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GRAMMY-winning producer and engineer Joe Chiccarelli recently teamed up with IK Multimedia to create a custom Vocal Strip plug-in ($159) that makes it easy to quickly dial in radio-ready vocals using advanced parallel compression techniques. We sat down with Chiccarelli to learn more about his approach to processing vocals, his favorite gear to use in the studio and what it was like creating his own custom plug-in—read the full conversation below.
I've been using parallel compression and vocal processing ever since I started making records. It’s something that I’ve done on probably every project I’ve ever worked on. It’s a technique I picked up from my mentor, Shelly Yakus, who engineered for everyone from John Lennon to Tom Petty.
Over the years, I've developed my own technique to use parallel compression and other effects to enhance vocals. I realized that each compressor—each piece of gear, really—has its own personality. Some sound better for rock and roll, others sound better for more glossy, airy pop music.
On an analog console, I would have multiple compressors on a lead vocal and switch to different compressors for different sections of the song. Similarly, when mixing in the box, I typically use three or four plug-ins on the main vocal channel with a few other effects in parallel.
I thought it would be great if there was one plug-in that consolidated it all into one easy-to-use package. Something like that would really streamline the mixing process, as opposed to laying out a dozen plug-ins at the start of every session. I wanted something I could pull up while overdubbing and get me closer to the finished vocal sound. During a session, I don’t always have time to engage a number of plug-ins.
At the heart of the plug-in, there are three compressors. The Main Parallel Comp is modeled after a pair of 1176 compressors and the Retro Parallel Comp is modeled after a vintage Fairchild—but the Heavy Parallel Comp is really the fun one to me.
When we started working on the plug-in, we didn’t have a model of the UA 176. We tried using LA-2A and a Tube-Tech CL 1B instead, but I was really intent on using a 176 so we took a trip to Sunset Sound to model some of theirs. The folks at IK Multimedia went back to the lab and created a hybrid of the 176 and the CL 1B, which we all really enjoyed.
It's a little distorted, a little gritty—but that’s the magic of it! Distortion can make things appear much louder and more powerful than they really are. Adding in a bit of that third compressor makes a vocal jump out the track, almost like you’re running it through a guitar overdrive pedal.
The Body and the Air bands on the EQ are based on the Pultec EQP-1A3, which are my favorite frequencies for the top and bottom. I tend to love Pultecs on vocals, bass and drums because they’re really full sounding and sweet. Most of the time, you’re looking for the vocal to be really important in the mix, very upfront and center. The Pultec EQ really helps me do that.
The Presence control is based on an API 550A, but only after the Main Parallel Comp, because that’s where I usually put it in my signal chain to boost a little bit of 3 or 5 kHz, whichever is appropriate.
I’m very fortunate to work at studios like Sunset Sound, Blackbird and EastWest, which all have live chambers. There’s nothing like the sound of a live chamber—it’s just so bright and reactive sounding. So we included a live chamber reverb and a plate reverb on the Vocal Strip plug-in.
There's also an analog-style delay and a digital-style delay in there. The modulation controls are based on one of my favorite devices for pitch chorusing, the AMS DMX Digital Delay & Pitch Shifter, as well as the old Eventide H949 Harmonizer—the one that had the random pitch setting in it. It really gives the track an instantaneous vocal double.
To me, mixing is really about keeping your interest for the entire length of the song but not distracting you. So you've got to find ways in a mix to change something subtly. I like to color the vocal differently in each section of the song to take you on this journey.
That’s why it was important to me that every feature of Vocal Strip be automatable. You can put in the 1176 for the entirety of the tune, but then bring in the Fairchild model for the choruses where you needed a tougher vocal sound. By automating all of that, you're really mixing your vocal and giving it different shapes and tones throughout the tune.
You can get pretty extreme with some of the settings, too. You can use Vocal Strip as an effects unit, too. By cranking the distortion and getting radical with the EQ, you can do some great telephone filtering, distorted vocals and even hardcore or industrial sounds. Our intent with Vocal Strip was to create a tool that really makes vocal mixing easier and gets to the finish line quicker, for any song.
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