One of our favorite tools for vocal postproduction is the Waves Vocal Rider plug-in. We typically don’t recommend third-party plug-ins, but this particular plug-in is a workhorse and performs excellently for spoken and sung vocals. Its simple interface makes it easy to use and fits in with our ethos for creating great audio in the shortest amount of time.
The Waves Vocal Rider plug-in mimics someone moving fader moving gently up and down to compensate for changes in audio level. The algorithm detects patterns for average loudness over time, and cleverly increases and decreases audio levels only as needed. Even better, it automatically resets to a neutral position when the incoming signal drops below a predetermined threshold. As a result, it doesn’t raise the gain during the natural pauses between words and sentences. By comparison, traditional compressors use simple binary logic to either raise or lower gain when the signal level exceeds a user-defined threshold. Vocal Rider includes more variables specifically suited to vocal recording, that raise and lower the gain smoothly while preventing the noise floor from creeping up when the person stops speaking.
Vocal Rider works flawlessly with vocals recording in a quiet studio environment with little to no background noise. That said, we find that it also works well with vocals that contain low to moderate background noise, such as a recording through a lavaliere, a recording on location or in well-controlled live music scenario. Unfortunately, bleed from ambient sound may cause the output gain to rise and fall unpredictably. Your mileage may vary with vocal recordings in noisy environments, especially those with intermittent loud spikes and transients.
Vocal Rider is available in various formats, including AU, VST3, and AAX, making it compatible with a variety of DAWs and video editing software. We’ll be discussing it in Logic Pro X, but the same concepts apply using it in any other professional DAW, like Avid Pro Tools, Adobe Audition, or Apple Garage Band.
You’ll Still Need A Compressor
Vocal Rider doesn’t replace a traditional compressor, unfortunately, but used in addition to a compressor results in remarkably smooth and present vocal recordings. For those of you using Apple Logic Pro X, see our post about setting up the optimal compressor settings, then insert Vocal Rider after the compressor. Vocal Rider really works as though a sound technician were carefully listening for changes in audio level, and gently turning up and down the volume to keep the level consistent over time.
How to Use It
We recommend using this plug-in at its default startup settings, only changing the input threshold “target” and output sliders. Move the center of the “target” slider to the average incoming level, then adjust the output slider to add additional gain or to prevent clipping. The red LED indicator lets you know if you’re clipping, so reduce the output gain if any clipping occurs. We’ve tried adjusting settings beyond this, but for well-recorded audio, it’s just about perfect once you set the target level.
You’ll see other options on the plug-in interface like the fast-slow toggle switch to adjust how quickly the plug-in adjusts the gain. In most cases, the slow setting sounds best, but feel free to use the fast setting if the levels are changing quickly and unpredictably. You’ll also notice the vocal sensitivity setting available to adjust how quickly output gain reacts the incoming vocals. There may be occasions where increasing the sensitivity is necessary, such as for very soft talkers, but most of the time you can leave this knob at the default 12 o’clock setting.
Vocal Rider Live
Waves offers a variation of Vocal Rider aimed for use scenarios with considerable background noise. We don’t recommend using this plug-in as it just doesn’t work very well overall. Background noise simply requires too much fine-tuning and adjustment, and Vocal Rider Live often falls short of distinguishing between background noise and desired vocals. The end results are inconsistent levels that jump up and down unpredictably. If there’s an optimal way to set up this plug-in for noisy environments, we haven’t found it. For noisy recordings where re-recording isn’t an option, leave the noise as is and manually adjust the levels up and down (yes, this is very time consuming) and use a brick-wall limiter to catch transient spikes and eliminate clipping.
Waves Vocal Rider is one of the most effective tools for automating vocal levels for audio postproduction. Unlike a compressor, Vocal Rider acts as though someone was gently adjusting a mixer fader up and down for your vocal tracks. The plug-in uses an algorithm to detect vocals and cleverly resets to a neutral position when the vocals stop. This results in cleaner audio as the plug-in keeps the noise floor from creeping during silent passages.
Unfortunately, the plug-in does come at a cost. We only recommend Waves Vocal Rider for those who do large quantities of long-form vocal audio production. You can get without this plug-in, but it does add more presence and consistent volume output than simply using compressors and limiters alone. Like most tools in audio production, the difference with and without Vocal Rider will be subtle, especially if you already practice good recording techniques. If plug-ins like these are out of your budget or if you’re new to audio recording, focus instead on practicing speaking into a microphone with headphones on to get familiar how the sound gets captured. Vocal Rider won’t be of much use for noisy recordings made with poor mic technique.