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Ambient vocals in music has become even more popular in the music production community, and for good reason. With the constant pressure to stand out from the sea of other melodic house and ambient tracks getting released, having an original-sounding ambient vocal can take your release to the next level.

Waxman, whose latest single on David Hohme's Where The Heart Is Records, is an expert at getting soaring vocals in every dance-friendly production that he releases. 

In this article, Waxman breaks down every single thing you would ever want to know about editing, processing, collaborating, and affecting amazing ambient vocals so that you can get signed to your favorite labels and make music you're damn proud to show your friends.

So let's dive into the wealth of knowledge Waxman has and be sure to read until the end, because Waxman's vocal collaborator shares high-level tricks that you can use yourself on your next release.

Stream Waxman's latest vocal track below as use it as a reference point for the wealth of knowledge shared in the piece below. 

Does Your Track Even Need Vocals? 

It's important to remember that not every track needs vocals in the first place. Never try to force a vocal take into a song just because your favorite artists like Lane 8 or Luttrell do.

Use These Artists As References For Your Tracks To Sound Like Lane 8's 

When deciding whether a track needs a vocal section, Waxman adheres to a few simple rules once the track is nearing completion to decide whether or not there is room in the arrangement for the vocals to work their magic.

When I'm at the point where the song is close to being finished and feel like there is still room for vocals, I’ll go back and assess what lead elements might need to be removed or scaled back to fit vocals in.

On my latest release on Where The Heart Is ‘In Stride’, it was a bit of a combination of both - I knew there was space for vocals but wasn’t totally sure if they’d fit best in the breakdowns or in the drop sections of the tune. It turned out there was space in the breakdowns so after testing a few different arrangements out (after my collaborator Will Melville had sent me his vocal recordings),

I landed on the final arrangement with the lead vocals in the breakdowns and a few little vocal stings used more subtly in the drop sections.

TL;DR - Listen To Waxman's latest single 'In Stride' Out Now On David Hohme's Where The Heart Is Records.

Finding Good Vocalists To Work With 

Waxman and Will RP Melville have been friends and collaborators for years.

Waxman and Will RP Melville have been friends and collaborators for years.

Finding vocalists to work with can be the hardest part of the process...

You would think it would be easy, but musicians have a knack for being flakey and unless both the producer and the musician are on the same wavelength in regards to tone, style, and workflow studio sessions can often be more discouraging than inspiring. 

It all comes down to tapping into the network around you and working with what you have.

I’ve been lucky to have two good friends who are both talented musicians and vocalists to work with - Will Melville and Amber Long. For the most part, I’ve worked exclusively with them for original vocals. 

And while you may not have access to talented singer/songwriter friends, the internet is still filled with quality sounds that you can manipulate and warp to your liking. 

If you’re comfortable with pitch and timing correction, exploring royalty-free vocal sample collections can also be a great resource for finding some hidden gems and making them work for you. I’ve taken vocal lines and completely re-written the melodic lines to suit my tracks and if you have the tools and an ear for the right samples, this can work perfectly as well. 

And, by Waxman's argument, manipulating and affecting vocal samples from companies like Splice or Loopmasters serves more than one purpose... 

At the very least, it’s a great way to get more experienced playing around with and editing vocals both as a lead instrument/element and as more of a texture or ambient element - you never know what you might end up with!

TL;DR - If you can't find a talented singer, practice warping the hell out of Splice samples.

Choosing Amazing Ambient Vocal Takes and Samples

Ambient vocals requires stacks, layers, and a lot of attention to detail

Ambient vocals requires stacks, layers, and a lot of attention to detail

Melodic-driven house, techno, chill-out or whatever other genre of tracks you're producing thrive on an essence of authenticity. The nuances in the music is what your listeners latch on it, which makes selecting your source sounds, be it from a splice sample or vocal recording, all the more important. 

Although I’ve had great results using pre-recorded vocals, they never quite compare in originality and feeling really authentic (whatever that means exactly). This can be the difference between a good-sounding, but somewhat generic track, and an amazing original that stands out from the pack.

TL;DR - Look for vocals that sound authentic to the song you want to produce. 

