For a polished radio ready sound before you even get to the mixing stage, you need proper vocal editing. These 3 editing MUSTS if you want to compete with industry standard are:
1. Tuning. The tuning conversation comes up A LOT with up and coming songwriters, producers, and vocalists. Don’t take it personally! You could sound really awesome without autotune or tuning by hand, but in the last 10+ years, your audience has been conditioned to hear perfection thanks to our hot 100 charting artists. Tuning has become the standard. It’s a necessary evil. Even the untrained ear has grown accustomed to pristine perfect pitch, so when they hear an untuned vocal, they might not know why, but they detect that something about this recording is low quality. The only genres where untuned vocals are probably acceptable is jazz, opera, and broadway- though singers of those genres are of the most perfect anyway.
I use 4 different tuning plug-ins regularly. Sound excessive? Read more about why each of these plug-ins are useful and how I use them as needed here. In order of importance: Antares Autotune Pro, Celemony’s Melodyne, Waves Tune Sound Shifter, and Waves Tune Live.
2. Timing. There’s something about perfectly lines up vocal stacks that sounds so clean, tight, and professional. However, sometimes you might be going for what’s called the “gang vocal” sound, which is like a big crowd singing together- in that scenario you would not want to line up your stacks (and you’ll want lots and lots of stacks!).
If you so happen to be an editing ninja, ie you can make cuts in an audio wave and nudge words back and forth to be in perfect alignment with other backgrounds stacks and the lead vocal and also make perfect fades and crossfades so it sounds like a nice fluid sung line with no chopped up word sounds, then aligning by hand will be the most clean and natural sound when all is done. However, this can take a lot of time. Patience, good editor.
If you’re not about that life, the answer is Vocalign by Synchro Arts. It is my savior. There are 3 versions of this plug-in now: Vocalign Project, the most simple version that just does the basic time aligning, Vocalign Pro, which can handle more audio processing and process multiple bgvs at once, and Vocalign Ultra which has an added feature that blows my mind: tune matching. Tbh if you just want the time aligning feature on a lower budget, Project is really great and does the trick. Vocalign Ultra is what I use because I love that it not only lines up the vocals perfectly, but you can also set your background vocal to match the exact pitch of the vocal you’re lining it up to. Now that Ultra exists, I don’t really see the point of buying Vocalign Pro anymore. I did find that when you give the plug-in less to process at a time, it performs better anyway. So I always recommend aligning one track at a time, and don’t make your sections too long.
Here’s a deep dive into using Vocalign Ultra, and a few sneaky techniques I use.
3. Fading. This is pretty much the most basic necessity of all editing. Make sure the beginning of any audio file has a fade in, the end of every audio file has a fade out, and any time two audio waves meet, they cross fade to each other. I’ve become compulsive about this and I’m constantly fading things as I go while I’m recording. I call it, “cleaning my room,” lol. Bad edits can be audible, so don’t diminish the sound of your song by forgetting this more basic element of vocal production.
It’s also a good idea to delete dead space in an audio file. If you’re singing a line that has a bar or two of space between singing, cut out that empty space and put your fades there. This will eliminate headphone sound from bleeding into the mic, the sound of your chair squeaking as you adjust, weird mouth sounds between lines, etc. Clean your room!
For some in depth best practices on fading, as well as some tricks, check out this blog post on fading and comping.