10 Mixing Vocals Tips & Tricks

mixing vocals tipsIf you’ve been searching around for mixing vocals tips and techniques, you’re not alone. It’s arguably the most common concern of any sound engineer or music producer…

So this post we’ll at some of the most the essential mixing tips for landing perfect sounding vocals in your tracks.

Let’s take a closer look!


See other helpful posts:


There are 10 ways that you can implement to get great sounding vocals in a mix. All of which you should employ at some point along the stage of your vocal mixing.

Once you’ve practiced them a few times, you’ll never forget them. It will be like riding a bicycle. Your hearing and skill will improve over time and you’ll never forget.

Mixing Vocals Tip #1 – Have the right gear

 

The first step to better vocals, is having the right gear. This is your absolute first of your vocal mixing tips.

What gears are these? Let’s break it down for the purposes of this post.

Microphones

Start with the source. If you get good quality recordings, you WILL have an easier time mixing vocals. And to get good quality recordings you need the best microphones. It’s not something you want to skimp on.

Some microphones are also specialized for the purpose of recording vocals — so don’t record vocals with a kick drum microphone and expect great results, no matter how much you paid for it.

Another consideration, not every microphone is the same, even microphones that are best suited for vocals will vary in terms of the color and quality. Not only that, not every singer’s voice is the same. This is obviously true… Mariah Carey doesn’t sound like Lorde, despite being female voices. That is why recording engineers usually have around four microphones set up and ask the singer to sing some phrases into each.

Recording tip:

Record your vocals dry

If you capture the sound of the room with your vocals, you’re going to end up with a problem of having it sound like it’s in the “wrong room” with your other instruments. Record them dry, then add time-based effects (mixing vocals tips #9) to the mix to bring everything together and add space.

How do you get dry vocals?

Reflection filter

This is ideal mainly for home studios that don’t have professional level room treatment. What reflection filters do is isolate the space around the microphone, protecting it from any room noise (reflections) so that you have a dry audio source to process.

It’s practically impossible to remove the sound of the room from the audio source, so a reflection filter will help you out with that.

Microphone pop filters

A microphone pop filter protects your microphone from the plosive sounds of the singer’s mouth.

Lots of air will be coming from the singer’s mouth and lips rushing onto the microphone’s pickup. There is no way to fix this in the mix, so better to get a microphone pop filter and minimize those nasty sounds from early.

Studio Monitors

A good pair of studio monitors will mean the difference between confidence in your mixing decisions, or “guessing” your way through a mix.

With the better monitors out there, you’ll be able to tell very clearly when something is not working, and when something is.

Frequencies that are ugly will be heard. And your sound stage will be clear. You’d be able to place the vocals where you want them in a song, and be able to “see” them through your monitors. Anything else is just going to be pure guess work on your part.

Read: Best Studio Monitors for Music Production

Headphones

studio headphonesHeadphones help you to isolate the sound of your mix with the interference of the room. They also provide excellent second opinions.

In addition to that, vocalists often need a pair of headphones themselves to sing to the music they are recording over, whether it is pilot recording or a beat.

However, you want the right headphones that aren’t going to be bleeding sounds into your microphone. A good pair of closed back headphones with isolation pads around the ear will do a good job of keeping the sound to your ears and not being picked up by your microphone (you’d be surprised just how sensitive a good microphone would be). Playing your headphones at a lower volume also will help tremendously.

Read: Best Studio Headphones for Music Production

Mixing Vocals Tip #2 – Mix Your Vocals First

Singer

Whatever you do for your overall mix, keep this in mind: Mix Your Vocals First.

Out of all of your vocal mixing tips, don’t ignore this.

Start by bringing your vocals into the mix first, then add other stuff one by one. Do some basic EQing on the vocals in solo first to craft out the nasties and do some basic boosting. But leave it at that and then start adding other tracks around it.

See Mixing Vocals Tip #7 for how to equalize vocals

The vocals are the most important aspect of any song, and should sit right in the center of the mix, not on top of it, to the side of it, nor feel like it has to squeeze into it in anyway. If you bring your vocals after you’ve done much of your EQing and compressing elsewhere, you may end up with a situation where you have to try to sculpt your vocal track(s) around everything else, when actually it should be the other way around.

Additionally, there will probably be a temptation to “solo” out the vocals when working on them. Outside of noise-reduction techniques, such as gating and manually deleting the silent parts of your vocals to eliminate noises, as well as the initial EQing stage, try to stay away from using the solo button too much.

The reason why is, once you have all your tracks together, you want to process your vocals within the context of the mix.

How do you know you’re EQing your vocals right? How do you know they sound good? Take a look at the next mixing vocals tip…

Mixing Vocals Tip #3 – Reference your favorite track

digital audio workstation

This is a point that many people seem to forget to mention.

