As a music producer or engineer, it's important to get the vocals to sound just right, as they are often the focus of a track and carry the lyrics and emotion of the song. A well-mixed vocal can make a record unforgettable, while a poorly mixed one can ruin the listening experience. In this article, I’ll share some tips and techniques for getting the vocals to sit in the mix and shine.
Pull out muddiness for a cleaner and up-front sound
To bring the vocals up front, try cleaning up muddiness. Reduce the low-end and lower midrange frequencies where the vocal is boomy and dark. This will make the vocals sound clearer and more defined. Be careful not to remove too much, as this can result in thin and harsh vocals. The body of the vocal, usually around 200-400 Hz, affects how big and close the vocal feels. This area is often exaggerated when recording an artist close to the microphone (proximity effect).
One effective method is to use a dynamic EQ or a multi-band compressor, or a combination. This stabilizes and controls the muddy part.
Smooth out the vocal by de-essing
S-sounds can sometimes stand out and cause vocals to sound unnatural and too aggressive in a mix. To fix this, you can use a De-Esser or a multi-band compressor with an automatic release time or one that matches the BPM of the song.
For a more transparent sound, try using two De-Essers in a row, each targeting a different frequency range (such as 3-7 kHz and 8-20 kHz). Adjust the threshold and gain reduction for each De-Esser to control the harshness in those frequency ranges. By using these techniques, you can help the vocals sit smoothly in the mix and avoid any unpleasant or unnatural-sounding esses.
Create pockets for the vocals to sit in the mix
To create space for the vocals in the mix you can use a technique called frequency slotting. If you find that the vocals are not sitting well, try cutting some instruments around 300 Hz and/or somewhere between 1-5 kHz. Mixing in mono can make this process easier, as masking frequencies are easier to hear. To make even more space for the vocal, try panning the instruments away from the center, where the vocal is sitting.
Controlled vocals with serial compression
After cleaning up the vocal with EQ and a De-Esser, it's time for compression to control the vocal and make it sit in place. One of the best ways to do this is by applying serial compression. Serial compression is a technique that involves using multiple compressors in a row to create a punchy and upfront sound without over-compressing.
- First, use one compressor to apply some mild compression to tame the initial transients and loudest peaks of a sound. For this step, use a fast attack and fast release.
- Then, use a second compressor to smooth out the sound further. To achieve this, start with a 2:1 ratio and 2–5 dB of gain reduction with each compressor.
- Adjust the makeup gain to match the same peak level as the signal has without compression, so you can hear if you’re getting the right sound out of the compressor.
One of the biggest benefits of serial compression is the ability to blend different tones of different compressors together.
Upfront vocals with parallel effects
Pull the vocals to the front with parallel compression
When mixing vocals, parallel compression (also known as New York compression) can be an effective way to bring the vocal to the front and center of the mix. To do this, create either a duplicate of your vocal track or create an aux track and send your vocal to it. On this track, heavily compress the vocal with a gain reduction of around 10 to 20 dB and blend it to taste with the main vocal sound.
Any compressor can work for this, but I find that the UAD 1176 (or Waves CLA-76) works very well for this. I usually go with a rather fast attack and slow release time when using parallel compression. To enhance the vocals even further, you can use saturation or distortion on the parallel compression track to achieve a more extreme effect.
Excite the vocal with parallel distortion and saturation
Another technique that can help to give vocals more presence and bite in a mix is to layer the main vocal with a saturated or distorted version of it. To do this, you can create either a duplicate of the vocal track or an aux track where you insert a distortion or saturation plugin and turn up the drive. Pull down the level of this duplicate/aux track completely and start blending it in slowly.
This distorted layer can add some extra edge and presence to the vocal, helping it to stand out in the mix. When using this technique, it's important to be careful not to overdo it, as too much distortion can quickly become unpleasant to listen to. If necessary, pull back some over-enhanced frequencies with an equalizer on the duplicate/aux track. By finding the right balance and using this technique sparingly, you can add some extra punch and excitement to your vocals.
