Mixing Vocals: The Ultimate Guide
Mixing vocals can seem to be an overwhelming task, especially if you’re new to mixing. There are so many ways to mix vocals, that it’s hard to explain the process simply. Every voice, every song and every recording setup is different. This means that as a mixing engineer, you need to be flexible and have a number of skills in your tool kit. Sounds difficult, right? To help you get started, I’ve created The Ultimate Guide to Mixing Vocals (and if you’re still lost when I’m done, send your song our way!).
If you wanted a list of the actual processes we use to mix vocals, I could wrap this article up pretty quickly…
- Equalization adjusts the tone
- FX (Reverb, Delay, Chorus to name a few) these are mainly used to create ambience
- Modulation to add an extra special something
While the list of tools is actually quite short, the key to mixing vocals well, is understanding what we are trying to do. We need to set a target. We need to define “good”. There’s a whole host of things that can sound good. A really gritty rock vocal or a clean, crisp vocal performance that highlights the lyrics; both can be good. It all depends what the artist wants. The key here is that a mixing engineer needs to work alongside an artist to set the target for what good is. Without a clear target in mind, you’re just shooting blind.
This seems so obvious: know what sound you are aiming for. In reality, it’s a step that’s missed more often than not.
With that said, I won’t be giving you a magic formula. I’m a real live mixing engineer (check out some examples of my work here) and I want your mixes to sound good! So what I’m going to do is provide you with an outline. You’ll have to follow your instincts from there.
Now without further ado, here is my ULTIMATE guide to mixing vocals!
The ‘Loud and Proud’ Vocal
In this approach, you’re going to become best friends with the volume fader. Once the volume level is set, it’s pretty simple to figure out what else you need to do.
I’d suggest starting with the quieter vocals in the track. After you get those figured out, you’ll just be doing various small level adjustments of the other phrases. Using level automation will make it easy to bring loud phrases back down.
Cleaning up Vocals
Start with pre-insert level automation and change levels before you do any additional processing. If you’re using Pro Tools, open the Edit window, select the phrase and use clip gain to adjust.
We want to adjust levels pre-insert because we want the compressor acting evenly across the vocals. in other DAWs, you might need to place a utility plugin on the first insert space of the audio channel.
Once you get the phrases relatively even, you can use compression to lock it in. After this, there might still be pieces that jump out or fade too far back. There are lots of ways to lock in vocals. My method for this style of vocals is to set a fast attack and release, and turn the ratio high. Next, I turn down the threshold until the compressor is acting on every word. I then go back to the attack and adjust until only the words that jump out the most get any detectable compression. Last, I readjust the release to clean up any distortion from the compressor. At this point, breaths and sibilance will likely stand out too much. To counteract this, I’ll manually clip gain the breaths (or cut them out) and place a de-esser on the sibilances.
On to EQ: When I am treating for tone, I listen for something I want to get rid of, not something I want to enhance. I do my EQ early on in the process. Sometimes I hear something I want to get rid of in the capture, sometimes it’s what the first round of compression has brought out.
When you’re looking to make a vocal clean and crisp, it’s easier to start with the clean part. Balance the tones and isolate the voice (get rid of the extra stuff) before you start looking at bumping up top end to add crispness, or low end to add weight.
The less I have to take out of a recording, the better. Exactly how much needs to be done to a vocal depends very much on how the vocal was recorded. For example, swapping out a mic will give you a very different capture. Because there are so many variables when it comes to vocal recordings, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to mixing vocals.
More Vocal Adjustments
After the cleanup is finished, it’s time to experiment with adjustments.
For “loud and proud” vocals, I generally go for a bright and full sound. I push the top end as far as I can without making the vocals sound too edgy. I like vocals to feel as weighty as I can without overdoing it. For this, I push the low range of the vocal I’m working with.
If I really want to push the envelope on getting the cleanest, punchiest vocals out there (Pop and Rap, I’m looking at you), I have a few tricks up my sleeve.
I’ll often use some multiband compression to get vocals clean. The drawback of being heavy handed with subtractive EQ is that part of the vocal will be removed as well. We can attenuate tones based on how much is there by using multiband. I’ve also used it to lock a tone in place. As useful as it is, multiband is not without it’s drawbacks. Transient smearing and audible phasing are just a few examples of artifacts that can come from this type of compression, so use with caution.
The last technique I’ll talk about here is reverb. When you’re looking at “loud and proud” vocals, less is more. Oftentimes, I’ll use no reverb at all. If I do use it, I prefer short plates tucked really low, or I go for quick delays as an alternative.
The Hidden Vocal
You might not have heard many examples of this type of vocal. We don’t hear lot of “hidden” vocals in mainstream music. In some cinematic Pop, R&B and Indie Rock, you’ll find some of this. The vocals in this style are, you guessed it, hidden inside the mix. It’s kind of like the “loud and proud” vocal, just less loud… and less proud.
A couple simple ways to make this vocal style work are to get rid of the extra compression layer and go for a more dynamic vocal. Reverb is key in this approach: be generous with the amount of reverb applied and the vocal will stay further inside the mix.
Interestingly, we do see some of this style in modern day Pop music, in combination with the “loud and proud” style. Often, a song will have a story-style verse (vocals front and centre), and shift to a hook with synth or distorted guitar. In this case, we actually want to keep the heavy compression. In fact, we may need to go even heavier on the compression so that the vocal still cuts. Bring in a bit of limiting, push the tone of the vocal slightly into the upper-mids, and you’ll be golden.
You may have noticed that I just told you to do something, and then told you to do the total opposite. This all goes back to the fact that when you are mixing, you need to work with what you have. Sometimes, to get a vocal inside the mix you’ll need to lower compression and up the reverb. Sometimes, you’ll need to do the complete opposite.
Welcome to the wonderful world of mixing!
Sometimes, you just need to get your hands dirty. Not all vocals need to be clean and clear. In fact, it’s often a ton more fun finding ways to mess stuff up. There really are a limitless number of ways to dirty up a vocal. Here are some tips to help you get it right:
- Clean up before you jump in the mud. Styling a vocal usually works better when you start with a relatively clean slate. Clean up your vocals before you go and mess them up. If you really can’t start with them clean, you can always try to tame things afterwards.
- Don’t settle for a plugin. Yea, they might sound cool to your 16 year old cousin, but the public wants something unique. Work at your craft and try to create something that isn’t already out there. Of course you’ll end up with a lot of swings and misses, but worst case you will be familiarizing yourself with your tools and finding ideas for later on.
The Quirky Vocal
At times, a vocal just screams to stand out. In these cases, throw everything I’ve told you out the window.
First, remember that not all vocals need to be processed beyond recording. I would stick these vocals in the “Quirky” section just because we are so used to hearing mixed vocals.
Then there are the vocals that are completely over processed. The secret to doing this well is, once again, to do it with an end goal in mind.
There is so much fun to be had in this. You can evoke so many feelings through the use of effects. Not only that, but strange processing choices can create a signature style. Roger Troutman used the talkbox to make his voice sound like a guitar. Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” vocal comes from a narrow chorus effect. Even AutoTune started out as a quirky effect on some Electronica tracks.
So to wrap this section up, just remember… The first rule of mixing vocals is: there are no rules for mixing vocals.
Whatever vocal style you’re working with, the key is to know what you want your listener to hear in the end. That’s the only way to know if you got it right. If you’re still unsure, visit us here so we can help!
Awesome! Talk to you soon.