Just like in any other part of mixing and mastering, an important thing to do is load a reference track into your DAW.

Use a song that is similar to your own in style and genre, as well as feel. That way, moving forward, you have an example to follow in terms of standard practice.

It is OK to even copy a certain mixing style, or try to do so if you find that it works. You’ll be surprised that, given the right context and know-how mixing techniques, like the ones in this post, you will more securely get good sounding vocals in your mixes. Also, you’ll end up learning your own vocal mixing tips just by listening to other expert and professional mixes at industry standard.

Soon, however, you’ll find that, there will be a major difference between your reference vocals and your own… noise…

Mixing Vocals Tip #4 – Noise-reduction

Audio Clip

I hinted at this earlier. When you were recording your vocals, there would have been obviously some extra noises and sounds included in your recording. There are three ways you can deal with that:

  1. De-esser
  2. Noise-gate
  3. Manual deletion

When recording vocals you may get a certain amount of “sss” and “th” sounds. Depending on the singer, and style of music, it could be overwhelming to the mix. A de-esser will help cut down on that.

A de-esser plugin is simply a kind of compressor that crunches the audio signal of any audio that’s within a certain frequency range. So, isolating the frequencies that make the “ss” and “thh” etc. sounds and crunching them will give you a lot more control over how much these sounds will be present in your vocals.

Just don’t over use it, or else you end up with really unnatural sounding vocals.

Read: Best DeEsser Plugins.

There will be other noises that came into the mix that aren’t supposed to there, like headphones bleeding into the microphone, or other noises in the background. They can become noticeable during the periods the vocalist is silent.

Use a noise-gate a plugin to attenuate the audio signal all the way to 0 dB once the audio signal has fallen below a certain silence threshold. This threshold would be below the level of the vocals one she starts singing.

However, a noise-gate might not be enough. Maybe the vocalist uttered a sound during a section there was to be no singing (especially if they are trying to remember the next phrase). There was a sound loud enough during the silent period that would make the noise-gate not cancel out the sound.

In that case, go through and manually delete all the “silences” where the vocalist is not singing. It takes longer, but is more accurate. Just remember to do a ‘ms’ long fade in and out to ensure no pops or clicks arise from playing through cuts on your mix.

Speaking of getting rid of imperfections, lets talk about one of the vocal mixing tips you can’t do without when creating the “perfect” vocal track…

Mixing Vocals Tip #5 – Make the perfect vocal take

comping in a daw
Comping in a DAW. Click to expand

You want to make a composite take of your vocals. This is otherwise known as comping within a DAW.

No one vocal performance is going to be perfect. And when it comes to recording audio, you want to be as perfect as possible. How do you solve this?

Record several takes of each vocal section. If it is chorus, record several instances of the vocals for the chorus, don’t just choose from the “best” one, or the one with the best ratio of good phrases to “OK” phrases… Choose the “best” phrases out of each take and put the phrases together into one perfect chorus. Do the same for verse, bridge, intro, everywhere.

Within your DAW, there will be an ability for you to select and cut or highlight the sections you want for seamless playback. It’s really as simple as that. Don’t try to comp in the middle of a phrase of line or note, unless it is seamless, it’s better to make cuts between phrases.

See this video by Point Blank Music Academy on vocal comping inside Logic Pro X

Since we’re still on the topic of getting the “perfect vocals” for you mixing, here’s another essential tip…

Mixing Vocals Tip #6 – Pitch processing

mixing vocals tips pitch processing

Of all the vocal mixing tips mentioned, this is the most controversial. Some singers may shy away from this because they don’t want that “Auto-tune” sound. Some may actually want it. Remember that Auto-tune is actually a desired result, not the only result of pitch processing.

Pitch processing is one of the most necessary mixing vocals tips when it comes to notes that may be a little out of tune. It is practically impossible to get perfectly in tune vocals. This is where a plugin like Melodyne would come in handy. This plugin is especially handy because you get to correct the pitch of specific isolated notes in a singer’s phrase, while the plugin Autotune will simply automatically process and tune the entire track (unless you automate it to do otherwise), hence the name.

Don’t shy away from pitch processing. It is your friend.

Since you’ve got yourself some “perfect vocals”, let’s dial deep into the frequencies…

Mixing Vocals Tip #7 – Equalization (EQ)

Studio One Equalizer Plugin
Equalizer plugin in Studio One

This is a simple aspect of mixing vocals that a lot of people tend to complicate for some reason. Here’s a general guideline should guide all the other vocals mixing tips on this list so far:

Your purpose for EQing vocals in a mix is to make the lead vocals as clear as possible.

This means that you’re shaping everything else around the vocals, rather than trying to find a “pocket” in your frequencies where you vocals can sit.

