Fortunately, achieving a decent vocal mix doesn’t involve alchemy…
…However, there are definitely right and wrong ways of doing things when approaching your vocal mix. We’ll run through some tips that will make your vocal mixing experience much more pleasant in the short- and long-term.
We’re hoping to dig deeper and deeper into each stage of the recording process, so if you have any questions then don’t hesitate to get in touch through Facebook and Twitter if there are any topics that you want us to unpick.
Let’s get stuck in…
1. Vocals should be priority number one
If your tune has vocals, then it doesn’t matter how much time you’ve spent perfecting that snare, people are going to zone in on the singer. Sad but true my friend. Not everyone is going to criticize a flat sounding kick but if the vocals are rubbish, prepare for some “feedback” whether you like it or not.
2. Preparation and recording
Key to ensuring that mixing is easier later on is to capture a solid vocal recording in the first place. Whatever style of music you’re working on from clean cut pop to extreme metal, establish early on what you’re aiming for such as a crystal clear, polished studio-style or mirroring the energy of a live gig a la Tool or Lamb of God (see our article on “Unusual Recording Techniques”). Once you’ve got an idea of how you want your finished product to sound, you can start to create a road map of how to get there. Play around with different mics, different positions in the studio, and get your levels set before diving in. The key here is to capture as faithful a raw recording as possible – leave the processing until later and definitely don’t go near the effects.
3. Comping – working with what you’ve got
DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) allow you to edit recordings to your heart’s content, which enables you to hone your vocal track to perfection. Compiling or comping vocals allows you to capture multiple takes, which you can combine into a finished track. You can go as far as replacing individual words throughout an entire track or simply tidying up the odd thing here and there such as noise, pops, flat or sharp sounds, emotional feel, etc. A helpful approach is to capture a few vocals tracks that come as close to perfect as you can get. Between these you can build up a polished sounding final edit and knit them together using crossfades to prevent unwanted clicks or pops.
4. Mixing – don’t leave the vocals to the last minute
What we mean by this is don’t create your overall stereo mix with everything perfectly placed, then try to wedge in the vocals right at the end. You’ll start tweaking EQ here, there and everywhere only to find your once glorious mix sounding limp and lifeless. Mix the vocals in early on and you’ll be able to settle on a nice balance between everything rather than having a battle on your hands.
5. Solo a no-no
Alright, so you’re going to need to solo tracks every so often, but don’t make the mistake of processing a track in isolation. Imagine the horror of spending time getting your vocals to sound epic, only to find them fall through the cracks when you switch off the solo button.
6. Processing – don’t overdo it
A lot of boutique mics add a little boost to the high-end frequencies for capturing subtle harmonics, presence for clarity and “air” to benefits openness in the mix. For those without a boutique mic a quick way to achieve this artificially is by lifting the overall EQ around the 10 to 14kHz range. However, this can also shine a light on unwanted sibilance with hisses all over the shop. To be fair even without the high-end boost sibilance can still be an issue. Hence, the reason for de-essing plugins. As with other plugins there’s no need to go mad here, simply adjust the threshold to temper the worst culprits and rein them in. After all, you don’t want to lose the essence of the vocal.
Gain Automation and Compression
Unless you’re going for an extreme post-recording effect then aim to keep compression and other signal processing to a minimum to retain as natural a recording as possible.
When it comes to vocals they are as dynamic an instrument as you can get, going from whisper to scream at the drop of a hat (Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” anyone?) With that in mind it can be nice to use some subtle compression to keep things in check. Used in conjunction with some gain automation, and you’re onto a winner. Go through the vocal track in your DAW and set the gain automation with as much scrutiny as you wish – you could go as far as each word once again if you want that level of accuracy. Once that is set, then move onto setting the compression. You’ll achieve a less aggressive level of compression, which will in turn produce a nice and natural vocal take.
When applying compression start with slow attack and release times, then increase the attack time and decrease the release time until you’re left with the vocal character you desire. The key is not to squash everything into a narrow band but to shave things down for a more consistent response.
Fatten things up
Capturing a signal without unwanted clipping or distortion is the aim of the game, but what about when you want to thicken up a vocal? Well, applying subtle distortion or saturation after the fact can spice things up a bit. Rather than leaning on preamp gain for this, you can achieve the desired result by sending the vocal to an aux channel and applying whatever plugin effects you wish. You can apply an effect stylistically too but taking a copy of the vocal and pasting it to a separate track and applying the effect to it in certain parts of the song, e.g. bridge section.
Delays and reverbs
Less is definitely more in the case of delays and reverbs, as going overboard with either of these will either set the vocals way back in the mix or throw off timing in relation to the rest of the track. For a sense of depth and space though, you can’t beat them. A good rule of thumb is to apply shorter times so that the effect decay fades before the next phrase kicks in.
7. The circle of life (mixing life that is)
When applying processing you will quickly find out that it isn’t quite a linear journey, it’s rather more like a bungee jump. You will find that as you apply subtle touches to each filter it will have a knock-on effect with something else that will change something else and so on. The temptation can be to either walk away and sit in the pub and question why you bothered at all. But rather than doing that, make an effort to keep a log of everything that you do along the way. If something doesn’t work out quite as you planned, then go back a step in the process until you’re back at a point where you felt like you were on solid ground. There is something to learn at every step of the way, so enjoy it.
- Bad vocals stick out like a sore thumb so make them a priority
- Preparation is key to any recording process so plan ahead
- Comping can help tidy things up at the recording stage but help yourself by getting a few good vocals takes to play with
- Work vocals into the stereo mix early instead of wedging them in later
- Keep the use of the solo button to a minimum – mix in context with the other instruments
- Less is more when it comes to processing, don’t overdo it with effects, etc.
- Mixing is a circular rather than linear process and different steps will need to be repeated
- Keep a note of each stage and change in the process, go back a step if you need to
- A cup of tea with biscuits can be a great destresser
Hopefully, we’ve given you some points to mull over but this is just the start. If you fancy building up or adding to your studio setup then check out our Computer Music and Studio Equipment sections on the Dawsons website.
If you want any pointers, then get in touch with our Customer Service Team who are more than happy to help over the phone on 01925 582420. Our in-store specialists will guide you through all things recording related, just pop into your nearest Dawsons store.
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.