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DIY Vocal Rider

Mike Senior

Waves groundbreaking Vocal Rider plugin takes the pain out of vocal levelautomation, but if your budget cant stretch, you can get part of the way there using nothing more than Cubase 5s builtin processors.

was intrigued to hear about the launch of Waves Vocal Rider vocallevel automation plugin, because vocal microautomation is a regular part of my normal mixing process; particularly intrigued, in fact, because Id already implemented a similar scheme using Cockos Reapers dynamic parameter modulation. So when I noticed the plugins pricetag, my lowfat cinammon frappucino almost spurted out of my nose! Im sure that Waves boffins have put some very whizzy technology under Vocal Riders bonnet, but theres just something in me that rebels against parting with the cost of curry for 12 in return for something that simply adjusts gain, especially when Im already pretty happy with my homebrew alternative. If youre wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Cubase, well, Im also a Cubase user and, spurred on by memories of frappucino catastrophe, I recently began wondering if it would be possible to implement a similar automatic vocalriding scheme in Cubase too... and it turns out that it is! So heres how you do it.

Heres you can see some suggested settings for Expander at the centre of this months setup. Notice that the external sidechain input (the orange button at the top) is activated.

Automatic Vocal Riding Basics

In case you dont see the point of riding vocal levels, the basic concept is this: even if you compress a vocal heavily, its subjective level will nonetheless appear somewhat inconsistent because the backing track will mask the vocal more the louder it gets, and the amount of masking will change rapidly from moment to moment; a loud drum hit will mask the vocal more than a quieter acousticguitar strum, perhaps. Because of this, a lot of effort goes into the microautomation of vocal levels in professional productions, and if you want to compete on that level, you cant afford to ignore the issue.

However, there is a way to take the sting out of this frequently tedious job, and that is to set up some processing that monitors the level of the backing track and then applies corresponding gain changes to the vocal track to compensate for the masking effects. In Cubase, the trick to managing this is to send signal from your leadvocal channel to a Group Channel with the VST3format Expander plugin inserted, and then configure that plugin to respond (via its sidechain) to the level of the backing track. Once this is operational, you can mix in the expanded vocal signal alongside the unexpanded one to achieve the desired degree of automatic gainriding. When that loud drum hit comes along, the expander responds to it by letting more of the lead vocal through, thereby boosting the overall level of the vocal in the mix for that instant and defeating some of the drums masking effect.

The Basic Setup

Right, lets get onto the specifics. First of all, rightclick in the Track List and select Add Group Channel Track. To start with, youll want two stereo ones, so adjust the popup dialogue box accordingly. Label these

two LeadVocal and BackingTrack, and then reassign all the tracks in your song, with the exception of your lead vocal, to the latter group channel track. You can save time by doing this in bulk: highlight a series of tracks and then hold down the Shift key while you select the required destination from the Inspectors top pane. To feed the LeadVocal group channel, select it from the leadvocal tracks Sends menu, switching on the send and Controlclicking its little fader to set it to unity gain (0.0dB). Now pop Cubases VST3format Expander plugin into the LeadVocal channels top Insert slot, and set it up as shown in the screenshot above. Its a bit of an unusuallooking setting, because its a very fastacting and with a maximum threshold, so on its own it sounds rather odd and stuttery. However, youll never hear it on its own, so this is not really a concern its what the expanded signal does in combination with unexpanded lead vocal that matters. Note that the Activate Sidechain switch at the top of the plugin window is selected (lit orange), to show that the plugin is expecting an external sidechain signal.


www.soundonsound.com june 2010

In order to get the leadvocal Expander to respond to the backing track, you need to send to the plugins sidechain input. You can see roughly what it should look like in the dropdown Send menu here.

The next stage is to create a Send on the BackingTrack channel, routed to the Expanders sidechain input. Youre looking for something like Sidechains LeadVocal: Ins. 1 Expander in the Sends dropdown menu. Again, make sure the send is switched on and set to unity gain. And thats it. If you now play back your mix, the vocal should hold a more consistent subjective level against the backing track.

Refining The Outcome

As with a lot of mixing techniques, theres a fair bit you can do to refine the settings to achieve the best results. Indeed, the Waves plugin has a number of variable parameters as well, for this very reason. First of all, youll almost certainly find that the additional vocal signal from the Expander track makes your overall leadvocal level appear too high. This is simply dealt with using your leadvocal tracks fader, as youd normally do no need to tamper with any of the LeadVocal or BackingTrack group channel settings. The Vocal Rider plugins output level fader serves a similar purpose. Even with the vocal at the right overall level, you might feel that my suggested startup Expander plugin settings dont give the right amount of gainriding for you. Adjusting the level of the LeadVocal group channel helps here: the higher in level this is, the greater the range of the level riding. Bear in mind, though, that this will

also affect the perceived overall level of the lead vocal in the track, so you may need to revisit your main vocalchannel fader setting in tandem. If youre feeling confident, you could even adjust the response of the Expander, perhaps increasing the ratio for more extreme compensation, or tinkering with softknee mode or Attack/Release/ Analysis settings for a smoother outcome. These kinds of changes will give you some of the control you get from Vocal Riders Vocal/Music Sensitivity controls, Fast/ Slow switch, and Range sliders. Apparently, Vocal Rider also automatically ignores background noise between vocal phrases, to prevent the plugin from riding this, and you can simulate that in this setup if you like, too: chuck a suitably configured Gate into an insert slot on the LeadVocal group channel, preferably before the Expander in the chain and triggered from the vocal signal, not the backing track. Finally, if you want to automate the vocal level manually, in addition to the automatic process, just ride your leadvocal fader as normal.

Here are some suggested EQ settings for the leadvocal Expanders sidechain signal. The processing needs to be applied to the DetectorEQ group channel in this months setup.

Bonus Points!
So far, weve primarily been offering Waves the sincerest form of flattery. However, because weve built our setup from first principles, we actually have some additional processing potential here: we can EQ the feed to the Expanders sidechain input. Why would we

The final, refined setup: group channels for leadvocal and backingtrack signals, and another to enable equalisation of the leadvocal Expanders sidechain signal.

want to do this? Well, if you think about it, the low frequencies of a bass sound are unlikely to mask a vocal as much as an electric guitar with lots of energy in the very 15kHz range thats most important to vocal intelligibility, which means that EQing the Expanders detector signal to reduce low frequencies and increase the 15kHz range can help improve the subjective musicality of the automatic levelriding. Im guessing that Waves are already doing something akin to this within the code of Vocal Rider, but they dont give any control over it either way, whereas we can have full control of such an EQ if we refine our existing setup a little. This is what we need to do. Create another group channel called DetectorEQ. It might as well be mono too, come to think of it, as this will give more preference to centrally panned backingtrack signals, which are also more likely to mask a typical lead vocal. Now reassign the BackingTrack group channels send (its feeding the Expanders sidechain at the moment, if you recall) and route it to the DetectorEQ group channel instead. Then use the top pane of the DetectorEQ group channels Inspector to assign its output to the Expanders sidechain, in place of the default assignment (usually to Cubases main mix buss). You can now EQ the sidechain signal using the DetectorEQ channels builtin EQ. Check out the suggested settings shown in the screenshot on the left, and work from there. Smell the curry...

june 2010 www.soundonsound.com


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This article was originally published in Sound On Sound magazine, June 2010 edition.

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