Learn how to mix vocals. This guide offers 15 vocal mixing tips to help you achieve powerful and present lead vocals that cut through the mix.
How to Mix Vocals
Vocals are the most important part of a vocal mix. They are the focal point of a song and require the most attention. However, mixing vocals is challenging. There are endless techniques and tools used for treating vocals.
The genre, tempo, and vibe of a song also play a huge role in determining how to treat the vocals. Moreover, there are different vocal mixing approaches for the various genres and styles of music.
In addition, it’s essential to mix vocals with intention. Knowing how you want your vocals to sound is crucial. Having a direction in mind will help you make accurate mix decisions. Avoid making blind mixing moves.
These 15 suggestive vocal mixing tips will help you achieve professional sounding vocals. Learn how to add clarity, balance, and presence to your vocals with these general mixing tips:
1. Vocal Recording Quality
Working with a high-quality vocal recording that fits your song is crucial. 80% of what makes an excellent vocal mix is having a great sounding vocal. The remaining 20% is mixing. Before any processing, ensure you have quality sounding vocal material.
2. Mix Vocals in Context
Avoid mixing your vocals in solo! The goal is to make your vocals sound good with all the other parts of a song. It will be difficult to make good mixing decisions with your vocals in isolation. It’s also a good idea to bring in your vocal early. Then make your processing decisions based on how they sound in context with everything else!
3. Remove Unwanted Noise
Before applying effects, go through the entire vocal track and make sure there are no unwanted noises. Listen for pops and clicks where two vocal clips meet. Create fades on clip edges or a short crossfade between the clips to remove those noises.
Also, listen for crackles, humming, and other unwanted background noises. If there is noise between phrases, cut them out and apply fades on the clip edges. Alternatively, you can use a noise gate plugin to remove unwanted background noise during quiet sections of a recording. Noise gates lower the volume of a signal when it drops below a certain threshold level.
Last, listen for breath noises, mouth clicks, lip smacks, and plosives. Sometimes these noises sound natural and add character to the recording. However, they can also seem annoying or distracting. Moreover, compression and other processing might emphasize these noises. You can remove or reduce noise by cutting them out or using specialized plugins like iZotope’s RX7 audio repair software. RX7 provides a suite of plugins that make it easy to eliminate unwanted clicks, pops, hum, and noise.
4. Fix Vocal Timing and Tuning
Vocal recordings can have timing and pitch imperfections. If there are noticeable tuning issues, pitch correct any questionable notes with plugins like Celemony Melodyne or Waves Tune Real-Time. After applying pitch correction, bounce the audio to save processing power during mixing.
You can also go through and fix any timing issues. DAWs like Ableton Live and Logic Pro have time-stretching features that make it easy to correct timing issues.
Remember to apply timing and pitch correction in the context of the song, rather than with the vocal isolated!
5. Split the Vocal Across Multiple Tracks
A vocalist will often sing in a different tone or volume for each section of a song. A dynamic vocal performance makes it hard to use the same EQ or compressor setting that works great for every part of a song. For example, a compressor setting that works in the verse may not work as well in the chorus.
A solution to this problem is to split the vocal across multiple tracks. Have a separate vocal track for the verse, chorus, breakdown, etc. This technique will give you more flexibility to treat each vocal track differently.
Moreover, you won’t have to deal with a bunch of complicated or time-consuming automation moves. It also makes it easier to maintain a consistent-sounding overall performance throughout the song.
6. Volume Automation
Vocal recordings are very dynamic. There are several loud and quite parts throughout the performance. It’s essential to control the dynamics so that the recording stays at a consistent level throughout the mix. Modern standards of production require the vocals to be consistent, present, and intelligible.
Controlling vocal dynamics often requires a mixture of volume automation and compression. Using gain automation to create consistency before applying compression is the cleanest and most transparent way to level out the volume of vocals. This technique also eases the load on your compressors.
Try going through the vocal track and automating the volume levels. Apply gain automation by inserting a gain plugin and manually automating the gain control. Or, try using a plugin like Waves Vocal Rider that automatically adjusts vocal levels.