Thicken the vocal with pitch effects
A subtle chorus effect on an aux channel can help to widen the vocal and give it a bigger sound. The approach here is similar to the previous one - pull down the level of the channel and slowly blend it in with the original vocal.
My favorite setting for this is Jaycen Joshua’s “Air France” aux preset, which consists of a chorus, a compressor, and an EQ (low shelf, 300 Hz dip, 6.5 kHz boost). My version of this preset is the SoundToys Microshift, Waves H-Comp, and FabFilter Pro-Q 3. If you have these plugins and use ProTools, download this preset for free here.
Another trick for adding fullness to vocals is to layer them with a duplicate of the vocal that has been pitched down an octave (-12 semitones). You can also experiment with different pitches to create harmonies and add even more thickness to the vocal. Some good settings to try include -3, -5, -7, and -9 semitones. By using this technique, you can give the vocals a more powerful, full-bodied sound. Great tools for this are the Soundtoys Little Alter Boy and the Waves Vocal Bender (save an extra 10% at Waves with this link).
Make vocals sit in the mix with automation
The best way to get vocals to sit in the mix is through volume automation. Identify where the vocals are out of place (too loud or too low) and automate these parts instead of making changes to the overall vocal chain, which can change the vocal sound as a whole.
Set the monitoring levels first
The way we hear sound changes depending on how loudly we are listening. When the volume is high, our ears are more sensitive to high and low frequencies. But when we listen at lower volumes, these frequencies become harder to hear and we instead focus more on midrange frequencies.
The midrange is an important range of frequencies to pay attention to when mixing vocals, as this is where the vocals tend to be. To get a better sense of the vocals in your mix, try turning down the volume and listening at lower levels. This can help you to make more precise volume and automation adjustments and can give you a clearer sense of how the vocals are sitting in the mix.
Clip gain before processing the vocal, volume automation after
One way to automate the vocals is to use clip gain. It's important to know the difference between clip gain and channel volume automation.
Clip gain changes the level of the vocals before they go through the inserts of the channel, while channel volume automation changes the level after the inserts.
So, you can adjust your vocal parts using clip gain before processing the vocal. Then, use volume automation as one of the final stages to make the vocals sit correctly in the mix, considering all sections and elements that push them back or pull them to the front.
Splitting into sections
An efficient way to adjust vocals is to split them into separate audio tracks for each section of the song (such as the verse, bridge, and hook). By using separate tracks, you can quickly and easily adjust the levels of each section to get the right balance and make the vocals sit smoothly in the mix, and ensure that they are audible and well-defined throughout the song. This can be particularly useful when working with complex arrangements or songs that have multiple vocal parts that need to be balanced carefully.
Sidechain the music to the vocal
In addition to frequency slotting, you can use sidechain compression to create space for the vocals in the mix. This technique involves using a multi-band compressor to automatically reduce the volume of certain instruments or groups whenever the vocals are present. This can help make the vocals more prominent and intelligible. I usually compress the instrument bus only, so as not to lose the energy and drive of the track, which is often found in the drums.
A useful tool for implementing sidechain compression is a plugin called Trackspacer. This plugin allows you to easily sidechain instruments or groups/busses by feeding the vocals into the sidechain input. Instead of turning down the entire instrument, Trackspacer will only reduce the important frequencies of the vocals on the instrument or bus/group track, resulting in a more transparent sound.
Automating backing vocals
You can also use these techniques with your backing vocals to create space for the lead vocal. If you're introducing new backing vocals or harmonies in the chorus, you can start them a bit louder to make their entrance noticeable, and then bring them down a bit to free up the mix. Another option is to pull back 1-3 kHz on the backing vocals to make the lead vocal more present.
In summary, there are many ways to get vocals to sit well in a mix and make them shine. By following the tips and techniques outlined in this article, you can create a clear and upfront vocal sound that complements the rest of the track. Don't be afraid to experiment with different approaches and find what works best for your mix. With a little practice and attention to detail, you can achieve professional-sounding vocals that help your tracks stand out.
It's important to remember that every mix is different, and the techniques that work for one track may not work for another. It's also important to listen to your mix at various levels, as we hear differently at different volumes.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section!