Have you ever felt like your vocals don't sound present, crispy, "in your face", like the songs in the radio? They just lack that clarity that's common in pop music.
Maybe you even had a great singer record some takes, but 90% of the times the recording lacks clarity, right?
And it's not your fault, nor the singer's. Raw vocal recordings often sound muffled.
Of course it depends on the microphone and gear used, vocal technique, room acoustics, and a hundred differenct factors.
But even the best microphones can record muddy vocal takes and we need to do something about it in post-production.
How do we fix that dullness? How do we enhance it to achieve that bigger-than-life crispiness from pop songs nowadays?
Well, it takes some equalization and dynamic processing.
But what I want to show you today is a VST plugin that is extremely easy to use and it helps your vocals stand out, adding that clarity that brings them to the front of the mix.
Slate Digital — Fresh Air
I'm talking about Slate Digital's Fresh Air — this post is not sponsored —, but I'd like to recommend it.
First, because it's free, it has no learning curve — you only need to adjust 2 knobs — and it does its job, whether you use it on a single vocal track, on a vocal group, on your instruments, drums and even on your entire mix.
The video above has a comparison of the before and after, using this plugin on my original song "Maybe We'd Be Together".
It made my vocals much more intelligible and clear. They went from "kind of" a distant place to right in front of your face.
How Fresh Air VST Plugin Works
This plugin comes with some presets. It's always good to play around with them, see what combinations the sound engineers who made it had in mind.
It's a good starting point but nothing beats doing your own tweaking since every song, every recording is different, right?
The plugin has 2 main knobs, which can be linked by clicking the button in the center. I always unlink it so I can tweak the knobs individually.
The Mid Air Knob
We can use the Mid Air knob to add what sound engineers like to call "presence".
It brings out the details in the high-mid range in a clean way — makes it sound crispy and clear.
Using a spectrum analyzer to look at pink noise, while increasing the Mid Air Knob, here's what happens behind the scenes.
It looks like a high shelf filter starting at around 3 kHz. And it adds up to 6 dB.
The High Air Knob
Now, the High Air knob to me sounds like a more aggressive beast. It's not harsh, it's actually my favorite.
But it affects your high frequencies a lot more. It's about 50% more effective than the Mid Air Knob.
So I usually add just a touch for that pop sparkle.
Again, looking through the spectrum analyzer and cranking it up against pink noise, it looks like another high shelf filter, this time starting at around 7 kHz, adding up to 9 dB to those frequencies — that's a lot!
Maxing Out Both Knobs
If we turn them both up at a hundred percent, look at the crazy curve we get.
It's a huge increase, you probably will never have to go anywhere near that.
If you think about it, this plugin almost sounds like you layered a whisper track.
Some producers do it manually and have the singer record the words while whispering so they can layer it to the original vocal recording.
Or at least they did it before it was possible to do it during the mix, with a plugin like this one. Isn't it so much easier now?
Just gotta be careful. Because it sounds so good when you turn it on, people tend to crank it up.
And although this plugin can be subtle, you still have to be gentle with every mixing decision you make — it's easy to overdo it. Moderation is key.
Especially if you singer is already too breathy, then you probably don't need to add much more sparkle.
Adding Clarity to Backvocals with Slate Digital's Fresh Air
Should you use Fresh Air on backvocals?
Depends on how present you want them to be. Maybe you just need them to sit in the background and support the main vocals with some extra harmony.
But maybe you want them to be slightly more noticeable — and just increasing the volume may not be the best option.
When that's the case, I found that a tiny bit of Fresh Air is enough:
The image above shows the configuration that worked for that specific song. It takes some tweaking — it's never good to do things by default when mixing.
It brought the backvocals somewhat forward but not enough to compete for space against the main vocals. We don't want them to steal the spotlight, right?
The Trim Knob
There's another knob in the corner, the Trim knob, that you can use to compensate for the gain that's increased when you turn the other knobs up.
Or you can ignore it, like I do, and just use your DAW faders to adjust the loudness of your vocal track.
How to get Fresh Air by Slate Digital?
Just go to Slate Digital's website, create an account, download and install it. Your vocal mixes will immediately sound better than before.
Just throw it on any of your vocal tracks, pick a preset, see if you can hear the difference, then start messing with the knobs until you find that sweet spot.
Where in the mixing chain?
Also, I've seen many people ask where to place this VST in the mixing chain.
I usually have it in my vocal Group, which means it comes after my regular EQ, compressors, saturators, but there's no such rule.
Place it where it sounds best to your ears.
Maybe keep it before any special effects like modulation and reverbs to avoid some unexpected interaction — unless that's your goal, of course.
One downside: iLok
There is one downside to this plugin, though.
It uses iLok to authorize your license and because of that it can get annoying sometimes to get started.
But hey, it's a free plugin. Try it out! It's worth it.
Does that sound good? I hope you enjoyed this article.
If you did — if it was helpful — let me know in the comments below.
And if you're interested in learning Pop Music Production, visit my website.