Most modern music has ONE focal point: the vocals. Everything else, such as the production, the mix, the master, is generally meant to support them.
In today’s busy arrangements, it can seem daunting when it comes to mixing the vocals. This is especially true if all you have to work with are vocals and the dreaded stereo instrumental mix. You’re stuck, right? There’s not much you can do to make the vocals sit well in the mix…
Despair not, I’ll show you a way. If you’re the one singing, you might be tempted to bury the vocal in the mix. Yet, people want to hear your vocals more than they care for the synth parts, right? In this blog, you’ll learn how to help your vocals cut through the mix.
Before getting started
First things first: check the recording itself. If there’s a lot of room in the recording, you can use iZotope RX De-reverb to tame some of it. If RX is out of your budget, go for a transient designer and gently bring down the sustain of the signal. Do it line by line, as necessary, because you can ruin long, sustained notes this way.
Number 1: The mute button
When you’re the one mixing both the instruments and the vocals, one of your best friends is the mute button.
When a less experienced artist produces their own music, there’s a strong chance of there being too much going on throughout the song. The intro’s arrangement is thick, but so are the verses and the choruses. The vocal doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
Your first port of call should be the mute button. See if there’s anything that competes with the vocal. Then mute it. If that element happens to fulfill the role of a pad, you might be able to get away with having it muted throughout most of the song.
If not, you can definitely bring it down in level until it doesn’t interfere with the focal point of the song anymore.
Number 2: Automation or clip gain, and a VU meter
We’ve all recorded a wonderfully talented singer who’s all soul and emotion. Come mix time, you might’ve noticed that her vocals seem to disappear here and there. What you need to do is make sure the vocal level is consistent, yet dynamic.
Get a LUFS meter. We created LEVELS which has a plethora of essential mixing and metering tools, including a LUFS meter.
Instantiate the LUFS meter on the vocal track.
Aim for a fairly consistent short-term LUFS reading.
Keep the vocal level around ±4LUFS Short term for a very consistent sound. It’s fine if the needle occasionally goes under or over. And when the vocal is not present, the short term reading will go down as it analyses loudness over a moving 3-second window.
You can either do the leveling via clip gain, or a volume/trim plugin. If you decide to go with a plugin, make sure it's the first one in the processing chain.
If the singer is very dynamic, you’ll have to use a compressor as well to tame it a bit more. If you bring down the vocal too much using clip gain or automation, you’ll start hearing its tone change. This is due to the Fletcher-Munson curve, and you definitely don’t want the vocal to lose body or top end.
Number 3: Mastering The Mix’s MIXROOM
MIXROOM is a bit of a secret weapon because it’s a smart EQ. How smart? Very. The plugin first analyzes the audio signal. Following that, it suggests which frequencies to tweak, based on EQ targets.
The targets are based on professionally recorded and mixed vocals from hit songs. However, the preset is unique to your mix because it’s reacting to the incoming signal. You can use it in one of three ways. One of them involves you using it as a standard, albeit prettier-in-3D-than-in-2D EQ.
Second, you can rely on the preset EQ targets, then tweak your vocal from there. For a rock track featuring a female vocal, I’d go with the labeled “rock female vocal” EQ target.
Third, you can import an acapella into the plugin, one that’s representative of the sound you’re aiming for. This could be a vocal from another mix of the same artist, from a song they love the vocal tone you achieved for.
Check out this video on how to use MIXROOM to elevate your vocal tracks:
A lot of audio industry visionaries say that smart plugins are the way of the future. By dealing with some of the mindless technical aspects of mixing, they can enable us to be more creative.
Number 4: Traditional processing
A word of advice: start your static mix with the vocal, then build the rest of the arrangement around it. This way, you’ll have an easier time keeping it the focal point of the song.
After clip gain, traditional processing such as compression, EQ and saturation should be your first port of call in your quest to get your vocals to cut through the mix.
Here’s how I approach this:
1. With EQ, you want to first clean up the undesirable frequency content in your vocal track. Think low end rumble, low mid mud, midrange nasality, high-midrange harshness at around 2kHz, maybe even some sibilance from 5kHz and higher. On second thought, it’s best if you use a de-esser to deal with sibilants.
2. De-essing at this stage prevents sibilant information from being exacerbated by the compressors later in the chain.
3. Hard compression or limiting is generally used here to clip off a couple of dB from the loudest parts of the vocal. A fan favorite is an 1176-type compressor set to fast attack and release. An alternative would be a brickwall limiter. The two tools tend to sound slightly different from each other, so experiment and decide which you like best.
4. EQing at this step of the process is all about making moves to enhance whatever you like in the vocal. Here’s where many engineers use emulations of analog gear made by companies such as Neve or API. Boost the low mids, bring up the highs and add a bit of top end sparkle.
