Time and time again people ask me, “Is mixing vocals any different from mixing other elements? Do special rules apply?”
The answer is yes. And no. Yes in the sense that there are a some vocal-specific techniques. No in the sense that every vocal sounds different based on the room, microphone used, the vocalist, and other factors. In the world of mixing, there are about 300,000 plugins and workflows you can use to make a good sounding vocal. BUT I’m a strong believer that simple is better, and if something sounds good…leave it alone. I’ve seen too many newbie producers “over-mix” because they’re scared it isn’t good enough.
Here are a few vocal-specific techniques to help you get vocals to sound professional:
Use a reference track
Reductive room resonance EQ
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Use A Reference Track
Import a track with vocals similar to what you’re working on. Lower the volume of that track so it matches the loudness of your own track, and go back and forth comparing as you mix. Obviously it’s not a fair fight because that song has been mastered already, but it’s a great place to start.
Reductive Room Resonance EQing
Rooms are very much like drums. They resonate and have a “pitch”. In fact, they often have several resonant tones. The pitches of these resonances depend on the dimensions of the room and the materials and construction. When recording vocals these resonances inevitably make their way into the recordings. Typically they live between 300 Hz and 1.5 KHz. These resonances can be easily removed with a clean technical EQ like Ableton’s EQ 8, or Pro Q3, by Fabfilter. Use a reductive bell EQ band, tighten up the Q, and carve out a few -dB. If there is glass in the vocal recording room, which there often is, “fish tank” overtones can also make their way into the recording and can be removed in the exact same fashion.
Use Serial Compression
Sometimes one compressor just can’t get it done. Early in my career, I would torture myself to find the right settings on a single compressor to “contain” a vocal, but only grew more frustrated. I would try to use one compressor and lots and lots of time-consuming automation. But I still was not happy with the result. Finally, I discovered that using 3 or more compressors in serial — each one doing just a little bit of gain reduction — creates a result that is smooth, transparent, and very contained. It has been a magic discovery for me, and I have been using this approach ever since.
Although one size DOES NOT fit all, try using a compressor with a slow attack, fast release with 8:1 ratio. Then add another compressor with a 2:1 ratio and slow attack, fast-medium release to catch the tail of the vocals getting compressed.
Very similar to serial compression is serial de-essing. Spikey mid-range transients can make a vocal hard to listen to. Sometimes this sibilance is due to improper mic placement, missing teeth, or overzealous HF EQ boosts. Whatever the case, a vocal really comes into focus once these spikey mid-range dynamics are flatten out. In my Vocal Mixing Tips w/ Ableton Devices webinar, I show tricks for De-Essing, and also use Fabfilter’s Pro-DS and a few extra tricks to set your vocals just right. (If you join the membership you can access all webinars and courses) But Dan, what’s a de-esser? The de-esser applies a limiter to the user-defined mid-range band that is offending the ear. The problem is that sometimes there are multiple frequency ranges that are non-contiguous. In this case, the best solution is to use multiple de-essers each focussed on particular ranges that need de-essing. Once the multiple de-essers have been applied, the vocal has a much smoother sound and can be given an overall brightness with an instance of additive EQ. NOTE: Some compressors have a detector-biasing EQ like Slate’s FG-Stress. The 6K biasing filter makes the compressor more sensitive to dynamics centered at 6K and has a wonderful smoothing effect. Place an FG-Stress before the de-essers as your musical compressor and it will take some of the burden off of your de-essers. Like I said earlier, these are a few additional vocal-specific techniques to make your vocals really shine. Adding Reverb and Delay are obvious needs to finish off a good vocal in a track.
Join the membership to access all webinars and courses using Ableton Live, and watch the 1-hour Vocal Mixing w/ Ableton’s Devices webinar. See all webinars here.