Everybody wants their vocals to sound as good as possible. It’s the most important part of any sound production because listeners will focus on the voice.
If you can’t mix vocals correctly, the end product will sound amateurish. There’s even a risk that it will turn people off your music. Nobody wants this because your track deserves more.
You can spend all of the money in the world on expensive equipment and recording gear, but one of the most beneficial steps is to practice sound mixing. Let’s run through the different steps you need to follow to enhance your vocals.
Check the guide out below.
1. Quality Recording
You can cover a Fiat Punto in gold paint, but it will never be a Lamborghini.
The same theory applies to vocals. Before you do anything else, you should make sure that you have a good recording. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
Record multiple takes. These should be at an average volume of – 18dB inside your software.
It’s worth investing in a good microphone because it will seriously improve the lead vocals. Also, practice standing at different distances from the mic to see what works the best.
These are tiny details, but they all add up!
2. Comping and Editing
Yes, we know, this is supposed to be about mixing. But before you get to that stage, you’ll have to do some editing.
It may seem strange to record multiple takes, but it’s a normal thing to do. Now you’ll want to edit the best parts of the individual recordings together to make a great one.
You can use as many takes as you want, or just the original depending on the circumstances.
Next, you’ll need to click a sub-track on your DAW and drag the mouse to select the best segments of each recording. This may seem complicated, but don’t worry because they have a crossfade that allows them to blend naturally.
The crossfade means that you won’t have to spend ages trying to adjust the volume. Some minor changes might be necessary, but it shouldn’t take a lot of time.
If there are any background noises, you can remove them too. Use a noise gate to mute the track when it is supposed to be silent. It makes it easier to isolate these moments for editing purposes.
3. Pitch Correction, Timing, and Tuning
This is an optional step depending on the situation. It might not even be necessary.
There may be some moments in the composite track where you’ll need to fix the timing. Use a scissor tool to fix these jarring moments so the separate tracks synchronize seamlessly.
If there are any imperfections or dodgy notes, you can fix them by using pitch correction software. Once again, this is down to personal preference and the vocalist’s style.
Pitch correction may be required too.
Any DAW like Logic Pro will have its plugin. Choose the correct notes on the scale and how quickly it should adjust the pitch.
Avoid total autotune because that just sounds bland and dated. Remember that imperfections can add to the overall authenticity of the song. Some vocalists like Marcus Mumford have a raw quality to their voices that makes them stand out.
Finally, you will have a multitrack that’s superior overall to any of your previous takes.
4. Gain Staging
Vocals tend to be incredibly dynamic. Listen to any song, and you’ll hear the lead singer fluctuate between a wide variety of tones in a moment.
Regular musical instruments usually don’t have this capacity.
However, the problem with this is that it can affect the audibility of vocals. You might need to give them a little bit of help so that they’re comprehensible. This is where gain staging comes into the equation.
Usually, this will combine volume fader automation and compression so that listeners can clearly distinguish every word.
Musicians sometimes drift away from the microphone or get too close. Editing might be required at this point too.
At this point, you can play with the volumes and pan the instruments until the song is more balanced. They may clash with the vocals, but it doesn’t matter at this point. Separate the vocals to another track because it will make it easier to work on them.
Next, it’s time to work on the vocals in isolation.
You will need to clean up any harsh frequencies and low-end build-up as these will affect the quality of the track. Start with the low end and use a high-pass filter to get rid of frequencies below 80 Hz.
We recommend the sweeping technique for other meddling frequencies.
Turn the Q up on one of the EQ bands and increase the gain. Then sweep through the available frequencies. If you hear anything wrong, stop and reduce the gain on the frequency. Finally, adjust the Q value to your requirements.
After subtractive EQ, you may want to boost some sections. Be careful because you don’t want these additions to sound too harsh.
Most people agree that it’s best to place a de-esser after your EQ.
Reduce sibilance by placing the microphone slightly off-axis. Another tip is to use a dynamic microphone. However, the easiest way is to get a de-esser to prevent them from getting too loud.
De-essers focus on a specific frequency range. They remove the harshness of the troublesome “S” and “T” consonant sounds in vocal tracks.
The good thing is that they’re easy to use. Just use the monitor to listen to the range you’re de-essing and find the harsh section. Set the threshold to turn these parts down.
Typically, problems occur between 3 kHz and 6 kHz for males and 5kHz to 8kHz for women. There are rare anomalies outside of this spectrum.
This is the last big step of the clean-up process. Now you’re ready to start making your vocals sound professional.
7. Vocal Compression
Most people will add compression in multiple stages. It makes sense because the result is more subtle and sounds better. This is called serial compression.