How meticulously you go about this process is up to you. Some like to automate every word, while others prefer to adjust full sections. Either way, the result will give you a consistent performance that won’t require as much processing to cut through the mix.
7. Subtractive Equalization
EQing your vocals is a critical step. Equalization fixes problematic frequencies, creates clarity, and adds presence.
Subtractive EQing cuts unwanted low frequencies and harsh resonances. It’s best to remove problematic frequencies before compression. This way the compressor won’t accentuate those ugly frequencies.
Clean up the Low-End
Cut problematic low frequencies from the vocal with a high pass filter. Try cutting between 100Hz-300Hz depending on the vocal. Do this by ear! Remove enough of the muddiness without making the vocal sound thin.
Cut Harsh Resonant Frequencies
Use the EQ sweep technique to identify unpleasant or nasally sounding frequencies. First, boost a bell curve with a narrow Q using a parametric EQ. Second, slowly sweep up and down the frequency spectrum. Listen for harsh sounding spikes. Next, cut those frequencies by reducing the gain. Repeat the process to create a clean and pleasant sound. Also, be cautious not to go overboard. Too many narrow cuts can cause phase shifting and comb filtering.
8. Vocal Compression
The lead vocal is the loudest and most forward element in most modern mixes. It’s critical to keep the vocal performance consistent and present in the mix. Compression can smooth out the dynamic range of your vocal to maintain constant levels. It also adds loudness and helps shape the tone of the vocal performance.
It’s often better to apply compression in multiple stages. This technique is called ‘serial compression.’ Rather than using a single compressor with aggressive settings, use multiple compressors with subtle settings. The result sounds more natural and musical.
Several compressors work excellent on vocals. Two notable compressors commonly used on vocals are analog emulations of the classic 1176 and LA-2A. Both compressors have different tonal qualities and dynamics handling. However, the compressor and the settings you use depend on how you want your vocal to sound. Here are general compression tips to get you started:
The First Compressor
Use to catch the loudest peaks and to control dynamic range. Set a higher ratio and a harder knee. Then start with faster attack and release times. Adjust both controls to catch only the loudest peaks. 2-3dB of gain reduction during the loudest peaks is common. The compressor should only engage to tame the loudest peaks. Avoid squashing the life out of your vocal. Fast attack times can flatten transients and make your vocal sound lifeless.
The Second Compressor (Optional)
Use to shape the tone and to add character. Set a lower ratio and a softer knee. Then start with slower attack and release times. Next, lower the threshold to get 2-3dB of gain reduction. The goal is to squeeze the vocal’s dynamic range to smooth it out more while also shaping its tone. It’s common to use an analog modeled compressor like an LA-2A to add color and character.
9. Tonal Equalization
After doing corrective work with subtractive equalization and compression, try shaping the tone of your vocal with additive equalization.
Tonal equalization adds presence and character. For example, it’s common to boost the high end to add presence in pop and electronic music.
The best way to shape tone is with an analog modeled EQ, such as the UAD Pultec EQP-1A. Use a high shelf, and start with a 2dB boost at 10kHz. This technique adds excitement and will help the vocals cut through a dense arrangement.
Experiment with the frequency and amount of boost. Try boosting as much as 6dB from anywhere between 6kHz and above 10kHz. Keep it subtle and make sure it doesn’t become too harsh or brittle.
Moreover, be cautious about boosting areas causing frequency conflicts with instruments. If the vocal is competing for the same frequency space, cut a few dBs from the instrument instead of boosting the vocal. This method sounds more natural.
10. Saturation (Optional)
Applying small amounts of saturation or distortion can fatten up a vocal and help it cut through a busy mix. Saturation adds harmonics, presence, character, warmth, excitement, and cohesion. Also, saturation will make it easier to hear your vocals on small speakers like laptops, earbuds, and phones.
