by Metal Mastermind

September 13, 2020

death metal vocal plugin chain using your DAW

It’s time to record the vocal tracks. You’ve got your Shure SM7B mic running to your interface and you have a nicely treated corner of your room setup.

But there’s one thing you’re not sure about…actually a few things…

  • Do I need to buy an expensive plugin for vocals?
  • Can I use the plugins I already have in my DAW?
  • How do I set up the order of plugins for recording vocals?
  • Help, I”m freaking lost!!!

Here are the short answers…

  • No, you do NOT need expensive plugins to record metal vocals (see below)
  • Yes, you can use the free plugins in your DAW for vocals
  • We’re going to show you exactly how to set up the order of your plugins in this post!
  • You were once lost, yes, but then you found Metal Mastermind and we are here to guide you through the dark winter nights!

We’re going to show what plugins you need (you really only need 3, but we’re going to show you 4). And we’re also going to share our recommended settings for each plugin that cater to aggressive metal vocals.

Why Should You Use Plugins in Your DAW?

First, let’s briefly talk about why you should start with the plugins that already come with your DAW. There are two simple reasons for this…

  1. Learn to master the plugins that you already have
  2. Metal vocals take a much different approach than recording ‘normal’ vocals (you know us metalheads are any but normal!)

If you learn how to properly use the plugins that come with your DAW you will more than likely find that they’re good enough. In fact, we’ve run blind-tests again vocal plugin chains we’ve created in our DAW versus expensive third-party plugins. Often times, the DAW plugins won.

**You can read more about mastering the gear you have in this post: 4 Simple Ways to Improve as a Metal Musician During a Pandemic

Secondly, the premium name-brand plugins often cater to vocal-focused artists and bands. Metal is aggressive in nature and you’re not capturing certain details that you would for someone like Mariah Carey or Bryan Adams.

Order of Your Vocal Plugin Chain

Here’s the basic order of your vocal plugin chain when you’re using plugins in your DAW:

  • Compressor
  • EQ
  • Reverb
  • Delay

Reverb and delay are optional, but we’ll talk more how to use those effects later.

**Many use a de-esser as well, which would be placed first in the plugin chain. However, not all DAWs come with this plugin.

Typically, if you’re recording with a dynamic mic like the Shure SM7B with a pop filter, you won’t need a de-esser for metal vocals.

***You can read about more mics that are good for metal vocals in our post: 7 Best Mics for Recording Extreme Metal Vocals for under $500

Now let’s talk about each plugin, why you need it, and we’ll share our settings for you to use as a guide…


Studio plugins tricomp compressor

First up in the vocal chain is a compressor. And practically every DAW comes with some type of compressor.

The compressor’s job is to keep everything balanced. It takes the lower notes and brings them up, and it cuts those harsher and higher notes, keeping them from peaking. This is why it is first in your vocal chain.

You’ll also find that you DAW’s compressor more than likely has different types of presets. Of course, you probably won’t find one for metal vocals. That’s okay…we’re going to show you our settings.

Now, every compressor plugin will be a little different, some with more options than others. But don’t get overwhelmed…

Here’s a basic starting point for your compressor settings:

  • Input gain: 0
  • Mix: 100%
  • Low frequency: 360 Hz
  • High frequency 3.2 k
  • Both high and low levels can remain at ‘0’
  • Gain: 0
  • Release: 180 ms
  • Saturation: 0
  • Compression – we have ours at 10 but this is something you’ll need to play around with by testing it in your studio

**Again, it’s important to understand that this is just a starting point for you. Use it as a guide and make adjustments that cater to your voice or your singer’s voice.


Studio plugins - Pro EQ

The EQ plugin is next in your vocal chain. You want that signal compressed first before you start making those tweaks.

The goal of using an EQ plugin is to smooth-out the vocals. It’s also to make them sit in front of the mix but without any unwanted frequencies (these are typically a mix of harsh and low-end frequencies that we need to cut).

Adjusting EQ for metal vocals is extremely subjective. And it’s going to be different for every metal singer because voice, in general, is so unique.

