Manually Editing Vocals Pre-Processing – What it Means and Why it Matters

Manually Editing Vocals Pre-Processing - What it Means and Why it Matters

Listening to music is an experience. An intense emotional connection can be created between the listener and the art. For this connection to be maintained, all sonic distractions must be removed. To me, hearing mouth clicks, low frequency boominess, plosives, harshness on consonants like “ess” and “Tee” sounds, are all hallmarks of a record that hasn’t had enough attention paid to it. These sounds remove me from the emotional experience of connecting with music. When I’m mixing I get into some nitty gritty editing of the audio to remove these audio artifacts.

While I do still use de-essers, mouth de-clickers, and other plug-ins that use insert space in Pro Tools, it's best to be efficient and not go overboard. Sure, the technology is getting better and better, but every bit of processing added to audio via a plug-in has benefits and value adds as well as drawbacks and penalties to audio quality. If you are an artist or producer engineering your own music, chances are you are not listening for these degradations, let alone utilizing techniques like level matching your changes or A/B testing to see what actually sounds better. Part of being an engineer is making these cost/benefit analysis type decisions in ways that best serve the song for the sake of the audience. Here are some techniques that I use:

Pencil tool to smooth out saliva/mouth sounds and clicks

This is tedious, but for me, it's worth the effort. I use the pencil tool in pro tools (F10), enlarge the track, and manually draw out mouth clicks. You may be familiar with tools like Spiff which offer presets for these functions, but the plugin is more likely to infringe on the dynamic quality of the vocal and be much less precise. I will reserve Spiff for voiceover jobs or other unique use cases in music.

These sounds are almost never considered while recording, but leveraging techniques like compression, saturation, to make the vocal sound more upfront also bring other sounds to the front, making them much more noticable.

example of what a mouth click looks like as a waveform in pro tools
1) Identify
Zoomed in mouth click in pro tools
2) Zoom in
pencil tool redraw pro tools in action
3) Draw
the visual result of using the pencil tool to take out mouth clicks
4) Result

Spot-printing high-pass filter with Audiosuite to reduce the low end of plosives

A plosive occurs when a percusive mouth sound throws a burst of air at the microphone's diaphram. The result is a low frequency "boom" and distorition that is printed to your recording. These are unnatural sounding, and distracting for the listener. Secondly, the low frequency distortion will trigger compressors unnaturally, resulting in temporary overcompression.

To tackle these (frequently) "P". "T", "B", even "H" sounds in a spot-tratment fashion, I use Audiosuite in Pro Tools. This method allows me to treat those troublemakers without impacting hte low frequency response of the rest of the vocal take, maintaining a full-bodied sound.

example of a plosive in pro tools waveform
1) Identify
selecting a plugin in audiosuite
2) Audiosuite
selected audio for audiosuite in pro tools
3) High pass
printed audiosuite example
4) Print and crossfade

Manual clip-gain reduction on harsh consonants like “S” and “T” sounds.

Engineers use techniques like compression to even out the dynamics of a vocal take and bring it to the front of a mix. The gain of high energy moments is reduced, evening out the performance, so the overall level of the vocal can be raised. Typically, this brings "S" and "T" to an annoyingly hot level in relation to the nice parts of a vocal. The solition I use is to manually pull back the gain of these sounds. 

identify "ess" sound
1) Identify
Clip gain reduction of "ess" sound
2) Adjust clip gain
crossfaded "ess" sound
3) Crossfade

Light use of a de-esser helps, but some times it's not enough. Over de-essing (yea, that's a thing) leads to "s" sounds turning into lispy "th" and "f" sounds, which can be distracting and confusing for the listener. Manual clip gain reduction, while tedious, prevents this problem.

Sometimes, there are just no shortcuts to a great sound!

If you want to see this method in action, check out this TikTok. Give us a follow while you're at it please 😈😈😈

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