Getting Vocals That Pop

It may in fact be the most important part of the mix – but also the most difficult. Getting vocals that sit well with the mix, but also seem to pop right out of the speakers. There’s a lot of factors – level, compression, reverb, the list goes on.

But how do you get that perfect vocal to sit well in the mix? Here’s a few tricks I like to use from time to time when mixing vocals:

1. Establish a natural vocal tone using subtractive EQ.

This can be a game changer. By using subtractive EQ (where you only cut frequencies and never boost them), you’re not introducing any distortion to the vocal. For this reason, I like to do this step first. Starting with a great vocal tone is obviously preferred, but getting one using subtractive EQ is the next best thing.

2. Don’t over compress your vocals.

Like we mentioned in an article earlier this week, it’s important not to over-compress your vocals. This can be done in a couple of ways. I sometimes like to use multiple compressors, each having very little effect on the vocal. After adding two or three of these compressors (at say, 2:1 and 2dB  of gain reduction), you’ll notice a more subtle but effective compression.

Also, don’t use compression as a way to level out your vocals. Do a vocal ride on the fader (using automation). This will result in a much more natural and intelligible vocal.

3. Listen to your mix on multiple systems.

This includes ear buds, headphones, studio monitors, stereo, car system, TV speakers, iPhone speakers – everything! Compare how it sounds to other mixes, specifically listening to the relationship between the vocal and the music. If your vocal is barely audible on a system and other professional mixes don’t seem to be that way, figure out what could be doing that. Is there a frequency range that you cut too much with EQ? Is it simply too soft overall?

4. Try the “other-room-with-the-door-cracked-open” trick.

It’s basically what it sounds like. Once you’ve got your vocal set in your mix, turn it up and step out of the room. Crack the studio door and listen from there. You will be able to hear a little more clearly if your vocal is far too loud or far too soft. You can use this for almost any part of the mix and it will be a good way to get more balanced mixes!

5. With your reverb – go for natural sounds.

Unless your artistry is pulling you towards an ultra-reverberant cave-like vocal, try to get the most realistic reverb sounds that you can. But in order to do this, you’ll have to know what those sound like. Take mental notes whenever you’re in a reverberant space (church, a bathroom, a concert hall) and see what the reverb sounds like. As you learn what sounds natural and what doesn’t, you’ll be able to dial in a great reverb for you vocals!

These are just five tips that can really take your vocals from decent to great in the mix. But there’s always more ways to do this – so let us know if you’ve got a favorite tip!

4 thoughts on “Getting Vocals That Pop”

  1. I’ve always liked the reverb effect on the vocals along with not over compressing. Although it also depends on the type of vocals you’re working with. Everyone’s voice is different. For me, I like more of the natural sound so I try to go with reverb, but not too much. Sadly nowadays most vocalist’s that I have heard, they tend to take out that natural sound.

    • Definitely true that people are losing the “natural sound” in the vocals in some genres of music today – I’d love if it made a comeback! Great way to go about producing vocals!

  2. Yes I agree, it’s sad that the industry doesn’t really respect the “natural sound” all that much anymore.. I find it to be more about the money than anything really. There are so many different ways to get a good sounding vocal its just depends on what you as the “engineer” want.

    • No, “natural” is ever a widely subjective thing – the naturalist recording with full linear recording will sound crappy. How much mods and FX is applied to i.e. vocals is not a question of “money” – it depends from the artists targets, the music genre and much more. Even the selection of Mics, the Mic distance has strong influence onto the original sound / “acoustical signal” and without any EQ even the best voice will sound crappy if just recorded “as natural as possible”.

      With more “bedroom producers” on the market (which can’t afford a high class vocal recht room) music styles with stronger modified-sounding recordings arise a bit, but this is the only cross dependence to “about money”.

      But: Nothing is really “natural” in the music recording scene and the vocals the most known recordings of the past decades was nearly all on high studio steroids – crafted with multi million studio equipment which only a few could afford. Electric guitars, Synthesizers, Samplers are modern instruments – extending the possibilities for artists and made it possible for the mass to make entertaining music out of their head without a lifelong experience.

      Affordable pitch shifting / correction and modern FX allows people to produce “enjoyable” Vocals from singers which can’t really sing. “Naturality” is hardly overestimated today – 30 years ago this was a Synonym for recording/processing quality – today in times of digital high class audio recording stripes in the hand of each this terminus makes less sense.

      No one – except strongest classic fans or band groupies possibly – since first broadcast stations arise – want to hear a really “natural” recorded vocal recording – even from a news speaker.

      Many want to hear what they expect as “natural sounding” stuff, while the expectations about “natural” change strongly and have nothing really to do with “natural”. Technically there was and is a lot of technical knowledge, skills and tools behind these “natural sound”. At the end there is no difference if these (and which of) are software or hardware – digital or analog.

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