But we’re here to simplify the process. Below are some starting points for EQ’ing your metal vocals:

  • Gain: 0 (in most cases, there’s no reason to increase or cut the EQ gain)
  • Low cut: 50 Hz
  • Low end: 250 Hz with a slight boost
  • Low mids: 500 Hz with a slight cut
  • High end: 3.90 k with a boost

**Oftentimes metal vocals, especially extreme metal vocals, need more attention in the highs so that they’re not piercing while lower growls and death metal vocals need help in cutting some of the bottom-end.

You may also have different EQ requirements for female metal vocalist than male. The point being is you need to thoroughly test different settings and make adjustments along the way.

This EQ setting we provided is a great starting point for both styles.

Here’s an addition guide from the website:


Studio plugins reverb

Reverb is not a must-have when recording metal vocals. But when used right, a little reverb can add more depth to your vocal tracks.

That said, too much reverb can make your vocals sound muddy in the mix. You don’t want that.

The rule with reverb is to simply use it sparingly. It’s almost as if you want the vocal track to sound it it doesn’t have reverb on it but it’s enough to where if you took it off you would notice.

Usually a room-size or medium-hall will work fine. And you don’t want the mix to be overwhelmingly high. Start with about 10% and see how that sounds.

**There may be certain parts of your song where you may want to add a deeper reverb effect but these are usually saved for those special moments.

In those cases, you would just add that heavy reverb effect to a certain part of your vocal track, not the entire track. There’s a way to do this in every DAW so you will need to look that up for your specific DAW.


Studio plugins delay

Like reverb, a delay plugin is not necessary for recording good metal vocals. But it can add some spice to your tracks.

Delay is another effect that you will want to use sparingly, and probably not all of the time. Too much delay will absolutely muddy-up your vocal mix.

Using delay can really come in handle for those parts where the vocal is ending and you want some effects to carry over. For example, add some luscious delay to the last word on the chorus before going into the guitar solo. Those notes will carry into the solo and that will give you a really awesome sound.

**TIP: Try using just reverb or delay and see what sounds best for that particular vocal track. Sometimes using both together can create issues in the mix.

Remember, even though you’re recording aggressive or death metal vocals, you still want those words and syllables to be accentuated.

Wait…Aren’t Third-Party Plugins Better than the Plugins that Come With Your DAW?

After going through this post, you may still be questioning the quality of the plugins that come with your DAW versus some of the expensive third-party plugins.

Here’s a 3 about expensive vocal plugins:

  1. Better’ is subjective. What works for someone else may not work for you, even if it’s a top-brand premium vocal plugin. And vice versa.
  2. Expensive is not always better. How many times have you paid more money for something only to be disappointed by it, and you ended up getting something less expensive that worked better?
  3. You’re often paying more for the sake of the brand name. Have you ever compared the ingredients on a bottle of NyQuil to the bottle of the generic store brand? Yeah…they’re exactly the same. But the NyQuil is twice, sometimes 3x more expensive. This happens in almost every genre of products, including music gear and plugins.

Now, there are some really amazing premium plugins from companies like Waves, Softube, Fabfilter, Slate, and several others. In fact, these are known to used my professional audio engineers of big-name artists and bands.

But to recap what we talked about earlier…

Recording metal vocals takes a different approach to other genres. You’re not necessarily capturing those subtle nuances and pristine, clear voices. You’re capturing growls, snarls, and screams.

Also, like we said in the very beginning, you need to learn how to work with the gear you already have. Master your gear before moving onto something bigger and seemingly better!

Lastly, the bulk of your focus needs to be on the vocal performance. Even the most expensive and premium vocal plugins cannot make a crappy performance magically turn into an awesome vocal track.

**To learn more about capturing an amazing performance, be sure to read our post: The Golden Rule of Recording

We truly hope this post helps you have more confidence in recording your metal vocal tracks!

Again, just start with the settings we provided and make adjustments from there to cater to yours or your singer’s vocals!

Horns Up,

Ken & Jason
Metal Mastermind

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