If you’re going for an aggressive sound, try sending the vocal to an aux channel or use parallel processing to apply heavier amounts of saturation. Then blend in the processed channel to taste. Parallel processing is an excellent technique that will give your vocals power and punch without affecting the original sound source. Remember, a little goes a long way!
11. Reduce Sibilance with De-essing
Sibilance is the “sss” or “ts” sound created by sharp consonants such as S, T, and Z. These consonant sounds can produce harsh resonant peaks. Also, compression and high frequency boosting can emphasize sibilance sounds. The best way to reduce unpleasant sibilance is with a de-esser plugin.
De-essers are specialized compressors that focus on a specific frequency range. They use a combination of equalization and sidechain compression to remove harsh sibilance sounds.
Insert a de-esser either before or after the compressor. However, placing the de-esser after the compressor towards the end of the effects chain is common. Next, listen for unpleasant sibilance sounds and set a frequency band to isolate the problematic area. Then, set the threshold to reduce that range when it becomes harsh. The de-esser should only activate during sibilance. If it activates at other times in the song, your threshold is too low.
12. Vocal Reverb (Optional)
Applying subtle, short stereo reverb adds width and depth to the vocal. Reverb can also put a dry vocal in a space, which sounds more natural and helps it sit in the mix better.
Whether you pick reverb or delay to give your vocal some space depends on the style of music and how upfront you want your vocal. Reverb sounds more natural, but it pushes the vocal back further in the mix.
Try applying subtle stereo plate reverb on the vocal to add width, depth, and brightness. Plate reverb has shorter decay times. Shorter decay times work best for avoiding a muddy mix. The reverb should fade out before the next phrase.
If you’re going for a modern vocal that’s upfront in the mix, you may not want the reverb to be noticeable. Start with the shortest decay time possible and a 30-100ms pre-delay to separate the vocal from the reverb. Next, slowly increase the mix control until you notice it. Then back off the mix amount slightly to achieve a safe amount of reverb.
Sending the vocal to an aux channel or using parallel processing is another option. This technique allows you to EQ the reverb before blending the processed channel. It also preserves the vocals punch and presence.
13. Vocal Delay (Optional)
Applying subtle amounts of stereo slapback delay also adds width and depth to the vocal.
Slapback delay is the best way to add space while keeping your vocals upfront in the mix. Slapback delay uses different delay times on the left and right side. A typical slapback delay setup has one side set to 50-200ms and the other side 20-50ms. Then the feedback is set to 0-10%.
Apply the delay effect by slowly increasing the mix control until you notice it. Then back off the mix amount slightly until it sounds right to your ears. Try to have the echoes fade away before the next phrase to avoid muddying up the mix.
Sending the vocal to an aux channel or using parallel processing is another option. This technique allows you to EQ the delay before blending the processed channel. It also preserves the vocals punch and presence.
You can also get creative by automating the delay amount and feedback on certain words or phrases. This technique adds excitement and variation.
14. Additional Effects (Optional)
There are several other ways to mix vocals with effects. The creative decisions are in your hands. Experiment with additional effects like chorus, flanging, pitch shifting, vocal doubling, multiband compression, limiting, and other creative effects.
Automation can also go a long way. Try automating your different effects throughout the vocal performance to add excitement and movement. Or, to emphasize words or phrases. There are countless possibilities!
15. Compare Your Mix with a Reference Track
Reference tracks are professionally mixed and mastered songs you use as a tool to measure your mix against.
Referencing is one of the best and most helpful mixing techniques to learn. Comparing your mix to a commercial ready track will help you achieve pro-sounding mixdowns and masters.
Reference tracks also guide your mix decisions. Quickly switch between your mix and a reference mix to help you identify what your vocals are lacking. This technique is an easy way to reveal problems you may not have noticed.
These suggestive techniques offer a starting point for mixing your vocals. They’re a general guide to help you make more informed mixing decisions. It’s encouraged to experiment. Try changing the order of the plugins and play with different settings. Last, remember not to go overboard. Learning to mix vocals with the least moves and plugins will give you more natural results. Good luck!