Home Recording Basics: How to Mix Vocals

When we began our Home Recording Basics series, we were just setting up the room, aligning our monitors and affixing acoustic treatments. Now, some four months later, we’ve recorded drums, guitar, and software instruments, EQ’d, compressed, and mixed our instrumental tracks, and are finally ready for the last lesson: mixing vocals.

Recording voices can be tricky, because everyone's voice is unique. Some are deep and raspy, others are light and airy. Some are pitch-perfect and others have a bit more… well… character. Unfortunately, you can’t tune a vocal cord.

Because of the unique qualities and constraints of the world’s oldest instrument, the same approach to tracking vocals rarely works twice. That’s why it’s important to, first and foremost, tailor your mixing approach based on what the track calls for.

Balancing Your Vocals

Balancing the vocal is pretty straightforward. It should almost always be the loudest instrument in the mix. Sure, there’s an exception to any rule, but this one rarely gets broken. The vocal is often what a listener connects most with when it comes to lyrical music, so if they can’t hear it, they might not even care about the rest of the song.

The vocal is usually panned in the center. Because of its importance, the lead vocal needs to be the center of attention. Background vocals, on the other hand, can be panned wide to help create separation and a sense of width. Keeping the lead vocal centered and adding wide-panned backing vocals can really make a chorus pop.

Between the dynamic range and singers’ tendency to move closer and farther away from a mic, you’ll need to be sure that the quiet lines aren’t too quiet and the loud lines aren’t too loud. Don’t be afraid to “ride the fader” and create some automation. By bringing the volume up and down when needed, you’ll keep the vocal on top of the mix.

Riding the fader well will save you from needing more compression on the vocal later. While compression is a great tool (and discussed more below), keeping the vocal front-and-center through the use of volume will help to create a sense of excitement that won’t come through if you rely too much on compression.

After getting the levels right, your next step is cleaning up some of the unwanted frequencies.

Using EQ to Bring Out the Best

Lows

There’s not much going on here in a vocal. Most engineers choose to use a high pass filter (HPF) on vocals. Start by slowly increasing the frequency of the HPF. When you start to lose the bottom-end of the the vocal, back off a bit. It’s not uncommon to see filters as high as 100Hz or 200Hz on a vocal.

Low-Mids

Depending on the vocalist and the song, the fundamental frequencies of a voice will change. Deep voices feel full around 120Hz, while higher-pitched voices can sit up to 240Hz. Just be careful because too much in this range can make a vocal muddy or boomy.

Mids

The midrange in the vocal is mostly about balance. Too much around 500Hz–1000Hz, and the vocal will sound boxy or honky, but not enough will make it sound hollow. Too much around 1kHz–2kHz, and the vocal sounds nasally and tinny. Not enough, and it won’t cut through the mix.

High-Mids

This is one of the most delicate ranges in the vocal, where a lot of the character and recognition comes from (2kHz–4kHz). But, it’s also where sibilance problems occur (4kHz–9kHz). Too much in these areas can be harsh or brittle, but too little and the vocal will lack definition.

Highs

The high-end of the vocal is dangerous. A little bit of a boost with a high-shelf filter at 10kHz can make a vocal sparkle. It brings out the “air" in the recording and makes it sound expensive. But again, be careful. Too much can make it sound cheap, while too little makes it sound old and lo-fi.

Applying Dynamics Processors

You may notice that cutting the sibilant frequencies with EQ causes the vocal to lose clarity and definition. But not cutting them feels like needles in your ear any time there’s a word with an “s” in it.

This is exactly what de-essers were made for. A de-esser does exactly what it sounds like—it removes the sibilant “s” sounds.

Technically, it’s a single-band compressor that focuses on a user-defined frequency range. Instead of cutting 6kHz–8kHz all the time, like an EQ, it only compresses those frequencies when they become annoying.

Now that the sibilance is tamed, it’s time to take care of the rest of the track’s dynamics.

Parallel compression is the most aggressive. It's blended in with the original vocal track to taste. Many engineers call this the “vocal crush,” because of the extremely high ratios and massive amounts of compression applied."

When it comes to compression, most engineers choose to apply this dynamic processor in stages. It can be applied on the channel, in parallel, and at the bus stage.

