a relative goal in terms of harshness in mind.
Harsh Vocals Tips
- Harsh vocals are a product of vocalist/technique, recording technique, microphone/placement, the room, or some combination of all of the above.
- There are ways to treat harsh vocals with subtlety and transparency after the recording stage to salvage them.
- Make sure you have a reference vocal playing while you make your adjustments to keep you focused and stay conservative with your attenuations.
- Demo soothe2 as the most effective and transparent way to attenuate your vocals.
- Try a dynamic EQ in the frequency ranges listed above to identify the most problematic frequencies and attenuate them only when there’s a noticeable surge.
- Also try a de-esser or multiband compressor in similar frequency ranges in addition to or in place of the dynamic EQ.