By Mastering The Mix contributor: Brad Pack.
Unless you’re mixing instrumental music, the most important element of every song is the vocal. It’s more important than the drums, the synths, and any other instrument in the mix. Yes, even the guitars (I’m looking at you, metalheads).
It may be tempting to bury the vocal in a mix, especially if you’re the one signing. But the truth is; people want to hear the vocal loud and clear. Nobody hums along to the bass part, right?
In this blog, we’ll break down some of our favorite tips for mixing vocals to help you dial in a radio-ready sound.
Step 1: Subtractive EQ
The first thing I want to accomplish when mixing vocals is to correct any problems with the performance or recording. Start by loading your favorite parametric EQ and cutting any frequencies that are causing problems.
I typically start with a high pass filter around 80 Hz and adjust as needed. Next, I’ll target any problems in the lows or low mids with a wide bell. If the top-end is particularly harsh, I may use a high-shelf to tame the highs a bit. But, I’ll likely leave most of that work up to the de-esser, which we’ll get to in the next step.
If you’re having trouble identifying which specific frequencies are causing problems, try using the frequency-sweeping technique:
Turn the Q all the way up on one of the EQ bands so it’s extremely narrow
Crank the gain so it creates a resonant peak
Use the frequency knob to sweep through different frequencies
This helps amplify problematic frequencies, making them easier to identify and remove. An even simpler option is to use REFERENCE, which gives you a sonic target to shoot for. By hearing what makes the pro vocal sound great, it helps you identify the flaws with the vocal you’re working on.
Step 2: De-Esser
I like to use de-essers as an extension of subtractive EQ. In most cases, cutting the highs with a bell or shelf makes a vocal sound flat and dull. Instead, I’ll use a de-esser to target sibilance between 5 and 9 kHz to help prevent a vocal from sounding harsh without totally sucking the life out of the performance.
Step 3: Compression (Peak Limiting)
After cleaning up any problem frequencies with the vocal, I like to use a peak limiter-style compressor (like a UA 1176, dbx 160 or Empirical Labs Distressor) with fast attack and release times to help tame any unruly transients.
I don’t want this compressor to be working all the time. I typically use multiple compressors in serial and parallel (more on that later), so I’m only looking to knock off 2-3 dB from the loudest peaks. I’ll use more compressors to help glue things together later on.
Step 4: Additive EQ
At this point in the mix, I shift my thinking from trying to correct problems with the vocal, to trying to enhance what I like about the vocal. Next, load up my favorite analog-modeled EQ plug-in to help add some color.
The specific frequencies vary from song to song, but I typically reach for something rich and warm like a Neve EQ to boost the lows or low mids, something punchy like an SSL channel strip to add midrange, and something bright and shiny like an API, Manley or Maag EQ to add high-end.
Step 5: Compression (Leveling)
Next, I’ll add another compressor to help add glue or punch to the vocal, depending on the song. For glue, I’ll grab something slow and vibey like a Teletronix LA-2A or Fairchild 670. For punch, I’ll probably use one of the peak limiters listed above.
For this compressor, I like to use slower attack and release times and more gain reduction to help create a more consistent vocal performance.
Step 6: Level In The Mix
Now that you’ve cleaned up any problems with the vocal recording and accentuated what you like about the track, it’s time to place the vocal in the context of the mix. However, it can be tricky to identify when the vocal is too loud or too quiet, which is why I like to use REFERENCE to help me find the perfect balance. Load up your favorite reference song and use the automatic level matching feature to make the comparison subjective. Listen to how the vocal sits in your reference track and adjust the gain of your vocal so it’s comparable.
I also like to take a listen in mono using LEVELS, which can be really helpful in setting a great level in the mix. Add LEVELS to your master fader and click the MONO button at the top of the plug-in to instantly hear what your mix will sound like in mono. Again, adjust the vocal gain so it’s comparable to the level of the vocal in your reference track.
Step 7: Special Effects
This step is a bit of a wild card. Think of it as the “cherry on top” of channel-strip processing. It’s all about adding that little something extra that helps make the vocal pop out of the speakers.
Depending on the mix, I may use a tape machine emulator to add saturation for a gritty, lo-fi vibe. I may use a stereo widening like GROW to add some exciting ear-candy. I may use a weird boutique plug-in to get some strange sound that no other plug-in can.
Just be sure not to over-do it with the distortion! That’s what parallel effects are for…
Step 8: Parallel Effects
I typically add two parallel signal chains to my vocal tracks. I don’t always use them in every mix, but they’re nice colors to be able to blend in with the original track.
First, I’ll create a new aux send with a gritty, colorful and fast compressor—typically a 1176 with the classic “all buttons in” setting—which I use to absolutely smash the vocal. Seriously, I’m talking 20+ dB of compression with super-fast attack and release times. This gives the vocal and exciting, aggressive sound when blended back in with the original take.
For even more color and chaos, I’ll add a second aux send with my favorite distortion generator. It might be a Thermionic Culture Vulture, an Ibanez Tube Screamer, IGNITE, or even a guitar amp simulator, deepening on the color I’m looking for. Blend a small amount of the distorted signal with the original to add harmonics and help the vocal cut through a busy mix.
Step 9: Send Effects
Now that the vocal sounds as good as it possibly can on its own, it’s time to start adding some additional layers to help fill out the mix. Send effects like reverb and delay are great for adding space and depth to a vocal. Create new aux channels with your favorite reverb and delay plug-ins and try out different settings and timings to find what works best in the context of the song. I typically like to use a room reverb for up-tempo songs, a hall reverb for slower songs, and delays to add interesting effects throughout the mix.
Step 10: Bus Compression
Last but not least, route all of your vocal tracks, parallel effects and send effects into a signal vocal bus and use your favorite bus compressor, like an SSL G-Series or TubeTech CL-1B. Attack and release times will vary depending on the track, but it’s best to use a low ratio (typically around 2:1) to apply 1-2 dB of consistent gain reduction. This helps glue all of the individual tracks together without noticeably affecting the dynamics.
By no means is this the only approach to mixing vocals. There’s no right or wrong way to make art. This is simply one approach that has worked well for me in the past. Hopefully, it works well for you too! Try these steps on your next session to help your vocals cut through the mix.