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A fellow audio tech told me once that you need to get the drum mix into the listener’s body and you need to get the vocal into the listener’s head. Just as important, we need to provide clarity in the vocal. A good vocal is clear, but it’s really about the special sauce you can pour on that vocal - the embellishments and custom-tailoring.
This tutorial will give you a clear starting point on how to mix vocals.
If you are experienced with mixing vocals, then the steps outline can simply be a checklist for you and help give you new ideas on how to mix your vocals.
If we break the process down into 8 steps, we’ll see the vocal mix is really a unique signal-processing chain.
Once the signal is trapped by the microphone, amps, and converters, it goes through a chain of processing where a combination of equalization, compression, and effects are all applied to the audio.
The order that which the vocals get processed by the different processors is important.
So let's get into the eight-step breakdown on how to mix your vocals.
In vocal mixing, not everything can be fixed
There’s no plugin on the market that can make the vocalist sound less tired. A lot of work needs to be put in to the actual vocal performance before you start the mix.
Be sure to always have a conversation with the artist if the recording is not up to standard.
Be courteous, gentle, and friendly when talking to vocalists about poor vocal performance. Let them know where they can improve the vocals and work with them to make the recording better.
Many producers miss this step and just accept the vocals that they are given.
The number one way to improve your vocals is to start with a high-quality recording and performance by the vocalist.
Sometimes you may not have the option to re-record vocals and are stuck with what you got.
In this situation, you can try Izotope’s RX 9. There is a bit of a learning curve with this software, but it's one of the best audio restoration software on the market.
In some cases, you will need to edit together the best vocal takes. The vocalist will do a bunch of takes and you will need to mix and match the best performances for each section. This will yield the best results for your mix.
The process of picking takes might be referred to as “Comping”, which is selecting the best parts of each take into one compilation or “comp”. Think scissors and glue back in the day of tapes. Other tasks include listening for clicks, breathes, pops, air conditioners, and any sound that distracts from the singing.
While step 1 and 1.5 aren't actually mixing steps, they are ESSENTIAL for getting a professional vocal. Without a good performance, recording, and comping, your vocal mix will never sound as good as you want it to.
Since vocals are such a high priority, they are going to be one of the loudest elements in the mix.
If you work the vocals into the mix early on, you won’t be caught off guard trying to wedge individual parts into the mix.
In this stage add in your vocal and mix it in so it's one of the loudest elements in your track and it sits "on top" of the mix.
Listen for how the vocal plays with the other instruments. Do the vocals get buried in the mix? Are other instruments overlapping the vocals?
One way to help with this is to do the bulk of your mixing in mono and check in stereo every so often. Most people approach mixing in the other way.
Mixing in mono will help make sure your vocal shines through.
I recommend mixing each instrument on its own, and then checking it against your vocal. The vocal is going to be a major factor in the song, let everything else revolve around the vocal, instead of only meshing the individual parts at the end.
This is also true for backup vocals. Don’t wait to mix them in until the end. This can cause issues in your mix.
We are now finally onto the mixing chain for the vocals.
Once the vocals are roughly mixed in, then it’s fine to start figuring out the corrective measures you need to take with pitch correction.
This will ensure that your vocal is in key with the other musical elements in your track
One of the best tools to use here is the industry standard in pitch correction, Auto tune Artist by Antares
You'll need to know the key of your track so you can input that into some of the pitch correction plugins.
When you are using these pitch correction plugins, don't assume it is going to pitch everything correctly. You may have to manually adjust certain parts of the vocal that the plugin corrects properly.
As with many vocal mixing techniques, less is more if you’re trying to create a smooth vocal.
Referring back to our previous point. If the pitching software can't correct the pitch of your vocals, then you need to re-record the vocal.
Next, you will want to insert an EQ after the pitch correction
The equalizer is used for 2 main reasons.:
1. Remove harsh and obtrusive frequencies
2. To add tone or “color.”
Vocal mixes are unique as they are more complex compared to other musical instruments.
It’s important that they are “clean” with no extra hum, room tone, and floor squeaks.
If you can't EQ out these issues then you will have to re-record the vocal.
I look for 3 different parts of the frequencies, low, mid, and high.
To manage lows, you'll want to cut most of the low frequencies out by adding a low cut around 80hz.
You'll also want to take out some of the 200-600 Hz range with a notch EQ.
Make sure to leave just enough of the 200-600hz so the vocal still has depth and power.
These are just approximations here. Depending on the vocal and how it blends with your track, you may need to low cut and notch out more or less.
