PreSonus Blog

Friday Tip: Better Vocals with Phrase-by-Phrase Normalization

Unless you have exceptional vocal control, some vocal or narration phrases will likely be softer than others—not intentionally due to natural dynamics, but as a result of sketchy mic technique, running out of breath, or not being able to hit a note as strongly as other notes. Using compression or limiting to even out a vocal’s peaks has its place, but the low-level sections might not be brought up enough, whereas the high-level ones may sound “squashed.”

A more natural-sounding solution is to edit the vocal to a consistent level first, before applying any compression or limiting, by using phrase-by-phrase gain changes that even out variations. The advantage of adjusting each phrase’s level for consistency is that you haven’t added any of the artifacts associated with compression, or interfered with a phrase’s inherent dynamics. Furthermore if you do add compression or limiting while mixing, you won’t need to use as much as you normally would to obtain the same perceived volume and intimacy. A side benefit of phrase-by-phase normalization is that you can define an event that starts just after an inhale, so the inhale isn’t brought up with the rest of the phrase.

Ready to tweak that vocal to perfection? Let’s go.

  1. Open the vocal event in the Edit view, and open the Audio Bend view.

  1. Click on the Event, and choose Action > Detect Transients. Then click on Remove Bend Markers to start with a clean slate. Your event will look like the above screen shot. (Note: If the vocals have phrases that are separated by spaces, you can choose Transient Detection, Standard Mode, and then click on Analyze. Lower the threshold so that the Bend Markers fall only at the beginning of phrases. However, you’ll may need to move, delete, or add some markers with complex parts, which is why I find it easier just to place Bend Markers where needed.)

  1. You can now close the Audio Bend view if you want more room for the waveform height. Choose the Bend tool, and click at the beginning of each phrase to add a Bend Marker. If a section that needs to be adjusted starts in the middle of a phrase, you can add a Bend Marker before the section that needs tweaking anyway, even if there isn’t silence (we’ll explain why later).
  2. Once you’ve separated the phrases with Bend Markers, select the event in the Edit view by clicking on it with the Arrow tool. Then, choose Action > Split at Bend Markers. Now each phrase is its own event.

  1. Click on an event, and then adjust the gain so the event reaches the desired level. Do this with each event that needs tweaking—done!


Note that if audio continues before and after the Bend Marker so the Bend Marker can’t land on silence, Studio One generally handles this well if you place the Bend Marker on a zero-crossing. But if an abrupt level change causes a click at a transition, simply crossfade over it by dragging the end of one event and the beginning of the next event over the transition, and type X to create a crossfade. Adjust the curve for the most natural sound. In extreme cases, fading out just before the click and fading in just after the click can solve any issues.

So why not just do this kind of operation in the Arrange View? Several reasons. First of all, the Edit view is a more comfortable editing environment. But also, sometimes detecting transients will place the Bend Markers accurately enough that all you need to do is split and change levels—it’s much easier than doing a series of splits in the Arrange view. And if you count keystrokes, clicking to drop Bend Markers that define where to split and doing all the splits at once is easier than clicking and splitting at each split. Finally, while in Edit view, you can take advantage of the Bend Markers to adjust phrasing.

While this is a highly effective technique (especially for narration), be careful not to get so involved in this process that you start normalizing, say, individual words. Within any given phrase there will be some dynamics that you’ll want to retain—never lose the human element.