Does your vocal have a comb-over?

This morning I was reviewing a couple of songs that someone had posted and one thing stood out like a sore thumb… the vocal.

The problem was not that the singer didn’t have a great voice or the fact that it was a bit wavery and lacking confidence. The problem was that it was being highlighted by a whole stack of effects and reverb. A misguided attempt to hide its weaknesses were having entirely the opposite effect. I’ve come across this before and to me it is the musical equivalent of a comb-over.

I understand why guys do comb-overs when their hair recedes but they don’t seem to understand that a comb-over is just the same as walking around town in a dayglo teeshirt emblazoned with the words “BALD AND ASHAMED!” What they should do is keep their hair short (or even shave it all off) and fake it till they make it …and no-one will notice a thing.

So splurging a whole load of reverb and chorus and ADT over a vocal to try to hide the fact that you think your voice is bad is nothing more than a musical comb-over that works as well as a hair comb-over. i.e. it draws attention to the thing you’re trying to hide.

One thing to realize is that you can never know what other people hear when they hear your voice. That means your opinion of your own voice shouldn’t be your first consideration. I’m sure that Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Mark Knopfler are under no delusion that their voices are aesthetically the greatest voices in history but that hasn’t stopped them having a modicum of success as singers.

Another common mistake is putting too much low-end on the vocal (or at least not eradicating the proximity effect if this was accidental). Excessive bass on a vocal went out of fashion in around 1976 when the old school radio DJs got shuffled off to Oldies stations to make way for the punk generation.

When you hear your own voice it is mostly internal vibrations inside your head which are much bassier than the sound everyone else hears. For that reason avoid the temptation to keep or create excessive bass – other people won’t be impressed and the vocal will sound amateurish. If you don’t believe me, listen carefully to commercial recordings and you might be surprised how little low end there is on the great majority of vocals.

So, what should you do?

High-pass filter. Start at 100 Hz and if necessary go higher depending on how much proximity effect there is. Do this in the context of the mix to avoid “solo syndrome”.

Fader. Use the fader to balance out the larger dynamics. If you swallow some words, use the fader to bring them up to the same level as the rest of the vocal.

Compress. For a starting point just put a 2:1 ratio compressor on the vocal with the threshold adjusted to give no more than one or two dB of gain reduction. You might find you need less compression or you might need more. One common problem is a wavery voice that doesn’t sound confident. A subtle use of parallel compression can help a lot with that. I won’t go into how to do parallel compression here but it is well-covered elsewhere on the web.

Ambience. Subtle reverb or echo only. Unless the music has the space for a big reverb it will just become mud so use a short reverbs and delays. Adjust the ambience so that it is only noticeable when you switch it out.


Love it or hate it, the vocal is the star of the show and you have to put it out there centre-stage and tell the audience to take-it or leave-it. Effects should only be there to enhance the best bits so do not try to hide anything.


© Mike Ellison.



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