This week’s Top 10 is all about the production of vocals in a song. We’re not looking at the greatest vocal performances, but some of the best vocal effects that enhance the song. For some reason, the vast majority of popular recorded music varies little when experimenting with vocals – the reason, we’re told, is that vocals should be pure, attainable, humanat their core. But adding effects to a vocal track can work wonders for songs; not to cover up a bad performance, but to bring out certain tones and inflections that add life and character to the song. So let’s check out some of our favorites:
10) Sunny Day Real Estate – Days Were Golden
Check out around 3:24 for subtle distortion that adds a great touch to these vocals. I can never put my finger on it, but even beyond Jeremy Enigk’s voice, there’s something so unique about Sunny Day vocals – they cut through in a way that is equally polished and rough. It has the ultimate digital analog quality to it. And as I’ve said many a times, it’s the subtle things that make a difference. Nothing flashy here, just vocals that fit extremely well.
9) Queen – Another One Bites the Dust
My favorite part is 2:34 – cool little trick there. But the whole song has a unique, small room reverb that you’d probably miss if you weren’t listening to it closely. This reverb actually makes you perceive Freddy’s vocals as if they’re extremely up close and personal. It’s not – I repeat – it’s not actually how his vocals sound. And that’s the beauty of it. A good music producer can tweak something that helps the song, yet never make you feel like it’s too “produced” and not raw enough on an emotional level.
8) Deftones – Change (In the House of Flies)
The Deftones are one of the best modern rock bands to employ filtered, distorted vocals as a signature sound without taking away from the song. I’d argue that on this song the production of the vocals gives it that “creepy” feel that even the band can’t quite capture.
7) VAST – Touched
First, check out around :48 – definitely the “signature” sound of the song. I just love this part. Apparently the vocals are from an edited version of the Bulgarian folk song – “Pilence Pee”. Hmm, pretty cool. It’s amazing what some reverb can do for you, and this is a great example of giving “space” to vocals – there is so much depth of field in that part, without making it sound drenched and overdone. Also, check out around 2:15 for another good example of space. There’s nothing special about the delay and reverb here (it’s been done before), but it’s done well.
6) The Strokes
There aren’t many bands that have a signature vocal sound (I’m not talking about a lead vocalist’s voice here…I mean the sound effect). So you know you’ve done well when a producer says, “let’s give it a Strokes kinda feel”. Often times when you add distortion or overdrive to a voice, it can be hard to distinguish, or harsh on your ears. The Strokes are one of the best bands to employ this sound (and often) in way that certainly isn’t subtle, but still complimentary. Check out around 1:40 to hear for yourself.
5) Daft Punk – Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
This has to be one of the most fun vocal performances/sounds/productions there is. The voice just sounds so cool, bottom line. When you have a high energy song like this, don’t just match it with the vocals, but exceed it. There are so many nuances throughout this song that hint at a smart and calculated producer. Well done. And I just had to use the hands video here – sorry Daft but this is better.
4) Elvis Presley – Blue Moon
How do you pick just one slapback echo song? How about start with the first. Although slapback echo was heard as far back as 1952 (I believe), this song is the first to have it on the vocals, which were usually pretty dry and up front. Leave it to ol’ Sam Phillips to pioneer the technique here in a song that “features what was soon to become a defining production characteristic of rock n’ roll music: the reverberant, echoic lead vocal” (Peter Doyle).
3) Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight
This is probably my personal favorite as far as vocal quality, tone, character, and effects go. Every time you get to 2:38, it’s new and fresh. You’re always wishing there was more. Phil Collins is in his prime here, and the added reverb and echo on his voice just draws you in like no other. If you want to talk about atmosphere, start with this song.
2) Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like I Do
It’s this easy: has there ever been a song where the audience gets more excited about a vocal sound than this? I think not. Even thought the first seven minutes are awesome (and seriously, his guitar solo is great), you know you’re just waiting for him to do his thing. Frampton rocked the Talk Box so hard that everyone pretty much just stays away from it (for the most part *cough….Bon Jovi). Forget “Show Me the Way”, this song has the excitement that 35+ years later can’t be matched. And what I especially like is that he doesn’t just use it as a gimmick, he really connects with people, with the music. Did I mention this is an underrated song?
1) Imogen Heap – Hide and Seek
I know I’m going to get crap for this, but I’m sticking with it. No bandwagon here, this is just simply a vocal song in a league of its own. Yes, 40-year old Music Gear Forum Guy, the vocoder has been used before. We know. But don’t tell me it was ever used like this. This is another level. And I’m not talking about aesthetics here, either. It’s one thing to have a cool sound, but it’s another thing to make it emotional, personal, haunting. And interestingly enough, this wasn’t the result of a genius producer – it was pretty much a random “stumble upon” moment, as described in an interview with Electronic Musician:
“My favorite computer blew up on me, but I didn’t want to leave the studio without having done anything that day. I saw the [DigiTech Vocalist Workstation] on a shelf and just plugged it into my little 4-track MiniDisc with my mic and my keyboard and pressed Record. The first thing that I sang was those first few lines, “Where are we? What the hell is going on?” I set the vocalist to a four-note polyphony, so even if I play ten notes on the keyboard, it will only choose four of them. It’s quite nicely surprising when it comes back with a strange combination. When it gets really high in the second chorus, that’s a result of it choosing higher rather than low notes, so I ended up going even higher to compensate, above the chord. I recorded it in, like, four-and-a-half minutes, and it ended up on the album in exactly the structure of how it came out of me then. I love it because it doesn’t feel like my song. It just came out of nowhere, and I’m not questioning that one at all.”