This means, do not mix your vocals in solo. Mix them within the context of the recording.

In other words, do not think of it as, “Are my vocals interfering with the guitars?” but rather, “Are the guitars interfering with the vocals.”

Now that we’ve gotten that principle established, let’s look into how exactly we’re going to mixing our vocals using a typical EQ plugin for vocals.

Roll off the bass frequencies in your vocal tracks. Unless your recording is simply of singer on guitar or piano alone and that’s all your mix consists of, there is going to be a little bass in the vocals, and that will add up in the overall mix to create some nasty “mud.”

You can also use a cut-off filter (high-pass), but that can sound rather harsh. Start rolling off at around 125 Hz.

When it comes to boosting and cutting, remember this rule: boost wide, cut narrow.

Here’s some mixing vocals tips when it comes to cutting out frequencies…

Anything that sounds nasty to you, cut it out. You’ll know what sounds nasty and funny if you have the right studio monitor.

When you’re looking for places to cut, focus in the mid-ranges. A lot of the times, it’s usually around the mid-range that you get weird and wonky sounds.

The method of cutting out the nasties is this:
  1. boost a very narrow band up to 15 dB
  2. sweep it across the EQ spectrum range
  3. as you sweep it across, you’ll hear stuff you don’t want to hear. Once you hear it, reverse the level and cut it about 3 – 6 dB
  4. add a little bit of a Q curve to the narrow cut to make the cut sound more natural, and not like you’ve been poking holes in your vocals.

Repeat the process if you hear anything else you didn’t like.

You can solo the vocals if you’re just working on EQing them. But once you’ve gotten them to sound good, bring everything in the mix and shape everything else around them.

For instance, when it comes to guitars and keys, make a cut around 1 – 3 kHz. You don’t want anything to be competing for space in this frequency range, and these tend to be the audio signals that will fight it out.

I haven’t mentioned the compressor as yet, but try to EQ before you compress. Because a compressor will compress the dynamic range of an audio signal, this might exacerbate the problems that you’d likely need to fix, causing you to over compensate in the EQing process. So it’s better you cut out the problematic frequencies first, then compress after.

Speaking of compression…

Mixing Vocals Tip #8 – Compression for consistent vocal dynamics

Compressor in Logic Pro
Compressor in Logic Pro

Here’s another story.

Prior to doing music production and sound engineering, I studied classical piano as an undergraduate in college. One of the tips my professors used give me in my piano playing was to always play the main melody forte (meaning loud, relative to everything else), and the accompanying passages piano (meaning soft). And whenever it is time for me to play more loudly, simply raise the volume of my playing in my accompaniment.

Why am I telling you this? And how does this classical piano tip translate to the mixing vocals tips involved in compression?

Well, it’s the same principle.

The vocals is your “main melody,” it’s the focus of your music. Hence, you always want it to stand out. You always want it to be loud relative to everything else. That means that even when the singer is singing soft whispery passages, it still needs to be very present.

On the other hand, when the vocalist starts to scream, you need to be in control of that.

And that’s what the compressor is for. It squashes the dynamic range of your audio signal so that there isn’t much difference between loud and soft. And that’s what you want.

When it comes to voice, use a ratio around 5:1, depending on the style of music and how much you want it to be compressed. You can even compress all the way up to 10:1, meaning that there will be very little difference between “loud” and “soft.” But this would be based on the style of music. Start with 5:1, play along with the mix, and see how much vocals can remain on top of everything else without you having to change the fader setting too much.

Use a soft knee so that there isn’t any sudden changes in dynamics when the processor is activated.

Use a fast attack time, but don’t go too fast. Something like 30ms should be sufficient.

For more detailed information what compression settings to use when mixing various vocal types, read this article which covers the nitty-gritty.

You can also use these recommended compressor plugins to get the industry standard compression on your vocal mixes.

Here are a couple other vocal mixing tips:

Use automation along-side your compressor settings. Sometimes one setting is not for all. Using automation gives you the best of each world.

Side-chain your guitar and keys to vocals. This is a very handy tool. If your instrument is fighting for volume with your vocals, but you don’t want to keep turning it back up in the mix whenever the singer stops singing, simply use side chain compression. That way your guitar or keys will be forced to duck under the voice each time the voice comes in, but returns it original level between vocals.

Mixing Vocals Tip #9 – Use time based-effects

Logic Pro Space Designer
Logic Pro Space Designer

Time-based effects simply refers to reverb and delay. Using a little of these effects will go a long way for your vocals.

Of course, you would have made sure to record you vocals as dry as possible so that the sound of the space or room does not come into the recording (there are cases where you would want that, but in this instance, where you’re recording multitrack with various instruments, you want to have control of any room sounds).

