Get Professional Vocal Mixes In Three Simple Steps
What instrument do you usually find most difficult to mix? If you said vocals, then you’re not alone.
Getting your vocals to sound clean, professional, and positioned just right within the mix can be challenging, but it is very possible to achieve with the right tools and the right knowledge.
In fact, the process of getting professional vocal mixes can often boil down to three simple steps.
Vocals vs. Instruments
When it comes to mixing, vocals and instruments have a lot more in common than you might think. They may feel like two different parts of a song, but when you think about it, the vocals are really just another instrument in the mix.
They operate is a certain frequency spectrum, add melody or rhythm to the song, act as a part of the overall performance, and much more. Because of these similarities, a lot of the same principles apply when mixing vocals and instruments.
However, the devil is in the details. There are a few key differences that are important to recognize when mixing vocals.
Difference #1: Vocals Are Very Dynamic
Vocals, on average, are more dynamic than other instruments in your mix.
A single vocal performance can swing from loud shouting to quiet whispering in an instant. Some words are delivered louder, some are delivered quieter, and these changes can happen constantly.
Managing your vocal’s dynamics is important, because quiet moments in a vocal can easily get swallowed up by the rest of the instrumentation if not mixed correctly. To sound clear and articulate, your vocals have to cut through the mix at every turn.
Figure 1: A typical vocal recording. Notice the quieter words/phrases and the louder ones?
Difference #2: Vocals Are More Delicate
Our brains have a very clear idea of what the human voice sounds like. When a voice doesn’t sound right, it’s instantly noticeable. Unless you are purposefully distorting a vocal track, this isn’t ideal.
When you mix vocals, you have to ride the line between sounding natural and sounding artificial. This means that you have to use your effects more carefully than with other instruments.
Difference #3: Vocals Lead The Song
Vocals are just one part of the overall mix, but they often need to be right in front, easy to hear and understand. Positioning the vocals within the mix is much more critical than positioning other instruments, which require a more evenly balanced arrangement.
It’s important to note that mixing lead vocals is slightly different than mixing background vocals. The following process focuses on mixing lead vocals, but a lot of the same principles apply to background vocals as well.
A great vocal mix starts with a great vocal recording. Learn how to get professional studio quality vocal recordings here.
Vocal Mixing Step 1: EQ
EQ is a simple, yet important part of vocal mixing. It can help make your vocals sound great, but you have to avoid overdoing it. Extreme EQ can quickly make your vocals sound unnatural and distorted.
For most vocals, I like to use a combination of four simple moves. Keep in mind that not every vocal needs each of these, so test them and see how they affect the vocal in question before you commit.
Low End: High Pass to Declutter
Sometimes, vocal recordings can have extra resonances in the low end that are unnecessary. You can clear these out by adding a high pass filter. Be careful not to cut too much out of the main body of the vocal, especially if your vocalist has a deeper voice.
Figure 2: Add a High Pass Filter to your vocal
Lower Mids: Cut Out Room Resonance
When you record vocals, the space you record in can generate room resonances that can color your recording and make them sounding muddy. These resonances often sit between 200 Hz and 600 Hz, so adding a small cut in this section can be helpful.
Sweep this region, listen for frequencies that make the vocal sound worse, and gently add a cut around that frequency.
Figure 3: Cut out any room resonances
Upper Mids: Boost to Add Clarity
To make your vocals cut through the mix, clarity is critical. Our ears are particularly sensitive to frequencies between 2 kHz and 5 kHz, so adding volume in this section can make it easier to hear and understand a song’s lyrics.
Temporarily turn down the volume of your entire song, sweep this region, and look for frequencies that make it easier to hear the words in the vocal. Adding a gentle boost to this frequency will make it easier to hear the vocals without turning them up as much.
Figure 4: Add extra clarity to your vocal
Highs: Boost to Increase Brightness
For most vocals, boosting the highest frequencies (5 kHz and up) can add extra brightness to the vocals. Add a gentle shelf to this region to make your vocals shine through the mix if useful.
Figure 5: Increase brightness with a shelf
Vocal Mixing Step 2: Compression
Since vocals are highly dynamic, compression is a natural key to mixing great vocals. The secret to applying that compression is through serial compression, which means adding multiple compressors to a vocal track instead of just one.
By using serial compression, you can apply a lot of compression to your vocals while retaining their energy and their natural sound. Adding a lot of compression to vocals is a helpful way to keep your vocals consistently present and focused within the mix.
To add compression, I like to start by setting up one compressor that adds a modest amount of compression. A good starting point for this compressor is often an attack of 10-30ms, a release of 40-60ms, a ratio between 2:1 to 4:1, and an overall gain reduction of 3-6dB.
Figure 6: Possible settings for vocal compression
After this compressor is dialed in, copy its settings to additional compressors. As a starting point, try 2-3 compressors and see how this affects your vocals. Do the vocals sound more consistent without sounding unnatural?
Vocal Mixing Step 3: Reverb and Delay
The final step for mixing great sounding vocals is reverb and delay. For lead vocals, it is important to only apply a very small amount of these effects since the vocals need to stand out in front of the mix. Adding too much reverb and delay will make the vocals fade back into the mix.
Just a little bit of reverb and/or delay will act as a “glue” to get the vocals to sit comfortably in the mix without getting lost. Many people prefer using delay over reverb since it can be more subtle, but play around with both to see what works best.
To add delay, send your vocals to an auxiliary channel. This will allow you to maximize your control over the delay as well as apply individual effects to it.
Your delay should be very short, typically 100ms or less. Think of this delay as a gentle glow around your vocal, not an outright echo.
To add texture to your delay, differentiate the delay time between the left and right channels by 5-10ms. Additionally, EQ the delay with low pass and high pass filters to concentrate the delay in the middle of the frequency spectrum.
Figure 7: Possible delay settings
Once your delay has been setup, slowly add it to your mix with the auxiliary fader, and once you hear it, back off a little. I like to find the point where the delay makes the vocal sound different but not like an additional track in the mix.
Similar to delay, reverb should be gently added using an auxiliary channel. Use a preset like a room reverb, high pass and low pass the reverb, and get it to the right level where it just barely enhances the vocal but does not become overly noticeable. Less is more.
With the right effects, you can make your vocal mixes sound like they were professionally made. Your vocals will sound clean and crisp, fit into the song snuggly, and make your entire song better.
Follow these steps to create great vocal mixes. They will make a big difference!
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