Vocal Mixing Skill Stack - Quick Jump Menu:
Vocal mixing is, as you can imagine, an essential skill-stack for music producers to have.
It's also, as you probably know by now, one hard talent to develop.
We all want a reliable ability to mix vocals that are:
Caveat: You probably also know by now that a top quality vocal mix starts with a top quality vocal recording. There's no way around it. The quality of your recording depends on the ability and performance of your artist, the space you record in, the recording chain you use and the way you use it.
Can you make a sub-par vocal recording sound good? Sure, with a fair bit of effort and skill. It won't ever be great though, because great starts at the source.
This post doesn't cover recording. You'll find below a brief introduction to the 11 main production skills you need to stack to develop your talent for mixing vocals. In addition you'll find step-by-step instructions for basic production techniques you can apply straight away. You'll also discover popular vocal mixing plugins under "Tools of the Trade" below.
Sometimes your vocals need to be clean and airy. Sometimes they need to be crunchy and thick. Sometimes you need them tight and sometimes a bit loose. The vocals need to work with the track and this will be different for each track you mix. The only requirement is that it works with the mix.
This means there is no cookie-cutter advice that applies to vocal mixing. You cannot say "compress with these settings, EQ here, here and here and always add [insert name of vocal mixing plugin here].
Every track is different and requires a different approach.
That said, there are certain vocal mixing techniques you'll use every time you mix vocals. Your ability to use these skills together is what counts. So, let's dive right in:
Wouldn't it be nice if vocalists could lay down a perfect take, first time, every time? Ah, one can dream! In real life this rarely happens. In most cases you'll have 3 to 5 separate takes of the vocal to work with. Your job is to take these different vocal takes and produce one lead vocal track from the best parts of each take. This process is called comping, which is short of course for compiling.
Pay attention to the vocalist's delivery when you audition takes. You want a
take that's clear, in pocket, in tune and has the emotion you want
for that part of your track. You
may find that you have to sometimes combine parts of a phrase from
different takes. You may also need to replace a single word in a phrase
In any event, the result should be a single comped track with all your best takes for each phrase. Once you have your comped track it's a good time to clean your vocals and add cross-fades between your audio samples to make sure you have a clean main vocal track to start your vocal mixing process with.
You probably know by now that vocals are rarely panned far from dead center in most
It doesn't however stop there. You can use panning in subtle ways to widen your vocal. Add some layering to this and your vocals can be just as thick, juicy and wide as you want.
It's best to check to make sure you don't have phase issues after this. A good phase meter and mono check will do the job. You can add more doubles if needed. You may want a thicker vocal, or you may want to emphasize only certain phrases or words. Tweak the above technique to taste.
The level of your vocal determines how up
front the vocal is in your mix. Lower the level and your vocal sinks
back in your mix. Push up the level and the vocal moves forward.
The mission here is to get you main vocal to sit right.
So, how do you know what's right?
It has to work with the rest of the track. So, listen to the other tracks as you adjust the level of your mix instead of focusing on the vocal track you're setting the level for. This helps you hear the mix as a unified whole.
Remember, you just want to shoot for the best overall initial static level.
may still do rides on the fader with automation or adjust your level
with compression as you mix. The first step is however just to get the
rough mix going.
It's a good idea to make use of a reference track at this point to know what works for the genre or style you're mixing. Just remember to adjust the loudness of the commercial track down a bit to match your track.
Once you have a good static level, you can move on to automation to improve your overall vocal dynamics and consistency.
Here's a vocal mixing fact you can take to the bank:
Professional mixing engineers automate, a lot!
It started with vocal riding back in the days. Now DAWs allow you to automate pretty much every parameter and most plugin parameters as well. This means you're not restricted to level automation. You can automate processors like EQ to create filter sweeps and effects. You can automate effects like reverb and delays to do throws.
Start with basic volume automation to prep your vocal for the compressor. This will make it easier to get a consistent even response from your chosen compression settings.
The technique is simple. If a word or phrase jumps out at you too much you pull it down a few dBs. If it vanishes in the mix, give it a slight boost. Try boost the first word in the chorus for more impact. Try bring out the breath at the end of phrases for accent. You get the idea.
Level automation allows you to:
Vocals will be compressed, often at multiple points in the process. How much you compress depends on the track and also the genre you're mixing.
Most pop, dance and hip-hop vocals today are squashed to hell and back, and then squashed a bit more. Less so in lighter genres like jazz and folk.
Compression is a subject for another huge post later on. Here's the 40,000-foot overview in the meantime:
What to listen for:
lower ratio of about 2:1 is best on vocal because that means you're not
squashing the life out of your track. It's not unusual to see 8:1
ratios on vocals.
You may want to rather load up two compressors in series and use lower ratios on each. So, for 8:1 compression you may use one compressor with a 2:1 and another with a 4:1 ratio. That gives you a 8:1 compression but splits the workload between two compressors which tends to sound nicer than using one compressor. Added bonus, you get to impart a different tone to the sound due to the mechanics of each compressor being slightly different.