How to add effects to mix…

There’s the way that many of us started which is a newbie mistake… slapping a reverb or delay plugin on the actual track, instrument or vocal.

Why is this a mistake?

If you wanted to use the same reverb or delay on other instruments, you’d end up having to copy the same plugin across tracks, which will totally ruin your CPU processing power, and end up freezing your DAW.

Not only that, you end up with a scenario where the effect of each plugin is actually competing for space in the mix.

The best way is to simple create an FX channel. What is that? It is simply a buss channel used for the purpose of FX.

Put your effects plugin on that buss channel and send the audio signal from your vocals to that FX buss channel. That way, both the dry signal (original) and the wet signal (effect) is going to your master channel (or mix buss).

If you need extra effects specifically for other instruments, do the same thing and create a buss channel for that instrument, then send that to the FX buss. That way, your mix is all “in the same room.”

EQing the effects channel

Now, place an EQ on this buss channel below the reverb or delay. This is so you can EQ the audio signal after effects has been placed on it, and not EQ the original signal and then put effects on it.

Why? Well, some reverb settings will add extra bass or treble or other troublesome frequencies. So it’s best to EQ the effect.

For EQing effects, use a drastic roll-off of the bass frequencies (as high as 700 Hz) and high frequencies (as much as 5 kHz). Then do cuts in the frequencies where the vocals would fit to make sure that there are no effects from the frequencies competing with the vocals. Doing this will add an appropriate amount of space and room in your mix, enveloping your lead vocals.

On the FX buss, set your fader volume to where you’d like it, with reverb or delay you like, and the back it off just a bit. Less is always more.

BTW, Reverb or Delay? Which to use??

Delays are essentially echos. They can work just the same as reverb in that they make your vocals sound like they are singing in a space. However, be careful with it. Too much delay and you end up with a situation where the delay is cutting into the actually singer’s voice. Use delay to fill in the empty spaces and pauses. You should barely hear it, but it will be there.

When it comes to reverb, there are three types: Room, Hall, Plate.

  1. Room reverb simply emulates the sound of various types of rooms. They tend to have a small “tail.”
  2. Hall reverb emulates the sound of, well, a hall, and hence has a longer tail.
  3. Plate reverb does not emulate an actual room environment. Rather it is the sound of the metal plate vibrating at the end of a tube due to the sound waves resonating with it.

Which is best?

If you’re using more than one vocals, for instance, you can use room reverb for lead vocals and hall reverb for back up vocalists. This makes the back up sound further away, while the lead is more upfront in the room.

Plate reverb is more popularly used to “thicken up” the sounds of instruments. Such as the “sizzle” sound on a snare. But you can experiment with it on vocals to see if you like them.

At the end of the day, make sure every fits into the “correct room” on your FX buss.

Since we’re on the topic of room and space, let’s touch on one final point when it comes to mixing, and this includes where your vocals will be placed in your mix…

Mixing Vocals Tip #10 – Design the Sound Stage

Panning instruments in mix

A great sound stage will transform your mix from good to EPIC.

What the sound stage is, is how well places each of your instruments are in the mixed. Higher-end monitors have the ability to help you accurately pin point and place where you want each instrument in the mix. I mean literally, you’ll be listening to a guitar and find yourself looking a certain amount of degrees to the left, just as if the whole band was playing before you.

When it comes to lead vocals, just as with the kick and bass, you want your vocals up front and center. The vocals is the star of the act, and hence, just as on the actual stage, you want your vocals placed at the center of your sound stage, all light pointed on her.

This means you do no pan the vocals to the left or to the right, but keep it in the middle. This is for the main vocals. However, there are time you want to give the vocals extra presence, meaning, sounding as if she’s coming from all directions.

Copy and Pan

In the chorus section, you can record duplicates, or even copy the vocals onto another track and slight detune it by a cent, as well as shift the time off just a hair. The pan it hard right.

Do the same again, and pan it hard left. Now you have the lead vocals not only up front but to the sides.

In back-up phrases, or during vocal doubling, it’s typical to pan them to the hard left.

With those in mind, you can continue to play around with your vocal panning. Just remember that the main vocals must always be center, imagine you have your vocals on a stage, and design where everything else, including back up vocals and other vocal harmonizing or doubling, should be placed relative to that.


Final Thoughts

These are all the mixing vocals tips you need to start getting the best vocals from your mix.

So far, you learned 10 essential ways to mix you vocals to get the best results. We covered

  • The right gear
  • Prioritizing your vocals by processing them in the context of your mix, but bringing them in early when EQing
  • How to reduce noise
  • Correcting any wavering pitches
  • Getting a consistent volume through compression
  • Designing the perfect take using comping
  • And designing the sound stage

Master these and you’ll be sure to produce the best vocals for all your mixes in your music productions.

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