Unless you are mixing instrumental compositions exclusively, you are already aware of the significant importance of properly mixed vocals. And you probably also know that mixing vocals properly is a very intense challenge. And this task intensifies even more considering that you don’t only have to enhance the vocalist’s performance but also make sure that you are up to date within current trends when it comes to your mixdown. So in this article, we will tell you how to get vocals upfront in the mix since it’s the latest trend in the music industry.
How To Get Vocals Upfront In The Mix: explained
No matter what type of musical genre you prefer to work with, there’re some trends and expectations that you have to meet as an audio producer and engineer. Of course, there’s also room for experimentation and creativity, but generally, it’s not a very good idea to go outside the standards too far. You can always rely on your taste or common sense, but a very large part of the job is knowing what the standards are and following the latest trends.
When it comes to vocals, you may have noticed that lately, mixing engineers all around the world prefer to put it upfront in the mix, “in your face” so to speak. You may, of course, not prefer it that way or even not like it at all, but it’s what the listener is expecting, at least until the next trend emerges. It seems that all you have to do to put your vocals upfront in the mix is to just make it a bit louder. Unfortunately, this isn’t even remotely a case. This process is a bit more complicated and takes a bit of preparation and rather a strategic usage of certain effects.
In order to put your vocals upfront in the mix later on, you’re going to have to make sure that it’s recorded properly. Although this could be done like any recording, it’s much easier to do it if the vocals are recorded the in way we’ll explain in a bit. So, as you can see, this step is completely optional and hardly even necessary, but it could save you a lot of precious time and effort later on.
Firstly, you have to record your vocals completely dry. It’s much easier to do if you own or have access to a dedicated vocal booth. If not, it’s not a big deal, and all you have to do is make sure that the room in which recording takes place is properly treated. The drier the vocal sounds, the more upfront in the mix it would be and the less processing you would have to apply later.
Secondly, put some effort into choosing a mic for the recording. It’s needless to say that the microphone that you are recording with should complement the timbre of the vocalist, but since you want the vocal upfront, there’s one more thing that you should consider while choosing a mic.
Make sure that it has a proper dynamic response considering the circumstances. If you’re recording a jazz vocalist, you want as much dynamic range as possible. But in every other situation, a flatter dynamic is preferable if you want to put the vocal upfront. Consider using a ribbon mic or a tube one. Both of those options will make a vocal sound a little bit compressed, which will help you later on.
Edit the recording
The more you want your vocal to be upfront, the more pristine it has to be. Since you want your vocal to be in the center of the listener’s attention, it would be rather tricky to mask noises and imperfections even in a very dense mix. It’s rather a good idea to cut all of the excessive silence, pops and clicks if there are any and if they don’t interfere with performance itself. Don’t be afraid to glue together phrases or even words from different takes. It’s a completely normal situation for a pop mix, and even in other genres, it’s acceptable as long as you can do it seamlessly.
Yes, we know that it’s a rather controversial idea since when it comes to auto-tune, or pitch correction, audio engineers are divided into two camps. They either use it on everything every time or don’t use it at all. But what we suggest lies exactly in the middle.
You don’t have to make the vocals sound very polished and robotic unless this is what you desire. Instead, you can use auto-tune in order to fix minor mistakes and imperfections if they’re too excessive to your taste. It would be much preferable if you’d do it manually and in moderation.
If you’ve used a ribbon or a tube mic, as we suggested earlier, you can easily skip this step. As you probably already know, in order to achieve an “in your face” vocal sound, you need to have a rather flat dynamic response. In other words, the difference in volume between the loudest and the quietest parts should be as little as possible. But note that if the dynamics are too flat, your vocals would sound lifeless.
There’re some very useful plugins available on the market that are designed to adjust the gain of your vocals automatically. This, of course, would be the easiest way to do this, but if you don’t particularly feel like making such an investment, you can always do this manually. And there’re two ways to do this.
Firstly, you can draw the gain curve with your mouse. The process is rather gruesome and tiresome, but this way, you’ll have a very precise result. Secondly, if you own a dedicated midi controller, you can assign it to a gain fader and record it in real-time. This process is much faster but at the cost of precision.
Use the EQ
It may seem to be rather redundant advice since you’re going to use EQ anyway, but hear us out. As a general rule, we’re using an EQ to scope out unpleasant frequencies, and once those frequencies are surgically removed, we boost those that we want to emphasize. What we suggest is to use a separate EQ for that and preferably the one that has a lot of coloration. Boosting some high-mids with a very broad Q will make your vocals stand out from the mix, and boosting somewhere around 5 kHz will make it more present.
The other thing you could use your EQ for is making more room for vocals. You can do that by scoping out instruments that occupy the upper mid-range and directly compete with vocals. But be careful though, if you cut too much, your instruments may sound unnatural, and the vocals will stand out in such way that it would be hard to find it pleasant or even bearable. If you don’t feel like digging too much into individual instruments, there’s one very simple thing that will save you a lot of time. Route instruments that you think are competing with vocals through a separate bus and apply the EQ to that bus.
Use the compressor
This could be another piece of advice that you very well could find redundant since you’ll, without a doubt, use a compressor on your vocals. But we’re not talking about a compressor that you would normally use to smooth out the vocal performance. What’s really needed in order to put the vocal upfront in the mix is a limiting amplifier with a lot of character. Something like a vintage LA-2A will smooth out the dynamics even more and will add a lot of very pleasant harmonic distortion to your vocal that will make it stand out a lot but in a very gentle and not too excessively.
Don’t overuse the reverb
It’s needless to say that reverb can bring a lot of depth to the sound. But what it also does is widen the sound, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed in order to get the vocal upfront.
So try to use as little reverb or any other spatial effects as possible. Of course, without reverb, the vocal would sound too dry especially if you’ve listened to one of our earlier advice. So use a reverb only as an auxiliary effect and with a very high pre-delay time.
We hope that this article has helped you understand better how to get vocals upfront in the mix. To summarize, you may consider recording your vocals completely dry in an especially treated room or a vocal booth. Using something like a ribbon or tube mic could help you drastically but if you can’t get your hands on one of those, use a vintage compressor with a lot of character. Use a vintage EQ with a broad Q in order to boost some upper mid-range frequencies or scope out the same frequencies in instruments that may compete with vocals directly in the mix. Also, do not overuse the reverb.