Mixing vocals to a 2-track instrumental is something every engineer will encounter at some point. It’s especially common in hip hop/pop, where artists routinely download pre-mixed instrumentals online and bring them to a studio to record. The challenge with learning how to mix to a 2-track beat is getting the vocals to sit in a space that feels right. The following are some tips and ideas to consider when approaching a mix like this.
Handling the Instrumental
Without fail, a pre-mixed instrumental has been compressed and limited for loudness. In fact, many hip hop producers are mixing their instrumentals specifically with loudness in mind. At a certain point loudness becomes more complex than simply increasing the volume, which is where density comes into play. A producer who’s familiar with this concept will make their instrumentals denser to give the record more perceived level. Of course, a dense mix leaves little room for a vocal.
The very first thing you’ll want to do is pull the 2-track’s level down to give yourself some headroom. I usually find 6 dB to be enough, but there are some particularly loud mixes that have required more. The funny thing is, the louder the instrumental, the quieter the end mix will be. Don’t worry, though. This is all part of how to mix vocals to a 2-track.
Get Your Vocals Right First
The first thing you should do is get the vocals sounding solid. That way it’s just a matter of opening up the 2-track later.
If you have a lot of clients bringing you instrumentals to track over, creating a vocal mixing template is the best way to go. It’ll drastically expedite the mixing process if you already have your vocal chain(s), reverb/delay sends, and other processing ready to go. It’s helpful for tracking, too, when an artist might want to record through Auto-Tune, with some reverb/delay, or anything else they might request.
Overall, your vocals should compliment the instrumental, so keep this in mind while you’re mixing them. Here’re some tips:
Vocal Compression for Density
You can run into a lot of problems with a heavily compressed 2-track and a very dynamic vocal performance. In this case (which is quite often) the vocal will either be buried by the beat or hover above the mix.
This is inevitable. Rather than burying the vocal underneath a dense instrumental, you should opt to work around having the vocals hang above the beat. You can get them to mesh better with the 2-track by compressing in small increments so their density starts to match that of the instrumental.
You’ll want to avoid letting one compressor do all the work. If you do, you’ll hear it working way too hard—it won’t sound good. Instead, use a few compressors all doing a conservative amount of gain reduction.
Figuring out what works for you is all part of learning how to mix, but an 1176 into an LA-2A is a famous vocal chain worth trying!
Pay close attention to the overall tonality of the instrumental. It might be very bright, very dark, or somewhere in the middle. Complimenting the instrumental’s quality with your vocal EQ will do wonders for gluing everything together. For example, a dark vocal on a bright track might sound a little buried, or a bright vocal on a dark track won’t sound cohesive. Get the blend right!
This goes for other instrumental qualities too—not just EQ. Consider things like this: a popular trend in trap has been heavily distorted 808s. It might be worth adding a little saturation to your vocals to compliment a 2-track with distorted 808s. This is all an exercise in creative mixing which can help get you where you need to go.
Match the instrumental’s space on vocals. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, but again, listen carefully to the overall “vibe” of the 2-track. Doing so will help you put the vocals in a logical space that makes sense for the song’s context.
Open Up the Instrumental
When you’re confident in your vocal sound for the given instrumental, you may need to open the 2-track up a bit to give them a bit more space.
Try not to overdo it if you decide to EQ the pre-mixed beat. You’ll typically want to avoid broad Qs and heavy cuts lest you want to totally change the quality of the instrumental.
If you can hear a specific frequency in the beat that really isn’t gelling with the vocals, notch it out. But again, be subtle.
This is actually incredibly handy. With M-S processing, you can separate the sonic information living in the center from the info living on the sides. By pulling the center down a tad, you can effectively create space for the vocals to sit!