How To Communicate What You Want To The Vocalist

Working together with any creative can be tricky, as communicating the artistic vision of what you have in mind can often be hard to express in words. Waxman dives into some of his go-to communication strategies to get amazing ambient vocals for all of his tracks. 

I think that the collaboration process often works best with good communication while still giving everyone involved the freedom to be creative. When I’ve collaborated with both Will and Amber I send over a premaster and just leave them to see what they come up with!

Then after that there may be some back and forth about little things but I’ve had pretty excellent results with letting them get a feel for my instrumental track and then add their own interpretation to it rather than trying to give too many directions.

On a few occasions, I’ve sent reference tracks to give some indication of a vocal style as opposed to particularly direct instructions, but even then, I never want to be closed off to any ideas they might come up with!

TL;DR - Don't micromanage and be open to the vocalist's contribution. 

Processing Chains For Ambient Vocals

Vocal processing chains may look complicated, but there's a method to the madness

Vocal processing chains may look complicated, but there's a method to the madness

While having an amazing vocal performance or recording is incredibly important, the post-processing and effects chains applied to the vocals are equally as important. FX chains are your opportunity to sound unique and creative while at the same time getting a professional and polished production. 

Here is Waxman's signature vocal-processing chain for getting incredible ambient vocals.

Step 1: Editing The Raw Vocals

Before the processing chain I spend a good chunk of time editing and cleaning up the vocals. Meticulously going through and taking out any unwanted breaths or sounds picked up on the mic during the recording process. 

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Step 2: Editing The Raw Vocals

Then once everything is nice and tidy, I’ll import the raw vocals into Melodyne for pitch, timing, and some dynamic correction. Adjusting the volume and dynamics at this stage helps avoid the compressor having to work too hard later on.

Editing the volume helps prevent the compressor from working too hard

Editing the volume helps prevent the compressor from working too hard

Step 3: EQ The Nasty Bits Of The Vocal

Then once this is done, I’ll start into my chain with my favorite plug-ins - Fabfilter. I’ll start with a Pro-Q 3 to do some initial EQing and roll off any frequencies below 100 Hz. 

Step 4: Compress What Is Left

Then apply some light compression with a Pro-C 2 - nothing too extreme here, but you can always push it if that’s what a track calls for, although that’s one of the reasons I like to do some dynamic adjustments earlier in Melodyne so I don’t have to over-compress. 

Step 5: Crunch Up Those Ambient Vocals

Then I’ll usually apply some light (or heavier…) saturation to the vocals with another Fabfilter gem - Saturn 2. Then another round of EQing to taste.

Step 6: Add In The Ambience

I’ll usually go light on the delay and reverb applied directly to the vocals and add more as needed with additional aux buses - make sure to eq, compress, and potentially side chain these as well! I also like to play around with Izotopes Vocalsynth (usually right after the first EQ if I’m going to use it), but it really depends on what the specific track calls for.

TL;DR - Getting amazing vocal mixes isn't rocket science. Follow Waxman's processing chain and get amazing vocal mixes! 

The Secret Weapon Every Ambient Vocal Producer Needs 

Melodyn is Waxman's desert island plugin for amazing vocals

Melodyn is Waxman's desert island plugin for amazing vocals

Every producer has their one single plugin that they couldn't live without; their desert island plugin they consider to be the secret sauce of their sound. 

If you're producing ambient vocal tracks, your secret weapon has to be powerful enough to manipulate and morph complex vocal recordings.

The most important tool in the editing/mixing process for vocals is Melodyne for sure. Locking in pitch and timing in a natural-sounding way will go really far and everything will already be sounding good and tight once you’re at the fun effects part of the process.

Melodyne really can’t be beat for taking your vocals up a notch in quality - I’d guess that just most vocals you hear on any modern track (pop, dance, metal, rock, RnB, etc) will have been Melodyne’d to some degree - even if you’re working with the best singer out there, there’s always room to tighten things up for the slick modern production sound!

TL;DR - Invest in Melodyn as a mixing and creative tool

Creative Hacks For Phenomenal Vocal Productions

It's important to find clever ways to use your vocals in every melodic house or vocal-driven track you make. Just using the vocals as is usually takes away a lot of the cohesion from the production, which is the last thing you want. 

Here are a few of Waxman's secret production hack he uses to get spicey vocals. 

