Mixing vocals is one of the most important aspects of producing high-quality music. Whether you're a seasoned engineer or just starting out, getting the vocals to sit right in a mix is always a challenge. If you've ever wondered how to achieve that radio-ready sound, this post is for you.
In this guide, we'll cover 8 vocal mixing techniques that will take your tracks to the next level. From EQ and compression to reverb and delay, we'll explore everything you need to know to create a polished and professional vocal sound that will stand out in the crowd. So let's dive in!
Here are 8 tips that will help you achieve the best vocal mixes of your life. Each tip is as important as the next so don't skip over any of them! These techniques are geared toward lead vocals but will work for any type. Let's first start with the actual recording.
The quality of the original recording has a direct correlation to the end result. Well-recorded vocal tracks provide a solid foundation for mixing and can save time and effort throughout the process. On the other hand, a poorly recorded track can make it challenging to achieve a polished vocal sound and can result in a subpar mix.
When a track is recorded poorly, there may be issues with background noise, distortion, or inconsistent levels. These issues can make it challenging to isolate or enhance the vocals, as well as create a clean and balanced mix. In some cases, it may be impossible to fix certain recording issues in the vocal mixing process, such as excessive background noise or distortion.
In contrast, a well-recorded track will have a balanced level, minimal background noise, clean sound, and be tonally pleasing. This provides a solid base for mixing and makes it easier to achieve polished and radio ready vocals. Always spend time getting your recording right and your mix will thank you in the end!
Related Article: The Top 5 Best Microphones for Recording Vocals In 2023
Mouth clicks, breath control, and noise are essential elements to consider when mixing vocals. These aspects affect the overall quality and clarity of the vocal sound and can make a significant difference in the final mix. To achieve studio quality vocals these issues must first be addressed.
Mouth clicks are audible clicks or pops that can occur when the vocalist's mouth is too close to the microphone or when the lips make contact with each other during singing. These clicks can be distracting and will take a listeners attention away from a song. It's important to remove these mouth clicks in the editing process using a plugin such as Izotope RX 10 Mouth De-click.
Breath control is also a critical element in vocal mixing. When recording vocals, the sound of the vocalist breathing can be audible and distracting, especially in quieter parts of the song. Breath control techniques can be used during recording to minimize these sounds, but they can also be reduced in the mixing process using techniques such as volume automation or gating. Try out Izotope RX 10 Breath Control.
Ambient noise reduction is another important aspect of vocal mixing. When recording in a studio or live setting, there may be background noise being picked up by the microphone. These unwanted sounds can be reduced or removed in the mixing process using tools like noise gates or de-noise plugins. My favorite noise reduction plugin is the Waves Clarity Vx.
Tip: Use a pop filter to help reduce sibilance, plosives, and mouth noise.
Sibilance is the term used to describe the hissing or harsh "s" and "sh" sounds that can occur when recording vocals. While sibilance is a natural part of speech and singing, it can be distracting and a turn off for listeners if it's excessive. This is where a de-esser comes in.
A de-esser is a tool used in vocal mixing to reduce sibilance. It works by detecting the specific frequencies where sibilance occurs and reducing the level of those frequencies. This helps to smooth out the vocals and create a more natural and polished sound.
To use a de-esser, first, identify the parts of the vocal track where sibilance is most prominent. You can do this by listening to the track and paying attention to any hissing or harsh "s" and "sh" sounds. This is often around the 7 kHz range. Once you've identified the problematic parts, apply the de-esser to the track and adjust the settings to reduce the sibilance.
Most de-essers will have controls for frequency detection, threshold, and reduction. The frequency detection control allows you to set the specific frequencies where sibilance occurs. The threshold control determines the level at which the de-esser will start to reduce sibilance, while the gain reduction control determines how much reduction will be applied.
It's important to use a light touch when using a de-esser, as over-reduction can lead to an unnatural or lisping sound. A good rule of thumb is to aim for subtle reduction that smooths out the sibilance without changing the character of the human voice.
Check out my current favorite de-esser plugin, the Slate Digital FG-DS.
Pitch correction is important in mixing vocals because it helps to ensure that the pitch of the vocals is in tune with the song's musical key and other instruments. When a vocalist sings slightly off-pitch, it can create a dissonance with the other elements of the song, which can make the vocals sound out of place or out of tune.
Pitch correction software can help to correct these issues by analyzing the pitch of the vocal recording and automatically adjust it. This can result in a more polished and professional-sounding vocal performance that is in tune with the rest of the music.
However, it's worth noting that pitch correction can also be overused and can sometimes result in an unnatural or robotic-sounding lead vocal. It's important for mix engineers to use pitch correction judiciously and to make sure that the final result sounds natural and musical.
Check out the best manual pitch correction software: Melodyne 5
Equalization, or EQ for short, is a fundamental tool in mixing that allows you to shape the tonal balance of instruments. EQ works by adjusting the level of specific frequencies in the vocal sound, allowing you to boost or cut certain areas to create a desired tonal balance.
To use EQ to shape the vocal tone, start by identifying the frequency ranges that need adjustment. This will depend on the individual voice and the style of music, but generally, the most important frequency ranges for vocals are the low frequencies (body), mid frequencies (presence), and high frequencies (clarity).
Here are 3 vocal equalization tips:
Begin by using a high-pass filter to remove any low end rumble or boominess, usually between 100-200 Hz. This will help to create a cleaner and more defined sound.
