EQ, Compression, Reverb, Delay plus others effects are all used to mix vocals to sound better but knowing when to use and what combination of effects to use is what make those vocals in your favourite tracks come to life.
First, identify what your goal with the vocal is, for example, you could be using the vocal as a lead – giving the main focus to your vocal. Alternatively, you may find yourself using the vocals as a melody, effect or build up.
Based on what your choice is, you will use a different array of influences to deliver the right sound. Having in mind what you want to do with the vocal in the key to making it mix well; otherwise, you will not know what sound you want to achieve. The client may wish to have their input so always be open to changing your preferred preference to fit a client’s ears, whether you are a producer or sound engineer.
How Do Vocals Sit In The Mix?
Identifying how loud your track is overall is a good starting point, now you should be looking to see if your vocal is too loud or too quiet on -0.0dB (unity gain). If the vocal is too quiet, bring up the vocal by adding more volume, if too loud do the opposite and take away amount.
The vocal should either be nearly hitting or just touching -0.0dB BUT should never go above – this will cause digital distortion. Once you have matched your vocal to an excellent independent level, you will now want to play the track altogether and just focus on getting the level of the vocal to sit with your other sounds.
You may find room for adjustment on other sounds now you have added the vocals – proceed to make adjustments based on preference.
Now using a combination of EQ, Compression, Delay, Reverb, and any others mixing plugins you have at your disposal, we will start to craft and shape our vocal.
1. Start by doing subtractive equalising, typically taking out any clashing frequencies residing in the vocal. Now proceed to do some soft additive equalisation, the human ear is synced to the human voice, our ears typically hear voices more precise to 5,000hz, with adjustments, add a ‘bell’ EQ band with a full Q at the 5k mark, start by adding -0.5dB and increase until the vocal comes has more life.
Side EQ can push selected frequencies to the Side of the speakers giving the sense of depth – start by setting a high passband to anywhere between 4,000hz – 20,000hz, with the band set to “side” mode slowly increase volumes again by -0.5dB until the vocals start to push out to the sides of your speakers, this creates an immense sense of depth
2. Vocal recording typically will have natural points of low and high velocity, meaning that you may experience parts within your mixes where the vocal almost gets lost or is overpowering the main mix. Compression gives us the ability to fix this by taking the signals lowest and highest points and compressing them down into a version that is consistently levelled.
Your primary focus will be Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Gain. When looking at the threshold, you should be looking t your GR (Gain Reduction) meter – how much are we turning down the vocal? Typically you see the meter go up and down as it works in real-time to level out your vocal.
Now let’s take a look at Ratio, the rule of thumb for vocals is 2:1 to 4:1 – stick to this and tweak between those two variables to get the desired sound.
Attack and Release are going to affect the sound of the compressor – Attack is telling the compressor how quickly to react. In contrast, Release is the opposite, so how fast does it let it go back to its original volume.
Gain is the final step to either give the vocal a little boost in volume or to control it if it becomes too loud.
3. Using delay on your vocals creates a sense of depth alongside giving an element of more that one singer.
For example – you could use a “slapback” delay setting the parameters to play the delay a few MS (milliseconds) after the original signal, this creates a sense of a second vocal and adds a fantastic touch of natural depth.
Or you may decide just to use a delay that repeats what the vocal does but subtly underneath the mix to create a floor. For this, you could use a “stereo’ delay giving you independent values for L&R; creatively you could choose to make the vocal last longer on the left speaker opposed to the right, adding subtle changes goes a long way!
4. Many reverbs offer different results but let’s just focus on what will help your vocals in the mix.
Reverbs such as “True Verb” by Waves gives you the option to adjust the ‘Early Reflection’ these are the first sounds the come back from the reverb environment, they are copies of the source instead of being a mixture of diffused signals. Having the ability to adjust this and mix the level of the early reflections gives an immense sense of a live vocal.
The other way we can use reverb is by using it to create a floor to the track or even a short burst of reverb subtly complementing our vocal channel. We can achieve this by setting our size and decay rate to a more significant number than the default; this will be down to personal preference and the level that it is mixed into the dry signal.
[Top tip to get vocals to sit in the mix is to send all sounds BUT NOT the vocals to a bus/aux – now you want to sidechain the group to the vocal subtly bringing the threshold back by -2dB. This makes the track drop by a few dB when the vocals come in and out if the effect isn’t strong enough to bring the threshold back until effects become desired]
How Do I Mix Bad Vocals?
Firstly see what file format you have been sent or recorded, you may find that you are exporting or receiving files that are very low in data. Revise this and amend if possible – this will not always work, but if you are having issues with lousy audio exports, this may help.
The vocal artist may have missed a few fundamental notes while singing causing out of tune sections – grab a pitch correction plugin, match the root key/notes of your composition; this will take the out of critical parts and pitch correct them to match your instrumental.
You may also find that your vocal is suffering from being recorded too loud, with some high-quality audio restoration plugins you can reduce the digital distortion and clean up the overall quality.
The vocals may be suffering from crackles, noise or hissing. many plugins can eliminate these horrible elements and clear up room for the vocal to shine through – check out our article “What are the best ways to fix bad audio” or check out this beneficial video by “Unders.”
How Do You Push Vocals Back In The Mix?
Creatively you may choose to automate parts of your vocals that cause it to be pushed back in the mix, or you may find that the vocal is too loud. Using something simple such as bringing the volume down or automating it to get quieter can create such desired effects. Delays and reverbs with the right set up uniquely create amazing senses of depth and character whether you decide to automate these effects in or use them consistently.
