The vocals are the king of a mix, and must be treated as such. Processing the vocals in your track is one of the most important steps to creating music that bumps. So when I’m making decisions of how to process the vocal effects in my tracks, it’s useful to see how great producers handle the task.
Today we are looking at the production techniques of Post Malone’s “Circles”. And specifically going into detail on how the vocal effects blend Post Malone’s voice into the trippy vibe of the track, but also allowing the performance to soar above the mix.
Meet the Producers
For Circles, the primary producers were Louis Bell and Frank Duke, along side Posty himself. Both of the primary producers are heavyweights in the hip hop electronic production industry.
In an interview for Universal Audio, Louis mentions a few of the plugin’s he uses with Post Malone’s voice, and why he uses them. We can take these plugin’s and see how they work with Post Malone’s voice to make it the king of the mix.
The Effect Chain
The first effect typically added to the vocal mix is the compressor. Allow the vocal to become consistent in it’s dynamic range. In Circles, Post Malone get’s close to the mic and sings softly at times, and others, he’s back further singing his heart out. By compressing your vocal, the soft parts don’t get drowned out in the mix, and the loud parts don’t cover everything up.
Louis Bell uses the Universal Audio 1176 Limiting Amplifier, the classic ultra fast limiting compressor from the 60’s, used on thousands of pop tracks since it’s release. But for modern producers, a software emulation from Universal Audio or Waves can replicate the fast attack and all-buttons-in mode of the original. The plugin versions may not give the exact same character as the hardware unit, but neither did one hardware unit to the next one.
EQ will usually come before or after the compressor. Either way, the purpose will be the same: make the character of the vocal shine through, without too much low end nasal or high end hiss. Typically, there is a big cut to the very lowest frequencies, which usually end up being background hum, or mic stand noises. Then another cut to the low frequency sound of air hitting the mic when saying words like “boat” or “pool”. There may be spots throughout the frequency range that resonated with the room too much and would want to be cut out as well.
In Circles, Post Malone’s voice has a high end boost that makes his voice sound more present and airy. Louis Bell uses another classic piece of hardware in the vocal chain, the Neve 1073 preamp. This price of gear comes just after the microphone, and includes only a few knobs of EQ, along with some old hardware warmth. A software emulation is also available.
When Post Malone sings, a lot of space is added to his voice, creating an ethereal and wonderful presence. Delay, reverb and chorusing in the vocals are stacked with delay and reverb in the instruments to truly send the mix into outer space.
A delay technique that old rock vocals often had was a “slap back” delay which adds a prominent quick echo that makes the vocal sound subtly doubled. This technique is also used on Post Malone’s vocals. Adding a delay in the range of 20-60ms.
Chorusing is also used in the vocal chain. Louis Bell used the Brigade Chorus Pedal from Universal Audio, usually reserved for guitars and psychedelic tunes. This is mostly used in the chorus, though it seems like a lesser version is used during the pre choruses. The effect widens the stereo field to make the vocals come from the left and right track in a slightly different way.
And last, and probably most, is the reverb on Post Malone’s voice. Reverb is a basic requirement for pop vocals, to make them sound like they weren’t recorded in some of the quietest rooms in the world. In this case, the reverb is strong and can bring images of Post Malone singing away into the sunset as he fades out of view.
The verses show Post Malone’s voice covered in reverb to fill in the empty space where he’s not singing. In the Chorus the reverb is turned up a notch or two. After the first chorus, you can hear Post’s voice completely dry for two words “Let go”, then the effects start coming back in.
Vocal layering is also a very important technique for strong choruses, like the one in Circles. The verse hears Post’s voice in a single track with effects, where the chorus, you can hear 4 or more different (but extremely similar) takes stacked on top of each other.
Take the lessons of Circles and apply them to your own vocal effect chains. Personally, I may use some more chorusing in my mixes, but maybe a new compressor plugin is your take-away. Let me know in the comments if you are using any of these techniques in your tracks. Or learn more audio engineering techniques here.
Thanks for reading ✌