Boost or cut the mid frequencies to add or reduce presence in the vocal sound. The range of 1 kHz to 5 kHz is where most of the important midrange information lies. Experiment with boosting or cutting problematic frequencies within this range to find the sweet spot.
Adjust the high frequencies to add clarity or air to the vocal sound. Boosting frequencies above 5 kHz can add sparkle and shine to the vocals, while cutting in this range can reduce harshness or sibilance.
When using EQ, it's important to make subtle adjustments across the frequency spectrum and avoid overdoing it. Making drastic vocal EQ changes can alter the natural character of the voice, resulting in an unnatural or unbalanced sound. Instead, aim for small adjustments and listen carefully to how each adjustment affects the overall sound of the mix.
Related Article: EQ Cheat Sheet | The Only Guide You'll Ever Need!
Vocal dynamics refer to the variation in volume and intensity throughout a vocal performance. These dynamics greatly affect the emotional impact and clarity of the vocal performance. As important as these volume fluctuations are, they create major challenges in the mixing process. This is where level automation and compression come in.
Compression is a tool that can be used to reduce the dynamic range of a vocal performance. It works by automatically lowering the volume of the loudest parts of the performance, while simultaneously raising the volume of the quietest parts. This helps to create a more consistent overall sound and can prevent the vocals from getting lost in the mix.
Level automation is the process of adjusting the volume levels of individual tracks or sections of a mix to create a more consistent overall sound. In vocal mixing, level automation can be used to smooth out any volume variations in the vocal performance. This is particularly useful for sections where the vocals are particularly loud or quiet, such as during a chorus or bridge.
To use compression and level automation to control vocal dynamics, start by identifying the parts of the performance that require adjustment. This can be done by listening to the track and noting any sections where the vocals are particularly loud or quiet. Once you've identified the problematic parts, use compression to tame the levels and polish it off with level automation if need be.
To learn how to use vocal compression, check out this article:
Spatial effects, such as reverb and delay, can add depth and dimension to a vocal performance. However, applying the correct spatial effects can be challenging. By choosing the wrong effect or setting, a muddy or artificial sound can occur. Here are some tips for applying the correct spatial effects when mixing vocals:
Choose the Right Type of Effect: The type of spatial effect you choose will depend on the style of the music and the desired sound. Reverb can add a sense of space and depth to a vocal, while delay can create a sense of movement and rhythm. Experiment with different types of effects to find the right one for the track. NOTE: It's very common to use both reverb and delay together on vocal tracks.
Adjust the Amount of Effect: The amount of spatial effect you use can greatly affect the sound of the vocal. Too much reverb or delay can create a muddy or indistinct sound, while too little can sound dry and lifeless. Use your ears and adjust the effect amount until you find the right balance.
Adjust the Decay and Pre-Delay: The decay and pre-delay settings of a spatial effect can greatly affect the sound of the vocal. Decay controls the length of time the effect persists after the vocal has stopped, while pre-delay controls the amount of time before the effect starts. TIP: I like to use a large pre-delay on fast tracks. Sometimes as high as 166ms.
Consider the Environment: When choosing spatial effects, consider the environment of the track. A large, spacious reverb may work well for a ballad or slow song, while a shorter, more intimate reverb may work better for an upbeat, fast-paced track.
Use Panning: Panning can also create a sense of space and depth in a vocal mix. Typically your reverbs and delays will be stereo and panned hard left and right, but you can use automation to make them move. Also, don't be afraid to use a mono slap delay right up the center.
Tip: Using other effects such as vocal doubling, chorus, and phaser can add thickness and character to a vocal mix.
Mixing vocals in context means mixing the vocals within the context of the entire track, including all of the other instruments and elements that make up the song. This approach is important because the vocals are just one part of the overall sound, and their impact and effectiveness can be greatly influenced by how they fit within the mix as a whole.
Here are a few reasons why mixing vocals in context is important:
Helps Achieve a Balanced Mix: By mixing the vocals in context, you can ensure that they sit well with the other elements in the mix. You can adjust the levels of other instruments or elements that may be competing with the vocals, making sure that they don't overpower or get buried in the mix. This will result in a more balanced and cohesive mix.
Helps Create a Polished Sound: Mixing the vocals in context allows you to fine-tune the EQ, compression, and other effects on the vocals, ensuring that they sound natural and polished within the context of the overall mix.
Helps Enhance Emotional Impact: The vocals are often the most emotional and impactful element of a song, and mixing them in context can help to enhance their emotional impact. By ensuring that the vocals are sitting correctly within the mix, you can create a more powerful and emotional experience for the listener.
Helps Identify and Fix Issues: Mixing the vocals in context can also help to identify and fix any issues that may be present in the vocals or the mix as a whole. By listening to the vocals in context with the rest of the mix, you can identify any problem areas and address them accordingly.
Related Article: The 8 Best Vocal Plugins That Need To Be In Your Plugin Chain
In conclusion, vocal mixing is an essential aspect of producing radio quality tracks. It requires a combination of technical skill, creativity, and attention to detail to create a polished and professional sound that enhances the emotional impact of the vocal performance.
By following the eight vocal mixing tips outlined in this blog post, you will achieve a balanced, polished, and cohesive mix that highlights the vocal performance and elevates the overall sound of your tracks. Remember to take your time, trust your ears, and experiment with different techniques until you find the right balance for each track.
With practice and dedication, you can become a master at mixing vocals and take your music to the next level.
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