5. Remember to dip around 5kHz if you do boost the high end, so you don't (re)introduce harshness into the vocal sound. I suggest you go with RESO, which allows you to push the high-mids without making your vocal sound harsh and unpleasant. You’ll get bright vocals, without being punished with an icepick to the brain.
6. Compression for leveling purposes is generally done using an optical compressor, such as an LA-2A. You’ll want to start by setting the processor to slower attack and release settings. A low ratio and a high threshold (relative to the audio input) will bring both the level extremes of the signal closer together, making the vocal more consistent in the mix. This is where sibilance could’ve become a problem if you wouldn’t have dealt with it earlier. In case sibilants find their way back into the mix, use a second de-esser, instead of cranking the settings on the first one. Subtle, serial processing is more transparent than large, forceful moves are.
7. Sometimes, parallel processing is the only way to achieve your goal when trying to bring your vocals to the front of the mix. Think parallel distortion, parallel compression, or stereo widening using the GROW module of ANIMATE.
8. Lastly, you can use spatial effects such as reverb and delay to draw more attention to the vocal. Make sure you use these as sends so you have complete control over them. The size of the reverb is usually decided by the tempo of the song. Faster songs need smaller spaces, like rooms. Slow songs enjoy halls and chambers.
Number 5: Mid-Side Dynamic EQ
Mid-Side processing can seem a bit daunting, especially if you’re newer at this. Fear not, I’ll go over the basics in a second.
In short, a stereo audio signal can be split into left and right channels, or it can be separated into mono and stereo information. The mid signal contains all the elements that are identical in both the left and right channels. Sounds panned to the center, hard left or hard right fit this bill.
The side signal contains the difference between the left and right channels. Spatial effects such as stereo reverb, stereo modulation effects (think chorus), and instruments that have been recorded using stereo microphone techniques that are hard panned contain information that exists in the sides of the mix.
Now for the dynamic EQ part of the subtitle. A dynamic EQ changes the sound by dynamically changing the gain of an EQ band. The EQ analyzes the signal coming into the processor and automatically raises or lowers different EQ bands to maintain a more consistent frequency balance.
Let’s move on to how to use a mid-side dynamic EQ to help your vocals cut through the mix.
My go-to dynamic EQ is FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3. You want to set your vocal as the key for the plugin. Another way of saying this is "sidechaining the vocal to the instrumental".
Open up the plugin on the instrumental track, if you’re working with a vocal+instrumental.
If you’re working with full multitracks, I recommend you buss all your instruments together, MINUS the drums. This way, you won’t be affecting the backbone of the song, aka the drums.
Sidechain the lead vocal to the plugin so it only dips the midrange whenever the vocal’s playing.
Create an EQ band, with a medium Q.
To find the center frequency for your EQ band, you can do the old boost-and-sweep trick. Boost the EQ band and move it around until you find the point where the instruments mask the vocal the most.
You want to create enough space in the instruments to fit the vocal in there. Usually, the center frequency is between 600 and 1000Hz. Rarely, I find it somewhere around 300Hz.
Make sure the EQ band is set to MID so you’re only affecting the center information of your "all music" buss.
Lastly, set the processor so the EQ only reacts to the vocal.
Check your plugin’s manual if you’re unsure of how to tweak the settings to achieve the desired effect.
Number bonus: Flip. The. Polarity.
Now this is a weird one. Once in a blue moon, during the static mix stage of the process, I realize that I can’t fit the vocal in the mix, no matter how much I try. I usually then flip the polarity of the vocal.
I’ve generally encountered this issue when mixing midrange-heavy songs. In these cases, it very rarely happens for the vocal’s and the instruments’ frequency content to be partially canceling each other.
Mind you, I flip the polarity on the audio clip/region/event/item itself. If you can't do that in your DAW, use a utility plugin as the only active processor on your vocal track, then flip the polarity. Render/bounce/export the vocal, then continue building your mix.
In most cases, going this far is unnecessary, but hey…you might find this trick useful every now and then.
You’ve learned a few ways to make your vocal cut through the mix, no matter how dense it might be.
Remember that the listener wants to hear the vocal loud and clear. They might enjoy the drum or guitar sounds you got, but they most likely won’t start beat-boxing the chorus drum groove while showering…right? Keep the focus on the vocal and you’ll be golden.
Have fun and treat your clients right!
By Mastering The Mix Contributor - Tiki Horea
Starting off as a drummer and continuing as an engineer, I've been involved in the music industry all of my professional career. I fell in love with mixing and mastering other artists’ music. Every musician deserves to get goosebumps when they listen back to the finished mixes. This is what gets me up in the morning.