Vocal mixing is one of the most exciting parts of hip hop, pop, and EDM production.
But every vocal sample poses its own set of challenges and will demand unique mixing chains.
Not sure exactly how to proceed? Here are some vocal mixing chain advice to get you going.
Definition of the Vocal Mixing Chain
A vocal mixing chain is a dedicated series of plugins that serve to process a vocal signal. This can be a single channel in series or multiple channels working in parallel (parallel processing). Vocal mixing chains allow you to shape the vocal signal, fix certain issues such as sibilance, and to add some fancy effects.
Vocal Mixing Chain Advice
Creating a basic vocal mixing chain
So how exactly do you build a vocal mixing chain?
Most chains have four basic parts: compressor, EQs, a de-esser, and some extra sweetening such as a reverb or delay. Most producers will slap multiple instances of each in one channel. Some also choose to do parallel processing which you can learn more about below.
Compressor of EQ first
There’s a running debate among producers on whether a compressor or an equalizer should be put first in the mix chain. It’s really a matter of preference and the kind of material you have on hand.
For instance, if you have a solid vocal performance (which means the performance is consistent and clean), you’d probably want to use a compressor first. This is because the compressor evens out the sample and make it more compact. This will make it easier to chip away unwanted frequencies with the equalizer.
However, if you have an uneven performance and it is not possible to do a better take, you might want to use the equalizer first. This will enable you to work on the issues right there and then. Carve out the offending frequencies first, and then put on the compressor after to smooth it all out.
We cover this subject in some more in this post.
After the compression and equalization is the de-essing. De-essing is basically removing the ‘ess’ sounds, called sibilance, in the mix which can sound harsh and uncharacteristically loud especially in the softer parts of the mix. There are specific tools for taming these sounds and they are called de-essers. You can find some to the best options here.
A de-esser is like a compressor and a EQ, but it targets only specific frequencies. Keep in mind though that you don’t want a de-esser to completely remove all the sibilance in the mix because this will make the performance sound unnatural. We’ll talk more about this below in Dealing with Esses.
The compressor, EQ, and the de-esser form the primary components of your vocal mixing chain. After them are extra sweeteners such as reverbs, delays, stereo manipulation. These can add a lot of character to your mix.
Be careful with effects as they can dramatically change the sound of your mix and may create some issues down the line and may even be distracting. More about this below in Using Effects.
Now that you have your basic chain in place, it’s time to look at some more specific details.
Dealing with plosive sounds
A good vocal mix is a balanced mix. Meaning, it should not be too soft and then too loud in the next moment. The goal is to minimize distractions and keep the listener focused.
However, there are some things that can be hard to control. These include plosive sounds which are usually generated by p or b syllables.
Fortunately, we know that plosive sounds usually happen at around 150 Hz for female vocals and 100 Hz for males. Using your EQ, pay attention to this range as you listen to the mix and automate an EQ to cut off excessive plosive sounds when they happen. It takes attentive listening to catch these guys and they can happen outside the 150-100 Hz range, so watch out.
Dealing with ess-es
Many producers say that de-essing is the most difficult part of the vocal mixing process. The thing with sibilance is that it can take on many different forms. Therefore, it is not enough to just put a de-esser plugin on a channel and forget it.
An important thing to remember is that sibilance itself is not disagreeable. It is a natural part of the human voice. If you remove all sibilance in a mix, it will sound lisp-y and horrible.
Therefore, the best way to approach it is to automate de-esser gain manually. This will enable you to treat each instance of sibilance at its own terms.
Vocal samples are incredibly difficult to manage because there are many ways that can affect a performance. This includes personal style (for example, a rapper may enunciate certain syllables more than the others), the distance of the vocalist from the mic which may change throughout the perforance, fluctuating performance energy level, etc. To compensate for these factors and to achieve a smooth, even mix, it is crucial to manually automate certain parameters in your vocal mixing chain.
For instance, it is not enough to just turn on an aggressive compressor to level out the mix and call it a day. This will remove the natural dynamics of the performance as well as the vocalist’s own stylistic modulations. Therefore, you must listen to the vocalist and automate the parameters so that the performance still sounds natural. This is particularly true in hip-hop, rap, and pop where vocals are at the center stage of the mix.
Some of the most important parameters to automate are compression/EQ gain and de-essing gain.
Many producers do not just use one channel or mixing chain to process their vocals. Pros usually do parallel processing to get the job done.
Parallel processing is the technique of letting the vocals pass through two or more channels. For example, one channel can be dedicated to the higher end of the mix while another is for the lower end. This will allow you to work on specific frequencies rather than the entire mix.
For example, if a rapper has a deep voice and you want to add some reverb on the mix, you can isolate the higher frequencies in a separate channel. You can then apply the reverb on the higher frequencies alone. This will keep the lower frequencies solid and powerful. This also keeps the entire mix clean too, since low-end reverb can make a mix sound dirty.
There are countless effects that you can use to manipulate your vocal sample. You can add reverb, delay, play around with panning and the stereo image, and so on.
However, the best advice you can receive in terms of effects is to use it in moderation. Subtlety and the ability to use as little effects with as much impact is the mark of a true professional.
For example, check out the use of delay and reverb in the vocals of the song “Lucky Girl” by Fazerdaze. The delay obviously has a high wet level and delay time, so the words get doubled quite quickly. There is also a considerable amount of reverb to make it sound dream-like. All of these may make it more difficult for listeners to understand the words.
However, if you listen more carefully, you’ll notice that the delay and reverb are all applied to the first words. The final words, on the other hand, are drier. This makes it easier to understand the lyrics even if half of the line is drenched in effects.
Moreover, notice that each line has no relay or delay tail. All the effects have been automated to cut-off even before the final words are sung. This keeps the mix clean even if the vocals are heavily processed.
Automation is crucial to vocal mixing, especially when dealing with effects. This can be the case in more dense productions where the slightest unnecessary frequency can make the mix sound muddy.
It’s a cliche by now, but it remains true in music production: be creative and don’t be afraid to break some habits. None of these are hard and fast rules, and a bit of transgression here and there can even give your mix some personality.
For a bit of inspiration, check out Flying Lotus’ “Tea Leaf Dancers” where he heavily side-chained the vocals with the kicks to the point that the vocals sound like they are disappearing. This is quite an extreme example, but it works!
So that’s it! We hope you learned a lot on vocal mixing chains. Start working and apply them to your projects.