August 19, 2021
Any vocalist will tell you – the vocal is the most important aspect of any song (unless there are none). Some musicians may disagree, but when it comes to songs with words, it’s an objective truth that the vocal will be the center of attention. Get that right, and plenty of other oddities will be ignored, forgiven, or even appreciated as artistic choice. Get it wrong, and an otherwise flawless song can sound amateurish.
So, with that in mind, here are a few quick tips to improve your vocal mixes right now.
Many mixers like to start with the foundation – drums, bass, guitar, etc. That’s a great approach when it comes to the instrumental side, but often it helps a vocal mix to get right in with the vocals first – or at least bring them in as early as possible.
Minimize soloing the vocal, except for fixing problems like ugly resonances. As much as possible, make adjustments to the vocal mix in context of the whole song.
The gold standard for listening volume is just low enough so you can have a conversation over the song. This is especially helpful for vocals, which can end up massively unbalanced if the listening level is loud. Oddly, the vocal is usually set too loud in this scenario.
Edit and comp together the best from multiple takes first. Clean up any noises, undue breaths, and extra clutter first. For a lead vocal, try to end up with one and only one well edited track to mix, rather than a whole bunch. You might end up separating sections into different tracks, but if you can start with a great comp, even that’s easier.
This is a great time to use clip gain to even out the levels in the track, so compressors don’t have to work so hard and sound unnatural. Don’t be too granular here – just get big sections evened out.
When it comes to reverbs and delays, do use them. But be judicious. A common trick to achieve a nice, subtle, transparent reverb sound is to lower the level of the reverb until it’s basically forgotten unless you remove it.
Other tricks that help lead vocals stand out include increasing early reflections and pre-delay on the reverb. Pre-delay especially allows the vocal to still sit forward without sounding too washed out or far back as a result of reverb being too married to the dry signal.
One more thing – don’t just set and forget a reverb or delay level. Use automation to give a mix more reverb when called for (say in a big chorus) and less when it’s too much (like an intimate verse).
There’s no hard and fast rules about EQ and compression, but it’s typical to do some subtractive EQ before any other real processing. It can be helpful to high pass the vocal at this point, to remove any excess rumble and low frequency information that may confuse the compressor and muddy the mix. If the mix is dense, you may get away with high passing as high as 200 Hz. If the vocal needs to fill more space, less may be better.
In this stage, it’s a great idea to make cuts to unruly resonances or ugly frequencies before any other processing emphasizes them.
Most vocal tracks are compressed. That’s the obvious part. The not so obvious part is just how to do this. Vocals are complex, so there’s no one-size fits all here, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First, you don’t necessarily need to hit it hard, especially if the track is already even. Slightly slower attack times and gentler ratios often help to retain the life in a performance. Many pros like to use two or even three compressors in sequence for a more transparent effect. This way, each compressor can do a little bit of subtle work, rather than one pumping and working hard, which can sound unnatural.
In addition to some judicious serial compression, it can also be helpful to use a parallel compressor. To do this, simply send the vocal to an extra buss and compress that buss, mixing that signal in to the original to give it some weight. You can squash the parallel compressor pretty hard in this scenario, and just bring taste into the mix.
De-essing is sometimes crucial. Find a decent de-esser to tame sibilance. De-essers are basically dynamic EQs which lower these frequencies (around 5 kHz or so) only when they reach a certain threshold. The de-esser can also be used to tame resonances in other frequency ranges such as 3 kHz or so, where some vocals tend to hit too hard at times.
Sometimes a little saturation and/or distortion can go a long way to giving the vocal more weight and helping it cut through the mix by adding harmonics. If the song isn’t particularly hardcore, you can still use this technique – just be subtle. Often, it’s enough to use analog emulation plugins like a tape simulator or emulations of classic analog pre-amps.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with a vocal that has nothing but a little bit of reverb on it. If it sounds great, it sounds great, so don’t over process just because you think you should. Trust your ears.
Vocal mixing is a subtle art. It can be maddening or super rewarding getting a vocal just right, to where it “sounds like a record.” Hopefully these tips help you get to a great sound a little more efficiently.
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