The way that vocals are mixed and mastered can totally transform a track.
Vocals sound best when they have warmth and texture to them. It adds character and soul to your vocals, unlike the crisp and ‘digital’ sound that many modern-day vocals have.
So how do you add that warm feeling to vocals?
There are lots of ways to add warmth to vocals, including equalisation (EQ), saturation and compression techniques. You can also use more creative techniques such as vocal doubling, formant shifting and parallel processing.
The challenge is getting all of this balanced with the rest of your track. We’ll talk you through all of these techniques in this article, helping you add vocal warmth without cluttering up the rest of your mix.
EQ is one of the easiest ways to add warmth to any vocal sound. It can be used to boost warmer sound frequencies and add fullness. Usually, boosting frequencies within the 200 Hz to 500 Hz range will help add warmth to vocal sounds. Although the exact frequencies you want to boost will depend on the key, pitch and recording.
Using an EQ plugin, find the most prominent frequencies within this range. You can do this by creating a narrow frequency band with a high boost (15+ dB). Then as the vocal track plays, scan the centre point across the 200-500 Hz frequency range until you find the hot spot, going slowly from left to right.
This will help you identify which particular frequencies add warmth and you therefore want to boost. To boost these frequencies, simply increase the frequency band’s gain in your EQ plugin.
Saturation is the unsung hero of music production. It is essentially an effect that adds warmth and character to any sound – making it the perfect tool for warming vocals.
It works by adding subtle harmonic distortion, giving vocal sounds a warmer and fuller quality. This will bring more presence and texture to your vocals without feeling too thick, turning dull and empty vocals into something more soulful.
The easiest way warm vocals with saturation is using a saturation plugin. There are plenty of impressive saturation plugins out there, some of the most popular include:
- Soundtoys Decapitator (top choice)
- FabFilter Saturn 2 (top choice)
- Soundtoys Radiator
- Plugin Alliance Black Box HG-2
- Waves J37 Tape
- Klanghelm SDRR
- iZotope Trash 2
- Sonnox Oxford Inflator
- UAD Studer A800
You can also check out some of the best free saturation plugins here.
Compression is used to make the average volume levels in your mix more consistent by controlling the dynamic range of sounds. Most tracks will have a lot of contrast between louder and softer sounds, and compression is used to level out this contrast.
It works by “compressing” (turning down) the loudest parts of a sound. As a result, you can increase the level of other sounds without distorting the mix.
For vocals, compression allows you to increase the presence of vocal tracks, helping them sound louder, warmer and fuller without “sticking out”. It will level out any inconsistent volumes in your vocal track and maintain a more natural warmth in the sound.
Parallel upward compression
Parallel upward compression is a technique that helps vocals sit on top of the mix. Instead of reducing the loudest parts of a sound (downward compression), upward compression makes the quietest parts louder. Using this technique, your vocals will not fall below a certain volume.
Here’s how to add vocal warmth with parallel upward compression:
- Add an aux track and apply a compressor. Then, send your vocal track to this aux track. You can call the output something like ‘vocals’.
- Increase the amount of compression, adding around 6 dB of gain reduction or more. Start your attack time small at around 5-10 ms, and your release time small at around 20-30 ms.
- Increase the aux track until the vocal track becomes noticeably louder. Be careful not to overdo it. You should stop at just a subtle increase to prevent the vocals from being too loud.
This will help you overcome one of the most common challenges when adding vocal warmth – adding warmth without overwhelming the mix.
Side chain compression
Another way to add warmth to vocals with compression is with the internal side chain feature. This can be found on most compression plugins. Side chain compression lets you control which frequencies are compressed (lowered in volume) and which can pass through.
If you want to create warm vocals, you can use this to stop the compressor from affecting ‘warmer’ frequencies. This means that only higher frequencies will be compressed, and lower frequencies will pass through. The result: warmer vocals.
Use a reflective filter during recording
Reflective filters are used in recording keep vocal sounds clean and clear. They absorb sound near the microphone, isolating the vocal sounds for full clarity and avoiding interference from other sounds in the room.
Using a reflective filter can really help create warm vocals, since this will give you a clean, better quality recording. This will make it much easier to mix and master your vocals and add warmth.
For example, boosting certain sound frequencies on an unfiltered vocal recording will also increase the sounds of background noises and any other interference. This will make it very difficult to actually hear the warmth in your vocal track.
Whereas, boosting sound frequencies on a clean, filtered vocal recording will only affect vocal sound – and the warmth will shine through.
Formant pitch shifting
This next technique is a little more creative, and can also be used to create some weirder vocal sounds.
Formant pitch shifting can be used to warm up vocal sounds in music. Duplicate the vocal track and add a formant pitch shift plugin. A great plugin for this is Soundtoys Little AlterBoy.
On the duplicated track, reduce the formant pitch to make the vocals lower. This will keep the same pitch, but reduce the frequency of the sound. Then, reduce the volume of the duplicated vocal track until it blends well with the lead vocal track.
This will help the vocal target lower, warmer frequencies, whilst retaining its original sound qualities.
If you aren’t familiar with audio phase, it essentially refers to the alignment of sound wave crests. Sound waves can be in phase (lined up perfectly) or out of phase (unaligned).
When sound waves are out of phase they can cancel each other out (phase cancellation) – resulting in a thin and less full sound. Alternatively, when sound waves are in phase, the sound is much fuller. This makes audio phase a great way to control the fullness and warmth of vocals.
Phase can be controlled through plugins, which allow you to alter the phase levels and correct any phase cancellation. Some of the most popular phase plugins include:
- Waves InPhase
- Sonic Charge Permut8
- Soundtoys PhaseMistress
- Wavesfactory Echo Cat
- MeldaProduction MPhaser
- FabFilter Pro-G
Warm vocals don’t just sound better, they feel better. They give us a nostalgic sense of analog vocal recordings far from the digital techniques used for many modern-day vocals. As a result, warmer vocals can really transform your track into something more soulful, giving it character, richness and life.
When adding warmth to vocals using the above techniques, make sure to make tweaks in moderation. Warmth is good, but too much warmth will oversaturate your mix and potentially make it muddy – so be sure to take it steady when editing your track.