Have you ever had trouble getting a vocal to sit right in the mix? Have you ever felt underwhelmed by the overall tonality of a vocal, whether it’s too thin or perhaps too muffled? Does the vocal feel too wet or too dry, or are problem frequencies sticking out like a sore thumb? The truth is, we’ve all struggled with mixing vocals at some point. Because they’re so important to listeners, it’s easy to feel frustrated when we just can’t seem to get it right. Fortunately, there are some standard as well as creative techniques with which you can approach mixing vocals. We’ve compiled a “master list” to help you achieve better sounding vocals.
We’re all familiar with basic compression and EQ, but how often do you consider saturation when mixing a vocal track?
When we use the term “saturation,” we’re referring to plugins that emulate what analogue equipment used to do to a recording. Saturation adds rich harmonics/overtones and a bit of distortion to make a vocal “fatter” and more exciting for listeners. It can help push a performance to the front for an “in-your-face” sound.
Experiment with saturation to give a vocal more edge, helping it stand out in a dense mix. Lo-Fi, included with Pro Tools, is just one example of these types of plugins that can enhance an otherwise dry/dull vocal.
For those who are new to mixing, compression can be a rather mysterious signal processor. On paper, it’s easy enough to understand that a compressor smooths out a performance by bringing peaks down and valleys up. However, it’s sometimes difficult to determine its effects for ears that are unaccustomed to it.
If you find yourself struggling with vocal compression, the following is an excellent starting point to orientate yourself.
Set a ratio of 4:1; set the attack time to medium or fast; adjust for a medium release time; and adjust the threshold for about 4-6 dB of gain reduction.
These rules aren’t hard and fast, so use your judgement and compress to taste! What works for one track may not work for another, and so on, but these guidelines are a wonderful place to start.
Another common technique used for more aggressive or exciting vocals is parallel compression. It works by duplicating the desired vocal track and slamming it with a compressor to the point where it’s unpleasant on its own. Then, you gradually mix in the duplicated, slammed channel with the main vocal channel to taste.
“Magic” Frequencies for Mixing Vocals
Akin to the compression starting points outlined above, knowing specific frequencies and how they effect vocals means you can make quick, precise adjustments with less guesswork. Check out these five areas of interest for vocal EQ:
- 120 Hz: Fullness
- 240 Hz: Boominess
- 5 kHz: Presence
- 4 to 7 kHz: Sibilance
- 10 to 15 kHz: Air
Experiment with each of these frequencies or bands and see how they effect your particular vocal mix. If a performance feels muddy, try cutting a bit around 240-250 Hz. If sibilance is particularly harsh, sweep between 4 and 7 kHz to find the most offensive frequencies and tame them. As always, listen and use what best suits your personal taste.
Reverb and Delay Techniques
When we use a time-based effect like reverb, we’re trying to create a “space” for a mix element to live. Oftentimes we add it with the intention of bringing our vocals to the front, when in reality we find we’ve only pushed them further away.
The quick fix? Pre-delay. Many reverb plugins have this parameter, and it functions by separating the dry signal from the wet signal via a user-set delay. The result is hearing the space and dimension that we wanted from our reverb without pushing the dry vocal into the recesses of the mix.
You can also get very creative with delay in a variety of ways. One of the more common techniques is to automate the delay on certain words or phrases. If a particular line bears repeating, have the delay bypassed until you reach the desired lyric and automate it on.
Another thing to remember is to EQ your reverb and delay returns. Most of the time, we don’t want our reverbs and delays sharing the exact same frequency space as our dry vocals. If you bandpass your effects return–say between 600 Hz and 4 kHz–your wet/dry signals won’t be competing for room.
Sibilance–that hissing noise produced with “s” sounds–is a naturally occurring phenomenon within the human voice. While we don’t consider it unpleasant in conversation–if we notice it at all–on a recorded vocal, sibilance can often be overwhelmingly harsh.
Using a de-esser to control sibilant frequencies, generally somewhere between 4 and 7 kHz, is crucial. A great de-essing plugin will retain presence/clarity without totally flattening out an exciting performance.
An awesome trick for mixing vocals is to boost the top end with an EQ and control it with a de-esser. You’ll get the brightness and clarity from boosting with the EQ, minus the exaggerated “s” and “t” sounds thanks to the de-esser.
This is an extremely important step for mixing vocals that generally takes place in between tracking and mixing. Editing your vocals ensures you have the best possible stems to mix with later. You’ll want to first comp your vocal takes for the best overall performance, and then do finer editing like removing the heads and tails of clips, clip gaining loud breaths and plosives, and doing other clean-up work. If you take the time to carefully edit your vocals, you’ll thank yourself when you’re actually mixing them!
Vocal tuning can really be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. Real-time pitch correction with plugins like Auto-Tune or Waves Real-Time is very effective, especially when working with a solid vocalist. In these instances, you may sometimes be able to “set it and forget it.” Surgical tweaks on pre-recorded tracks can take a bit more time, but they also provide the most flexibility and depth in terms of what can and cannot be done.
The Right Tools for the Job
Knowing when to use real-time pitch correction or surgical correction is important. When tracking through a plugin, or on performances that need just a slight bit of help, real-time plugins can do the trick. The thing to remember, though, is that one setting acts on every note that a vocalist performs. What sounds great on one passage or phrase may not be as useful on another.
Surgical vocal tuning, with a plugin like Melodyne, for example, gives the user control over each individual note in a take. You can probably imagine how useful this is in nearly any situation. Let’s say a vocalist holds out a note over several seconds, but loses pitch at the very end. With surgical pitch correction, you can find the errant section and fix it. Mixing vocals can require some patience with tuning plugins!
Don’t Forget Context!
This concept applies to every element in your mix–not just vocals. Soloing a track and making it sound fantastic by itself is nice, but what about the bigger picture? When we rely on the solo button for too long, we lose our frame of reference and can find that the processing we’ve done doesn’t sit right in the full mix.
We can save time and avoid headaches by frequently un-soloing to make sure the changes we’ve made are working. No one wants to reach the end of a long signal processing chain to find their vocals sound amazing–but only by themselves.