Of all the elements that need mixing, vocals are often the most difficult to get right. For one thing, they leave the deepest impression on most listeners. A good vocal line with well-crafted lyrics can make or break a song. But more than that, the human voice presents unique challenges. Unlike other instruments or electronic signals, human vocals rely on complex biology to function. No single take will be identical to another, nor will any attempt be “perfect.” Tone, projection, pitch, and pronunciation will always vary for better or worse. And no matter the way you slice it, vocals need to both stand out and blend in. Fortunately, several types of vocal plugins can help mitigate the unwanted variation of the human voice, and enhance its natural qualities as well.
You could spend weeks scavenging the web for all the vocal plugins out there. But to save you some time, we’ve compiled the 10 best vocal plugins on the market right now. Some of them don’t even cost a penny. From vocal effects to compressors and de-essers, these vocal plugins will prepare you for any project. Let’s take a look!
The Waves plugins
Waves offer so many great plugins we could fill an entire list filled with only them. Their collection of vocal plugins runs the gamut, filling every need possible when mixing vocals. Rather than list them all, we’ll talk about four that make a huge difference.
1. Waves Vocal Rider
This little tool will save you hours on mix automation and compression down the line. The vocal rider essentially automates the volume level in real-time so that the vocals don’t stray too far from an even volume. The plugin detects the vocal track as well as the rest of the mix, keeping everything in context. In other words, you won’t have to go through and manually adjust clip gain or over-compress your vocal tracks. Just let the vocal rider do the work for you.
2. Waves MV2
The Waves MV2 isn’t specifically a vocal plugin, but it’s especially useful when mixing vocals. Once the vocal rider we just mentioned does its job, the MV2 can step in and bring the vocals right upfront. The plugin offers faders for both low-level and high-level compression with automatic make-up gain. This means you have full intuitive dynamic control.
3. Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter
Like the MV2, the Aphex vintages aural exciter works wonders at bringing the vocal track to the front. However, it does this in a different way. We’ve already discussed how aural exciters work. In short, an exciter acts as a harmonic distortion effect and phase shifter. Tweaking these parameters results in more clarity and brightness in the mix. The Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter is one of the best and most popular exciter plugins.
4. Waves Reel ADT
This plugin, an emulation of the artificial double tracking processor used for Abbey Road, serves a very specific function. If you’re looking for the stereo vocal sound the Beatles pioneered, look no further. The Reel ADT plugin was actually designed in conjunction with Abbey Road Studios. How’s that for authentic?
Other great vocal plugins
Now let’s get into some other vocal plugins (not made by Waves) to add to your arsenal–a de-esser, a reverb, and a synthesizer.
5. FabFilter Pro-DS
This de-esser has become the go-to for many engineers and producers. With a highly intelligent sibilance detection system, the plugin finds any instance of sibilance and highlights it on the waveform. You can adjust the threshold, range, and other parameters of the Pro-DS. Because the Pro-DS does such a great job of detecting and removing sibilance, it can also help limit other high-frequencies (i.e. drums or full mixes).
6. Lexicon PCM Native Reverb
For a truly professional-sounding reverb, you can’t get better than the Lexicon PCM Native Reverb bundle. In this bundle, you’ll find the vintage plate, hall, room, chamber, and several other types of reverb. Each one offers distinct qualities with hundreds of presets. These plugins won’t come cheap, but they offer the highest quality, natural-sounding vocal reverb.
7. iZotope VocalSynth 2
If you produce in the EDM, pop, or hip-hop realm, this vocal synth has it all. The VocalSynth 2 comes packed with five vocal processors, each with specific relevant controls. The plugin even offers Biovox, with controls that mimic or reduce natural human vocal qualities (breath, nasality, etc.) With hundreds of presets, you’ll find what you’re going for in no time. Plus, iZotope’s characteristically easy-to-use interface just adds icing to the cake.
Even if you lack some spare change your vocals don’t have to suffer. Here are three more vocal plugins that are absolutely free.
8. Voxengo Oldskoolverb
9. Acon Digital Multiply chorus
Acon Digital makes great free plugins (see Acon Digital Reverb in our 25 best Mac free plugins list). The Multiply chorus is no exception. This plugin perhaps works best for background vocals, as it spreads the sound along the stereo field and adds warmth.
10. Flux BitterSweet
Perhaps the simplest of the vocal plugins on this list, the free version of Flux Bittersweet features just one knob. On the left you’ll see “sweet,” and on the right, “bitter.” The more “bitter,” the sharper the consonants. The “sweeter” side reduces transients. If used on vocals, this plugin can emphasize harsh consonants for a punchier sound. It might not look like much, but this plugin can pack a punch.
The 10 vocal plugins listed here are certainly some of the most powerful tools you can have for mixing vocals. However, so many other great plugins exist, too. This list only scratches the surface. Still, it should give you plenty to mess around with until you’re ready to explore even more vocal plugins.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Choosing the Best Reverb Plugin for further advice!