There will be times where you want to maintain the dynamics of the vocal while adding a bit of body to the tone.
This is where parallel
compression can work wonders:
The above technique allows you to keep the main vocal dynamic while you
add body or tone with the compressed duplicate track or send/return.
Compression issues to listen out for on vocals:
Another form of compression useful for vocal mixing is de-essing...
Sharp vocal sibilants can ruin a mix. Too little sibilance however and your vocal becomes unintelligible.
You can of course use your EQ to remove frequencies between 5kHz and 12kHz. The problem with this is that it cuts those frequencies out for the vocal the entire time.
De-essers are frequency-specific compressors which allow you to remove sharp sibilance whenever it occurs. This
is done by compressing a specific band of frequencies every time they
cross a threshold you've set. So, you don't have to cut out those scratchy 5-12kH-ish frequencies out of the vocal completely, only when they misbehave. Nice!
Experiment with your de-esser in different positions in your vocal mixing chain. It's often near the end of the vocal chain to remove any sibilance issues caused by processors and effects in the chain.
Multi-band compression can also work wonders on a vocal. You can use it instead of an EQ. More on that in a future post.
Every vocal you work with will have a unique timbre. This means your EQ
moves will be different each time because it depends on the frequency
content present in your vocal recording.
There will be times where you may struggle to get it right with a high-pass.
In this case you may want to try a low-shelf filter instead because this doesn't cut as drastic as a high-pass. Combine this with a slight bell/parametric boost at or just above the cut-off point to bring back more body.
Specific issues and where to hunt for them:
Ignore those frequency charts and one-size fits all solutions. Think of your EQ spectrum in terms of the main bands when you process your vocal and make sure each main band is exactly as you want it to be before you move on. See this post about frequency bands.
Reverb can create a sense of space and depth in your mix. It also
creates the effect of pushing the vocal back in the mix. This is
because we associate natural reverb with distance to the source in real life.
It's not unusual for new producers to slather reverb on everything, especially on vocals. Pay attention to most good commercial releases and you'll notice that reverb isn't used all the time on everything.
You want to be specific about when, where and how you add reverb to your vocal. You don't want to slap a reverb on your vocal's insert and just leave it there.
The key word with reverb is control. That's why we use sends and not inserts. That's why we EQ and compress the reverb. It's all about control.
Reverb and EQ:
EQ allows you to fit your reverb into your mix and maintain separation at the same time. It helps you avoid the dreaded muddy mix.
How you EQ is determined by the mix. You can roll off the bottom end and boost the the high end for a brighter reverb. You can do the opposite for a darker reverb.
Reverb and Compression:
You can do straight compression after your reverb plugin. You can also add side-chain compression. Straight compression allows you to tame you reverb return to keep it even and consistent. Side-chain compression allows you to automatically lower the level of your reverb as your main vocal increases in level.
Delay can work wonders on a dry, boring vocal. You can often achieve better results when you use delay instead of reverb because delay is less dense so you don't sacrifice as much space as you do when you use reverb.
Here are some ways to use delay on your vocal...
Accentuate or emphasize a word or phrase in your lyrics:
Create movement and interest in your mix:
Make your vocal sound bigger with a slapback delay:
Distortion allows you to add harmonics and body to your vocal. The key
with distortion is to keep it subtle and mostly use it on a parallel
double track instead of your original.
Distortion plugins come in many different forms. From bitcrushers to
overdrive units to subtle saturation plugins. All these are fair game,
especially when you're using them in parallel.
In a perfect world singers would hit the right note every time. This,
as you can imagine, is not usually the case, even with professional
artists. Luckily, we can tune vocals after the fact with pitch
How to tune vocals:
Don't just slap the pitch correction plugin in auto-mode on your vocal and leave it there. Instead find the offending notes and pitch them up or down individually. How you do this will depend on the vocal tuner you use.
I'll do an in-depth post on vocal tuning soon. In the meantime, check out this video by the marvelous Warren Huart in which he demonstrates tuning with Autotune:
You probably know that there are no hard "shoulds" when it comes to
subjective vocal mixing decisions. If it sounds good then it is good, right?
True. You can do what you want of course. There are restrictions to
keep in mind though, IF you want your vocal to compare to commercial
releases in your genre.
So, how do you decide what's good? You want some context to help you decide. That's where reference tracks come in handy...
Commercial releases have a track record. You can look at the numbers. YouTube plays, Spotify streams, sales figures and charts all give you an indication of whether it works or not. That, or maybe you just like the track!
Remember, released tracks have been mastered, so make sure you adjust the RMS level of you reference to match your own track so you compare apples to apples.
A plugin like Magic AB makes it easy to quickly A/B between your references and your own mix.
Mastery of the individual music production techniques in your vocal mixing skill stack will take time to develop. Now that you know the main skills you can easily figure out where you may need to spend more time to develop a solid skill stack.
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