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Vocal Effects: Thinking Outside The Box

Vocal Effects: Thinking Outside The Box

Breaking Down Barriers.

So we've all been there when we're either writing or in the studio, and you hit that brick wall that you just cannot seem to go around, dig under or jump over no matter what. Your creativity is stifled with a serious case of using the same old formula-itis. You hate your vocal sound; it's too dry, it's not 'popping,' it's lost its mojo, its 'je ne sais quoi.' To put it bluntly, it's void of life; nobody wants to hear a dull wallow in the mix instead of laying down beautiful, flourishing tones and melodies. 

Well, as is so often the case while being creative, your luck runs out and the same old formula you were using to create your sound has suddenly hit a drought and your ears are completely deafened to the lingering boredom of routine. So, that's why we're here to help ignite that spark and get you back to creating absolute fire! We're going to take a look at how you can use effects in creative ways!

Perhaps you need to shake things up and give your vocals an edge that will set you apart, or maybe you aren't the most gifted singer and yet still want to indulge your creativity and get behind the microphone! Just because some of us don't have the most angelic of tonalities doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to express our voices, and that's where the beauty of using effects comes in! There's a whole world of experimentation with effects waiting to be explored, so here are just a few ways in which you can use effects creatively on vocals!

Pitch Shifting & Vocoders.

If you're unfamiliar with the awesome power and mutative characteristics of pitch shifting, then we suggest you pay close attention! Pitch shifters are often used quite conservatively in popular music to subtly beef up instrumentation in mixes across a variety of genres, perhaps detuning a layered guitar track a couple of cents while the main track remains at the dominant pitch (Pantera used this trick notoriously in a practical sense to achieve such a heavy, crushing sound for a one-guitar band) for example.

However, using pitch shifting in a more aggressive methodology can transform your vocals into a haunting Jekyll and Hyde, capable of elevating the dynamics of your song to a new level. Check out Fever Ray's 'If I Had A Heart' and you can hear how the full power of multi-layered pitch-shifting has been used confidently to express ghostly textures. A blend of heavily saturated vocoder harmonies creeping in and out of the mix atop of detuned, pedal notes create a full-bodied and extremely powerful yet understated atmosphere of call and responses.

Another brilliant example of using pitch shifting to elevate dynamics in a song is Jehnny Beth's 'Flower.'  Take note of how the effect is kicked on during the chorus section to dominate the dynamic push-pull of the arrangement and manipulate your ears perception of width.

TC Electronic Brainwaves Pitch Shifter

Check out the TC Electronic Brainwaves Pitch Shifter for some seriously mind-melting manipulation. TC Electronic are famous for their ingenuity and producing some fabulous bits of kit to really inspire you. The Brainwave features state-of-the-art pitch-shifting power with a pressure-sensitive footswitch, while offering a  wealth of studio-grade algorithms and completely independent dual voice pitch shifting. Moreover, TC Electronic pedals also boast the seriously cool TonePrint app functionality, which means you can ping custom artist patches to your pedal in a heartbeat and manipulate your sound on the fly.


Check Out The Novation MiniNova Synthesizer!


Overdrive & EQ.

Using overdrive on vocals is often misinterpreted as the elephant in the room or a straight-up no-no. Why ruin your vocal tone by carving and hacking away at it with a blanket of distortion, it's a sin! Well, yes that can be true! It's not uncommon for people to not know where to take their vocals, or like in the guitar world, they want to disguise abnormalities and mistakes and so they'll abandon all reason and throw a tonne of molten distortion onto the track and pass it off as experimental, or 'adding an aggressive edge.' And while more liberal use of distortion can be beneficial to certain styles of music, it often doesn't apply to many others (for example use of FX in metal will not be appropriate for such use in RnB).

That being said, we're suggesting using overdrive which is another beast altogether, and when used tastefully and at the right time, when the vibe of the song demands something to take it over the edge, a little overdrive and creative use of EQ is a powerful and exciting tool used to extract raw and energetic performances from singers and vocalists alike. Check out 'You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire' by Queens Of The Stone Age and listen to how the vocals sit in a driving mix, unrelenting in its venomous delivery before resolving into the release of a pounding chorus.

Use your DAW to add a little overdrive to your vocals whilst automating EQ to scorch the top end at 2-3kHz, thus creating the megaphone effect and filtering bass/low-mid frequencies to about 3-400Hz. You can really harness the frenetic energy of the more carnal aspects of your vocal technique, as the power of the effects will only be enhanced the more you push your voice to break up and reveal its primal blueprint. The secret here is to actually find the less desirable, ugly frequencies in your voice and boost them, so hunt around as what might work for one person may often be different for yourself!

