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!