Unless you’re working with heavy metal, you probably won’t want to apply heavy compression.
The idea is to shape the tone of the vocals. Essentially, you want to reduce the loudest parts of the vocals and raise the quieter moments. This will improve the overall clarity of the vocals. It’s also the main difference between a recorded and live performance.
Let’s look at the four main settings to consider:
Threshold: This is the maximum volume level you have selected. When your vocals go beyond this point, they’ll automatically be reduced in volume. As you go through the other options, you may want to reduce the threshold more.
Ratio: The percentage you turn the volume down is called the ratio. A 5:1 ratio is recommended in the beginning but by all means, play with this as you go along.
Attack: When the volume goes beyond the threshold, the compressor will react. This is called the attack. It makes this change gradually and subtly. A slow attack makes for a punchier sound. Meanwhile, a fast attack creates a heavier result.
Release: When the volume drops below the threshold, this tells the compressor how quickly it needs to stop. Faster thresholds are usually preferable for vocals.
You don’t want to use the compressor throughout the entire vocal performance. Set the attack and release times on your compressor.
Begin with the slowest attack and the quickest release times. Normally, start with an attack of about 15ms. If you want it punchier or thicker, you can drop and increase it.
Gradually increase the attack time until you remove the initial transient of the vocal. Then decrease the release time so that the compressor is in time with the song.
Most sound engineers will use a series of compression.
After an initial faster compression, they’ll return to the vocals with a slower style. This helps to flatten out the dynamics.
The first compressor reduces the peaks while additional compression adds consistency.
You may even want to use parallel compression. This is particularly popular for modern vocals. It tends to remove the natural dynamics, but it all depends on the type of sound you’re going for.
Definitely play around with tracks and experiment when you have time! Adjust the tone of the vocals.
Depending on the specific genre, you may want to add aggressive boosts. If you’re dealing with backing vocals, you can compress them more aggressively too. This will push them behind the lead.
8. Adding Effects
After compression, you can choose to add a range of different effects. Let’s look at these now.
Reverb and Delay
These effects will add more space to your vocals. Reverb and delay will add more width. You can also add mono effects for increased depth.
Time the effects to the track’s tempo. Longer times make larger spaces, while shorter times do the opposite. It’s highly likely that you will use reverb and delay when mixing vocals.
This is an optional effect depending on what you want to achieve.
Saturation can make a voice more exciting and add cadence. Don’t overdo it because less is more. It’s a useful way to add new harmonics on the top end.
If you want maximum consistency after compression, then you might use limiting.
Remember to catch the very loudest peaks. You don’t need to go beneath these because it’s overkill. It will make the vocal bland and flat. Once again, it’s about striking a balance.
Use a slower release for more subtle limiting.
Cut out certain frequencies so that there is more space for the vocal to sit.
You don’t want backing instruments to drown out the vocalist. So you can cut them and reduce their frequencies. Even if you’ve already boosted the vocals, this may be a necessary step.
9. Volume Automation
Finally, you may want to enhance the automation to change the character and emotions of the performance.
You can use a midi fader for this role.
Play with different syllables and words to create emphasis on different words and phrases. Once again, less is more. You may even find your mood affecting your preferences.
10. Genre Specifics
Let’s look at the varying approaches taken when mixing different genres. As they have vastly different sounds, it’s good to be familiar with the changes.
Rock: The vocals sit further back with more body and less top-end.
Jazz: Nobody likes processed jazz, so be subtle and allow the dynamics to stand out.
Pop/R’n’B/Electronic: These are the most processed sounds. It’s likely you’ll add more effects and consistent dynamics.
Hip Hop: Treat it more subtly than pop. There should be fewer effects and more aggression in the upper mids.
Metal/Hardcore: Go wild with the compression because you want an aggressive tone. Also, add more body and high mids.
It’s best not to add too much compression for lighter genres. The likes of jazz and alternative rock tend not to benefit from it.
Try not to use too fast attacks in the beginning. These will squish the start of words and make them less clear.
Mixing is a fun process that will make your songs sound more professional.
There’s a clear difference between mixed and unmixed vocals, so it’s something to get to grips with. If you have the time, try making as many recordings as possible because this will give you a wider pool to draw from. Then go to town on the different steps.
Believe it or not, this is as important as actually playing music or singing. It’s a creative role that ultimately delivers the result to the majority of listeners. You could have the best vocalist in the world but without a sound engineer, it doesn’t mean anything.
The last point to remember is to get to know your genres because of their different requirements. This will save you time in the future and round out your skills.
Enjoy your vocal mixing journey!