If you primarily play an instrument you might not want to hear this, but vocals are in many ways the most important part of a song. To understand this, it helps to put yourself in the role of listener. Most people will first notice whoever is singing, rapping, and speaking over the instrumentation. Our brains hone in on language and search for familiar words and vocal tones. It follows, then, that we should want the vocals in our songs to stand out as well. Mixing vocals play a big part in this pursuit.
Mixing vocals well is a delicate dance. You need the vocals to stand out while also not overpowering the other song elements. You also need the vocals to remain at a consistent level throughout. These disclaimers shouldn’t intimidate you, however. Mixing vocals is a lot easier now than it was before with DAWs, plugins, and modern effects. And with these four tips, you should be well on your way.
1. Use compression when mixing vocals
As just mentioned, humans are anything but consistent. While some vocalists are better than others at maintaining a steady level, no one is perfect. In particularly dynamic songs, vocalists might sing very quietly in one part and yell in others. Despite this inherent difference in performance and volume, the listener will want to hear both parts equally well. You wouldn’t want to have to turn up your speakers during one part and then frantically turn them down during the other. In other words, we want consistency. One way to achieve greater consistency while mixing vocals is to use compression.
Vocal compression helps level the playing field, so to speak, to prevent extreme jumps in volume. Using a compressor while mixing vocals allows you to set thresholds in order to better control how loud the vocal audio will go. If a section of the song calls for the singer to really belt it out, compression can help keep those notes from clipping.
Compression is just part of the equation, however. It’s a good starting point, but further tweaking might be necessary. This can be done via mix automation, where highly specific sections can be altered in terms of volume, EQ, compression, and more.
2. Get the EQ right
Of course, there’s much more to good-sounding vocals than simply volume. Vocals also need to be sitting at the right frequencies to truly stand out. While every mix is different, we can follow a general rule to begin: cut anything under 80-100 Hz and consider boosting the 5,000-9,000 Hz range for clarity. There are several more frequency bands than this, and each one highlights a particular aspect of the vocal tone.
For instance, “muddiness” occurs at the 300-500 Hz range, and should be carefully cut, just not so much that the vocals become hollow. Nasal sounds occur around the 800-1,500 Hz frequencies while breathiness stands out at the 10,000-16,000 Hz range. It’s good to know a bit about mixing with EQ to understand where these tones fall, especially in the context of the song. This way you’ll be able to really nail down the type of vocal quality you seek in the mix.
3. Don’t leave them too dry
While it’s always a good idea to record vocals “dry,” mixing vocals is another story. “Dry” simply refers to the clean and un-affected signal. The opposite, “wet,” is the altered signal. The wetter the vocal, the more effects it has on top of it. Also, the heavier a particular effect is, the wetter the signal becomes.
If vocals aren’t met with some sort of effect they can become uninteresting and risk lazily blending in with the rest of the mix. The most popular effect for vocal mixing is reverb. Reverb helps accentuate and extend the vocal performance by providing a subtle reflective property to the signal. The level of reverb can be enhanced or reduced in the mix. Just be wary of using too much reverb, as the effect can become more distracting than anything. You want the vocals to stand out, but not in a way that takes away from the song.
Pre-delay is also extremely important when mixing vocals. This is a parameter of reverb that dictates how long it takes for the reflections of the sound to appear after the initial dry signal. Manipulating this aspect of reverb can help clarify the vocals considerably. You can have your cake and eat it too since the dry signal is heard clearly while the wet signal is also very much present. It’s really just a matter of how separate do you want your dry and wet signals to be.
Finally, delay can also be used when mixing vocals. Sometimes too much reverb can become muddy, resulting in a loss of clarity. Delay is a great alternative. Remember to set the delay tempo to the precise tempo of your song. You can also choose different note lengths (quarter, sixteenth, half, etc.) to alter how fast or slow the delay echoes. The delay effect can be panned to different degrees for a fuller, stereo sound. Other aspects of delay such as feedback and low pass filter can be adjusted as well.
4. Always keep context in mind when mixing vocals
When it comes to creating a better mix, context is always key. In a way, audio mixing is like piecing together a mosaic. Each part needs to work together, not against each other, to create a cohesive whole. Mixing vocals, of course, is no different. If you spend too much time mixing vocals in solo, you’ll start to lose the bigger picture. These vocals need to fit in with the rest of the song, after all.
Of course, it can be difficult to make small alterations without hearing the track all by itself. However, the song will have to work as a whole in the end anyway. If it helps, you can start by making big changes to the vocal track in context to get a better idea of where everything sits together. Once you have an idea, these big changes can become more and more subtle. It’s kind of like aiming wide and slowly honing in. Give yourself some room before nitpicking in context.
Vocals make the first impression. They’re what listeners latch onto, what carries the melody, and what conveys the song’s meaning. Because of this, vocals must stand out for a song to be truly effective and memorable. Mixing vocals is an important task, but one that nearly anyone can get the hang of with the proper tools and keen ears. If you want to avoid making vocal mixing mistakes, start with these four tips.
Give us your thoughts on mixing, recording, and even performing vocals! What do you think makes for a really stand-out vocal track?
If you enjoyed this post, check out mixing vocals to an instrumental for further tips!
About the Author
Ethan Keeley is a musician, voiceover talent, and writer from Rochester, New York. When he's not on tour with his band Unwill he's working on new songs and stories.
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