But be warned, good microphone technique is advised! You still want to maintain distinguishable vocals and we certainly wouldn't suggest plugging into your guitarist's distortion pedal live on stage, try won't end well.

Check Out PreSonus Studio One 5 Artist - Digital Audio Workstation!



Delay is probably one of the most effective ways to instantly transform how your vocals and instrumentation sound and what message they convey in the context of a song. Take for example the use of dub-delay pioneered by old school dub-reggae producers such as King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry, with psychedelic delay effects found heavily on tracks such as 'Disco Devil' and 'King Tubby's Special.' Not only does delay add potentially a mystical aura to your vocal presence, but it can add interest and fill out dead space in the mix, thickening your tone across the frequency spectrum.

Say for example, you have a beautiful tone but your voice lacks definition and weight, add the 100 MS effect! A super easy and simple technique used to thicken up vocals rather than saturating in wet reverb or spatial effects, add a 100 millisecond with one repeat underneath your vocals. Try it with and without and you'll instantly be able to hear the difference! 

On the other hand, if you want to get really creative using delay, then why not experiment using tape/slap echos and using reverb to diffuse the repeats! Throw in a little analogue saturation and experiment with dotted repeats to really create a submerged, old-school studio spiralling effect, then you'll really begin to experience the limitless potential of using time-based effects to create a completely unique mode of expression.

Bend Time! Fender Mirror Image Delay

The Mirror Image Delay brings this atmospheric effect to your setup, giving you the ability to create depth with a simple slapback or develop an epic soundscape with modulated repeats. Digital, Analog, and Tape modes—each with two voicing variations and true bypass make this expressive and inspiring pedal indispensable. It even has the option to add a dotted-eighth note for those cascading washes of sound!



Thrown into the spotlight by global superstar Ed Sheeran as he burst onto the scene with the second single 'You Need Me, I Don't Need You,' the humble looper has since transcended its reputation of being a practice tool for guitarists to write songs or jam along with, but has instead morphed into a goliath of contemporary FX-based performance.

No longer are artists limited to approaching looping in its most literal and basic sense, but can instead use the loopers power to build endless arrangements and unique one-person gigs. If you're stuck for ideas, why not use a looper to create rich and blossoming vocal arrangements using larger than life disjunct melodies, or build dense, parallel vocal harmonies to create acapella chords and experiment with exotic scales to take your music somewhere you never expected!

There really are no rules when it comes to looping (though a keen sense of timing helps, it isn't essential), so plug in and go crazy! Everybody starts somewhere and the beauty of loopers is how organic they are, they serve the purpose to serve you, as the power to diversify and explore your innermost creativity comes from within yourself!

Loop It! TC Electronic Ditto Jam x2 Looper


Rotary FX.

Another intuitive and super cool way to unlock an even bigger portion of creative potential is through use of rotary effects, or to elaborate, enhancing the power of harmonics and creating the illusion of movement in an instrument. Rotary effects are popularly characterised by the legendary Leslie speaker, with its warm analogue tones creating blankets of grainy texture and pulsing rhythms, check out 'Green Onions' by Booker T and the MG's for one of the most famous examples of rotary effects in action. How do we apply this to vocals? Put simply, any way you like!

However, we'd suggest using it to infuse songs with vintage flavour, letting the movement of the rotary effect and it's two rotary drivers do the work. The result is your voice softly over the arrangement, with the mids sucked out and the 'wobble' of the Leslie effect enhancing the pulse of the song. Run your vocals subtly through a rotary emulator and run the rotary speed high.

Great examples of subtle and extreme use can be found in artists such as rap legend MF Doom and heavy metal titans Black Sabbath. Check out MF on 'Fazers' by King Geedorah, in which the vocals seem to ride on top of the synth line like a surfer; the ebbs and flows of the vocals moulding perfectly with the pulsing movements of the synth and percussion to create a unified, free-flowing effect, perfect for rap styles. On the other hand, listen to 'Planet Caravan' by Black Sabbath and you'll hear the full oceanic power of what a  vocal drenched in rotary effects can do!

Check Out The Nux Roctary FX Pedal!

So now that you have a little inspiration, get out and there and experiment! Find out the secrets of your own expression and build incredible soundscapes and arrangements using just your body and mind. Your voice is the most powerful and dynamic instrument you have, so why not use it to its full potential!

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