The lightest stage of compression is usually on the mix bus. Ratios are usually around 2:1, with slow attack and a well-timed (or automatic) release. It’s common to apply 1dB–3dB of compression here.

On the channel itself, ratios are slightly higher, usually around 4:1. Fast attack speeds and varying release times are common. The compression in this stage can add punch and attack or control and sustain to a vocal performance. There’s usually more compression applied here too—around 3dB–6dB.

Parallel compression is the most aggressive. It's blended in with the original vocal track to taste. Many engineers call this the “vocal crush,” because of the extremely high ratios and massive amounts of compression applied.

These stages should give you plenty of control over your vocal tracks. The goal is usually to put the vocal right up front without making it sound over-compressed. Just be sure to keep an eye on every stage—it’s easy for this stage to get out of hand.

Adding Space and Excitement with Reverb and Delay

Reverb and delay can be used to give a vocal width and depth. They can also be used to simulate a particular space for the vocal, making it sound like the vocal was recorded in a bedroom, a concert hall, or a cavern.

The most common types of reverb to use on vocals are room, hall, and plate.

Room reverbs, as their name makes clear, simulate a room. You can often choose the dimensions and shape to emulate a big recording studio live room, an isolation booth, or something in-between. Whether the vocals you’re mixing were recorded in a nice studio or a bedroom closet, adding a room reverb can help create a great, natural vibe to the performance. Room reverbs typically have relatively short (<2 second) tails.

Hall reverbs simulate the sound of concert halls. They’re well-constructed and untreated, which means they’re very reverberant, but in a much more pleasing way than, say, your bathroom. The tails of these types of reverbs tend to be a little longer.

Plate reverbs are somewhere in-between rooms and halls. They’ll often have a metallic-sounding midrange that cuts through the mix and will typically have longer tails than room reverbs.

Delays are also commonly used on vocals to make them feel larger than life.

Super short delays like chorus effects can be used to mimic the effects of additional vocal tracks, while moderately timed delays can create a vintage ‘50s slapback effect. It’s also similar to what you hear at a live concert.

As delays get long enough that they stand out from the original vocal, they’re typically synced to the tempo of the track. 1/8 note, 1/4 note, and 1/2 note delays are common. However, if you want the delay to really stick out in the mix, start by syncing it to the tempo. Then, slightly increase or decrease the length until it’s slightly out of time.

Applying Additional Effects

Saturation adds harmonics, which can beef up a vocal track and help it cut through the mix. Many engineers love the sound of console emulation on a vocal. Countless classic vocal tracks have been cut on Neve and SSL consoles. Using digital simulations of those consoles can add some of that analog vibe to your, helping to create the impression that the vocal was recorded in a hallowed studio, as opposed to a trash-ridden bedroom.

Using digital simulations can add some of that analog vibe to your, helping to create the impression that the vocal was recorded in a hallowed studio, as opposed to a trash-ridden bedroom."

Years ago, some of the nicest microphones and compressors used tubes to work their magic. Tubes are great for adding harmonics and help thicken up vocal tracks. If you can’t get your hands on any vintage tube gear, try some of the plugin emulations.

Finally, tape is commonly used on vocals for a number of reasons. It adds harmonics, it rolls off some of the unwanted lows and highs, and it adds subtle compression.

Whether applying real tape or tube saturation or using a digital emulation, you have your choice as to where to apply them in the signal chain. Some engineers will put saturation directly on the vocal channel, while others process in parallel and blend to taste.

Wrapping Up

Although we’ve left the vocals for our last installment of the series, you should try to mix the vocal as early in the mixing process as possible. Because, to most listeners, the vocal is the most important element of a song, you don’t want to mix all the instrument tracks well and smash the vocal on top like some awful karaoke cut.

Nail the vocal sound early and then mix the other instruments around it. This will prevent the vocal from competing with the snare, the guitars, or any other instrument in the mix. The old saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is important to keep in mind. You want to balance all the disparate elements of your mix, and a great way to do that is keeping that vocal front-and-center.

Now that you have all the pieces you need to create a killer mix, as always, just remember to use your ears and trust your gut.


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