Tip #1: Add Extra Warmth

Something to play around with to really make your vocals stand out in the mix is scaling back your low-mids (don’t take them out completely, but try lowering them and pushing the overall volume of the vocal track) and adding a dash of saturation to really give them some analog-sounding spice. 

Tip #2: Use Aux Sends

Another nice trick to add space and size to your vocals is to send them to a reverb aux that’s side chained to the vocal track itself. This will control the reverb while the vocals play but unleash it whenever there are gaps or breaks in your vocal line! 

Tip #3: You Can't Polish A Turd

The most important factor in getting spicy vocals is getting a great raw recording. Mics and preamps do matter! If you’re able to access quality ones it will open up way more potential for the vocals when it’s time for the experimenting and fun processing.

TL;DR - One or two simple production tricks can be enough to make a track as amazing as Waxman's latest single.

Arranging Ambient Vocals In Your Productions

Waxman's 'In Stride' single from a bird's eye perspective

Waxman's 'In Stride' single from a bird's eye perspective

How you arrange and deliver the vocals in an ambient vocal production are incredibly important if you want your track to tell a compelling story. 

Waxman Breaks down his tips for having tight, impactful arrangements that pull at your heartstrings and move dancefloors every single time. 

Like arranging anything, I often find myself putting too much into the peaks of tracks when I first start and then end up scaling back. It’s great to have lot’s of interesting elements and vocals, but if they don’t have room to breath and show off in their own space, they’ll just get lost in the haze of an over-cluttered track.

And of course, think of the vocal (and song) progression like a story - we need to introduce elements before they can be the star of the show, so teasing and gradually building things can be a great approach when you’re figuring out how to structure a vocal progression and the whole song.

TL;DR - Less is more (especially with vocals)

4 BONUS TIPS FOR AMBIENT VOCALISTS

ambient vocal produciton

Waxman's collaborator, Will RP Melville, is a professional performing vocals and session recorder who is no stranger to the vocal booth. And when warming up either your own voice, working on a project, or simply wondering how to break into the world of ambient vocal performance, Will drops some invaluable knowledge. 

#1 – Warming Up Your Voice For An Ambient Vocal Performance

I did some sessions with a vocal coach when I was younger and she was an advocate of warm up exercises. We'd sing patterns (something like singing the first five notes of a major scale up, then down) starting at the lower end of the register, then rising by a half step and repeating the pattern till you start to reach the higher end of your register.

We might do a few different singing patterns over the course of the warmup, and we'd do a few different variations like: sing using a different vowel sound each time ("aah", "ayy", "ee", "ho", etc.), or sing one pattern staccato and another legato, to stretch all the singing muscles in different ways. I think there's probably merit to this approach, I usually just warm up by grabbing my guitar and singing a bunch of songs before a show or recording session.

Consistently singing every day leading up to a performance also helps me feel in command of my voice.

TL;DR - Practice often and warm your vocal chords by singing familiar notes and patterns. 

#2 – Where To Start Singing On An Ambient Vocal Track

I like to load the instrumental track into Ableton and find a part of the song I think vocals would sit nicely over so I can loop that part over and over. I'll grab a pen and paper and start writing down words, images, or ideas that come to my mind.

Having some words (even if they're not crystalized full stanzas or coherent thoughts) usually helps to suggest some rhythms and maybe also what kind of emotional content I want to try to put into the melody.

If I try to sing melodies without having brainstormed some words I feel like I just end up noodling. 

TL;DR - Find an inspiring section of the track and loop that while writing any lyrics that come to mind.  

#3 – Vocal Trick For People Who Can't Sing

A cool vocal thing you could try is: recording your melody, then recording exactly the same melody up or down an octave.

It can sound awesome, and I think finding the octave is pretty intuitive even for someone who hasn't trained to sing harmonies. We did this in the recording of "In Stride".

May or may not work for the song, and depending on the melody it might not be in your range, but it's worth a try...

#4 – Don't Wait For The Song To Be Finished Before You Start Singing

It doesn't need to be complete at all! It can be interesting to get on board with something at the idea stage, or to work with just a loop that isn't yet structured like a song.

Sometimes even if I get an 8 minute track I might end up looping only 8 or 16 bars of it and just writing over that anyway. 

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