To manage the mids, dampen out chunks of frequencies around 1.5khz to kill that boxy sound and around 3.5khz if it’s got a nasally quality to it.
Again these are just approximations. Each vocal may have a different frequency where it is nasally at.
For high frequencies, you will want to cut the 3-5kHz range if the vocal sounds too harsh.
Maintaining brightness and still getting rid of the harshness can be tricky.
The high frequencies are the least forgiving, as the intelligibility of a vocal is in the mid-high frequencies. Try to be precise with EQing the highs.
Despite the tips in this step, you might still struggle to EQ your vocals. Sonible's Smart:EQ 3 is a great option to use for your vocals as it is an AI powered EQ. The plugin can find these tonal imbalances and correct them.
You can also add another EQ closer to the end of the vocal processing chain to further shape the sound and have it gel better with your mix.
The first EQ is more so to remove the harsh and unwanted frequencies.
After the corrective EQ comes de-essing.
Keep in mind that not every vocal will need de-essing.
De-essers are essentially a compressor for high frequencies. They help remove those harsh "sss" sounds in your vocal.
So if you hear these "sss" sounds, then a de-esser will be the best tool for the job. You will want to remove just enough of the "sss" sound to create a balanced vocal.
Taking out too much will make the vocal sound dull.
De-essers can also help remove lip smacks, plosives, and pops, all the things to look out for along with the annoying “esses”.
Remove anything that will distract the listener.
Now that we've adjusted the tone of the vocal and any potential harsh "sss" sounds, it's time to adjust the dynamics with a compressor.
A compressor changes the dynamics of the audio by making the quiet sounds in the recording much louder and making the loudest noises quieter when they get past a certain level.
An incredible compressor to use for your vocals is the FG-2A. This is the most legendary vocal compressor in the history of recorded music.
The key with vocal compression is you don't want to have one compressor do all the heavy lifting as this will flatten out the vocal.
The first compressor is to control any wild spikes in volume and/or to bring up the quieter sounds. (this makes the vocal sound fuller).
Include this first compressor early on in the chain, after the EQing and De-essing
The attack should be set very short on this first compressor (around 1ms or less) and the release should be medium to long (around 450ms). This will make sure that all the vocal no peaks get through the compressor and the quietest parts can be turned up by the vocal.
The second compressor is to shape the sound.
Pay extra attention to the attack and release and to time them with the tempo of the music. This will help your vocals breathe with the song.
By splitting the compression between 2 stages, you allow the compressors to accomplish two separate jobs.
One to reign in the quietest and loudest parts of the vocal and one to shape the sound to gel better with the track.
You can also try a compressor that is specific to vocals.
Automating fader moves is another key skill that needs to be applied to a vocal. It’s one of the last things to do after EQs and Compressors are set. This is the process of “riding” the fader on the vocals so it gets a custom amount of “louder or quieter” during each part of the song.
Doesn’t the compressor keep the levels from going over a certain dB level?
Not really. There’s a difference between how loud something seems, or how loud something meters out in dB.
The energy levels of the chorus are much higher energy than in the verses and the vocals need to usually be raised up to meet that energy.
One option could also be to add a vocal-specific compressor plugin to certain sections of your track. The various gain and impact controls on the Antares Punch VST compressor plugin can help handle the dynamics in your track quickly and easily.
That chorus energy is way too much for verses so you’ll need to automate levels to compensate for it all.
You will also want to consider how you mix in background vocals.
How many dB should the lead vocal be?
Vocals don’t need to be any particular dB level, but they do need to be one of the loudest elements in the mix.
When you are recording your vocals be sure to aim for the standard of -12dB. This will help give you the cleanest vocal without the vocal running too hot or with floor noise.
Reverb and delays are the final plugins to add to your vocal chain.
These spatial effects help add interest and depth to your tracks.
In general, you will want to keep the dry/wet of these plugins under 30%. Add too much delay and reverb can wash away the vocal. Leave the high dry/wet amounts for your vocal FX.
When you add reverb and delay to your vocals, put them on their own channel (usually a send channel) so you have full control over the sound.
You can then put an EQ and compressor on the delay and reverb send channels to further shape the sound.
One of the most common issues with mixing vocals and mixing, in general, is processing your sounds unnecessarily. If there is no "sss" problem in your vocals, then don't add a de-esser. If there aren't harsh sounding frequencies in the high end, don't EQ them out.
Mixing vocals is all about giving the vocalist their time to shine in the track.
When going through this tutorial, make small moves. Take out a few frequencies, compress the sound a couple of dB, and then go from there.
The magic in vocal mixing happens when you layer the steps together and make subtle changes.
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