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.