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5 Exciter Plugins for Mixing Pop Vocals (+ Mix Tips)

In the analog days, engineers would utilize hardware exciters to brighten up individual elements, or entire mixes recorded to tape that had become dull due to extensive overdubbing or age. Arguably the most popular of which, the beloved Aphex Aural Exciter, was even mentioned in the liner notes of numerous popular albums in the 1970’s.

Aphex Aural Exciter

Aphex Aural Exciter

With digital recording technology capable of more accurately capturing and reproducing high frequencies, popular music has gotten brighter through the decades. Even with these advances in technology, exciters regularly find their way into the recording, mixing and mastering of popular music. Perhaps the continued use of exciters is partially motivated by one of the tactics used in the ever-ongoing loudness war, which is adding more high-frequency content to achieve a greater perceived loudness.

In my new mixing pop course, I spend a great deal of time working on the vocals to get them to sit perfectly, and part of that is ensuring they have just the right amount of high end. It’s essential to get lead and background vocals to cut through the mix, while not coming across as harsh and brittle. There are plenty of great options if you’re hoping to add extra clarity, sheen and brightness to your pop vocal tracks. Here are some of my favorite exciter plugins, and how I use them.

1. Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter

This impressive emulation of the original hardware unit captures the detail, depth and color of the original unit, all while adding several helpful features. This is one of my go-to exciters when mixing pop vocals because it has an instantly recognizable sound. This plugin version is configurable to be used in parallel, so make sure to utilize that function if you’re hoping to add a touch of brightness to your vocals.

Mix Tip:

I do find that because you can’t get super surgical with the Aural Exciter, that it occasionally draws attention to components of the vocal that you don’t want. Experiment with using your favorite De-esser before and/or after this plugin if your vocals become overly bright.

Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter

2. SPL Vitalizer MK2-T

Available native and from Universal Audio, the SPL Vitalizer MK2-T works on virtually everything you throw at it including individual tracks, subgroups or even the stereo buss. This plugin emulation of the fantastic hardware unit is my favorite enhancer for processing pop backup vocals. It’s a saturator, compressor and equalizer, all-in-one.

Mix Tip:

For super-wide pop backup vocals that have been at least double-tracked, hard send your desired signals to an auxiliary track, and place the Vitalizer as an insert. Then experiment with the stereo width knob and the various other features. I often try to have less low end content in my backup vocals than I do in the leads and do this trick to differentiate the tone of the lead and backup vocals.

SPL Vitalizer MK2-T

3. iZotope Neutron 2 Exciter

Both of the aforementioned units/plugins are a bit more restrictive in what their controls allow you to do, but the Neutron Exciter is a versatile workhorse if you need to be a bit more surgical with your enhancing. As with most of iZotope’s state of the art digital tools, Exciter is chock full of parameters that allow you to dial in sounds with great precision.

Mix Tip:

You can stay subtle, or get pretty gnarly with Exciter. If I want to cross over from subtle enhancing of a pop vocal into heavy saturation used as a layer or special effect, this is the plugin I’ll most likely choose.

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4. Maag EQ4 EQ

Also available native or from UAD, the Maag is technically an equalizer, not an exciter. Still, I often reach for it when I want to add a crisp, clear, musical sheen to my lead vocal. The “Air” Band is unlike anything I’ve found in any other EQ and finds its way onto my individual lead vocal tracks and busses, especially when I need the smooth high-end common to most modern pop vocals.

Mix Tip:

Don’t sleep on the non-“Air” Band bands. While I reach for this EQ when I want to enhance the high frequencies, the other bands are incredibly musical. This is one of my top hardware-emulation plugins, and is all over my latest pop mixes.

5. Vertigo Sound VSM-3

I love saturating lead vocals, especially when mixing pop. I think pop has a misconception of having an “overly clean” sound to it. The Beatles, the greatest selling Pop artist of all time, used blistering saturation and other distortion effects applied to their lead vocals on many of their songs.

Mix Tip:

I often find the 3rd Harmonic Zener Blender section to be the perfect solution if I’m using the VSM-3 for adding excitement to a vocal. If you need to create a hyper-saturated special-effect vocal sound and drop out the other elements of a pop arrangement, during a breakdown, for instance, the VSM is tons of fun and does just the trick.

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Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in his new Mastering in the Box course.

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