As the cornerstone of any studio production, vocals are often what listeners base their opinion on, whether consciously or subconsciously. No matter how fat your drums and synths sound, if the vocals are slightly off, the whole thing quickly drops in overall quality. No worries though, we’re here to teach you how to mix the most out of your vocal recordings using DAW software!
Throughout the blog, I’ll be referring to the following audio fragments:
Fragment 1 – No Effects:
Fragment 2 – Equaliser and De-esser:
Fragment 3 – Compression:
Fragment 4 – Delay:
Fragment 5 – Reverb:
Fragment 6 – Chorus:
Fragment 7 – All Effects:
Step 1: Preparation – The Equaliser
Every brilliant production starts with a solid recording, but there are a handful of vocal recording-based headaches you’ll want to avoid. Fragment 1 is an example of how raw vocal recordings often sound, and the first thing to strike you should be the significant built-up of low frequencies. Further down the line, this can cause serious problems for any compressors you might use and as such, needs fixing first. The high-pass filter of an equaliser is perfect for the job and lets you take out everything below the 80 Hz line without negatively affecting your recording. You can then use a ‘bell’ band to create a small dB drop and drag the bell band through the 100 to 300 Hz range. The goal here is to look for the sweet spot where the vocals start to open up. Using an equaliser, you can also add some sparkle to the vocals by boosting the 5,000 Hz, but it’s advisable to do this only with a separate EQ after any compression effects. This way, your compressor isn’t caught by surprise by the added highs.
Step 2: SSSSSSSSSSSS!
Something else that’s highly noticeable in the first audio fragment are the excessively loud ‘S’ sounds, which can best be eliminated early on in the process. While you could track down the matching frequencies via an EQ and subsequently lower their volume, you’ll risk dulling the mix. The best and cleanest solution here involves a de-esser: a special kind of compressor that only responds to the higher frequencies. In other words, every time a loud ‘S’ sound crosses your custom-set threshold, its specific frequency range is turned down. If it doesn’t distinguish any loud ‘esses’, it simply leaves the signal alone. Listen to the second audio fragment and you’ll hear that the vocals sound much clearer after a little EQ and de-esser tweaking.
Step 3: Taming the Dynamics
Vocals are basically one of the most dynamics instruments you can find. In audio fragment 2, it might even be a little too dynamic. The lyrics including ‘wasting time’ are barely audible, while the ‘my clouds’ bit clearly stands out. A proper balance is important, and a compressor can help you keep any dynamic fluctuations under control and give you more master-volume headroom to play with. If a compressor is forced to work under full load, however, side effects like distortion and pumping can happen. To prevent these, the biggest discrepancies in volume in the mix must be manually balanced out. Most DAWs support Gain plugins, which is nothing more than a special volume knob placed somewhere in your signal chain. Unlike the well-known level fader, a gain plug-in can be used in advance of your compressor. Using automation on the vocal track, the louder and softer parts can be leveled. In fragment 3, you can hear how ‘level automation’ and compression have rendered the vocals much more consistent.
Step 4: Dropping Vocals Effects
For vocals, producers rarely use the natural reverb of the recording space. What’s more, they use absorbers and sound shields to ensure their recordings are as ‘dry’ as possible so there’s more room to virtually mix in reverb, delay and chorus effects. Possibly accompanied by multiple instruments, these effects are usually assigned to individual buses and later tweaked via an EQ.
Delay is a reverb effect that repeats a source sound once or multiple times. Using the ‘feedback’ control, the number of repetitions can be set while the ‘delay’ control lets you determine how much time there should be between each repetition. If you’re going with longer delay times, you’ll want to make sure that the effect is in sync with the beat of the music (listen to audio fragment 4).
Reverb is a room-simulating effect that also repeats a source sound, only here, the repetitions follow up so fast that they can’t be distinguished, resulting in a slowly fading ‘tail of reverb’ (listen to audio fragment 5).
Chorus is a modulation effect that makes it sound like vocal or instrumental parts are doubled by copying a slightly out-of-tune version of the source signal. Have a listen to audio fragment 6 to get an idea. The last fragment includes a combination of all three effects.
Step 5: Balancing the Volume
Balancing the volume of the lead vocals and the rest of the instruments can get pretty genre-specific. While pop, rap, jazz and blues tend to feature clearly-present vocals, styles like rock and metal tend to blot out lead-singers a little bit. A safe starting point can be created using the following trick: turn your speakers down until you can barely hear your mix, then turn the vocals up until you feel they’re a tad too loud compared to the instruments. Now crank up the speaker volume until you literally cannot hear yourself speak. If all is well, at a high volume like this, the vocals should now feel like they’re somewhat too quiet. For the finer adjustments, I recommend listening to how commercial productions in the same genre have been balanced.
What special tricks and techniques do you use to mix vocals? Let us know in the comments!
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