Using filters to eliminate the frequencies that stand out, you can create a sense of underwater or even darker tones to the vocal—a combination of these effects.
Pushing vocals back should be revised and listened to carefully as you do not want to overdo the effect and lose the vocal to the rest of your mix.
What dB Should Vocals Be In The Mix?
Mixing the vocals to a specific dB isn’t always necessary but should always have in mind where you want it to sit in the mix. Hopefully, at this stage of the vocals, you have gain staged it to match the rest of the mix and added desired effects to develop the vocals further to fit your entire mix.
From here we need to ask ourselves what the objective is for the track, for example, if you are writing a vocal-based record we might want to choose to have the vocal at the for the front of the mix – doing so we would make sure that our vocal is one of the loudest channels in the mix but also not so loud that we drown out everything else.
Burying your vocals under the mix isn’t a bad thing if this is what your desired result is. We recommend having a clear vision for your vocals; ideally knowing what role the vocal will take in your track, now proceed to mix until vocal either sits with the mix, stands out, or bury.
No choice is the wrong choice but get some other opinions and have lots of coffee/food breaks to refresh your ears.
How Do I EQ Vocals Like A Pro?
When starting to EQ any vocal you should be only doing ‘subtractive’ EQ, this is has been a thing since the analogue domain due to the old gear bringing up the floor when boosted; typically you would want to start with subtractive EQ to eliminate any unwanted or clashing frequencies.
Using highpass filters to clean up the sub/bottom end – when recording vocals your microphone may pick you more than you can hear or no see without an analyser. Removing all frequencies from 10hz-80hz is a what you should be aiming for, each vocal will have a unique timbre resulting in different setting needed depending on the mix, recording quality, and the singer.
Mid-range frequencies can cause muddiness, distortion, and lack of presence, having the right blend of powerful mids but also not so overpowering that you lose elements of the mix to the vocal. Now using a bell EQ to sweep between 150hz-400hz, if the vocal has a powerful mid-range try by taking out a -0.5dB until the vocal has more or less presence.
So now we take a look at the higher end frequencies, typically these are what you would want to preserve s the contain the primary timbre of your vocals. Using a ‘side’ EQ, we can push selected frequencies to the sides of our stereo field, to achieve this we would typically take a high shelf band, using the band we will choose anywhere between 5000hz – 22,000hz (depending on preference and recording quality) and make the band stretch across this frequency range.
Slowly increase the band by +0.5dB until you hear your vocal become pushed to the edge of your stereo field, this will create a massive sense of depth and liveliness to your vocals.
Should Vocals Be Panned?
Panning vocals isn’t necessary, but if you lack depth and character, then this will guarantee your vocals to stand out.
Let’s take a vocal and copy that over twice – now we have two more copies of our vocals. Apply a ‘Pitch Shifter’ plugin to both of these vocal copies and set them to be -12 semi tones/1 octave below our current pitch. Now select your first copy and push that to the left speaker and do the same for the right. Now play all three channels back and turn down your two copies to mix to your preference with the original; you will hear the instant depth added to your vocals.
Another great panning tip is using a stereo delay set to full ‘Wet’ on a copy of your vocal. Adjusting the independent delays for L&R plus the delay time will create unique copies of the vocal on both L&R. Proceed to mix this copy with the original dry vocal to add authentic ness and liveliness to your vocal channels.
Do Rappers Double Their Vocals?
Rappers can double their vocals up to create an ensemble of their voice. Imagine a choir, if one choir member sings they won’t be nearly as powerful as the whole choir singing. This effect has been adopted by sound engineers to take a single recording or multiple and layer them together to create one full vocal group.
Try this next time you have a vocal artist, or you record a new song – you could use two techniques. The first one is to record one take and copy it over a couple of times, push each new copy to a new place in the stereo field. (this also works with pre-recorded vocals)
The second technique would be to record your first take, now make a new recording track and record another copy of the vocal: do this as many times as necessary to create the ensemble effect.
How Do I Separate Music From Voice?
There are several ways to achieve this, but we will just stick to the best way, this method involves Audacity, which is a free audio software tool.
- Once downloaded/open go ahead and drop in the sound you would like to isolate vocals from.
- Avert your eyes to the top of the screen and find “Effect” look for “Voice Reduction & Isolate”.
- A window with the following settings will appear (Action, Strength, Low-cut, High-cut)
- Under the ‘Action’ tab you will see ‘Isolate vocals’ this will invert all frequencies that aren’t corresponding with the vocal creating an isolated vocal.
- You may need to play with the ‘Strength’ setting to achieve desired results.
- Once finished, proceed to export from Audacity.
Isolating vocals may create artefacts that you wouldn’t get with just recording it live, but in most cases, this is fixable by using some more processing in your DAW’s.
Mixing vocals all run off the same formula, it’s just how you apply that which affect the output of your vocals. I can’t stress enough that if you have the facilities to record vocals to a high level, then aim for that when producing any vocal track. This saves so many pain stacking hours in the mix down, having good/high quality recorded vocal will need minimal touches compared to a poorly recorded vocal.
But with that said bad vocals are standard and not impossible to fix and do work, some of the best dance music producers have taken poor vocal samples and processed them to such outstanding quality. Apply the techniques spoken about in this article and adapt to those foundations with your knowledge.