Mixing Vocals | My 7 Step Process
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but every vocal and every performance is wildly different, so it’s difficult to say what you should and shouldn’t be doing. So, instead of instructing you with precise settings and plugins, I’ve put together an adaptable, 7-stage process that you can work through each time you mix a vocal to make sure you’re serving the sound as best you can. I cannot stress enough how open to interpretation this is! The idea is that it's more of a thought process and workflow than an exact set of instructions.
Before you think about mixing, you should make sure that your vocals are edited properly. There are two good reasons for this. Firstly, having well edited vocals will mean there will be less processing to do at the mixing stage and you will be relying on plugins a lot less. It can have a huge bearing on the final sound. Secondly, it will get you out of the editing mindset and allow you to focus all of your attention on the actual mixing, without getting sidetracked.
Good editing is a topic in it’s own right, so if you haven’t already check out my blog post “How to Edit Vocals Like a Pro”
2. EQ to Remove Excess Bass and Nasty Resonances
The first thing I use in my vocal chain is an EQ, something digital and precise. The aim of this is to cut out anything that doesn’t sound good, so I remove unwanted bass with a low pass filter and then notch out any nasty resonances, such as excess room sound, harsh mids or piercing highs. To make sure it sounds natural, keep the “Q” factor on each band nice and high, so you don’t take out too much of the surrounding frequencies.
3. Compress to Control
Next, I use a compressor to control the performance and knock off any sudden peaks. I like to use the FabFilter Pro-C2 because it’s nice and transparent and quick to set up, but any stock compressor will sound just fine, it’s more of a workflow thing. The settings will depend on the performance, but I’d recommend a fairly fast attack and higher ratio (something like 5:1) doing about 3db of gain reduction max.
4. EQ to Shape the Tone
The last two steps have been all about controlling the sound, but now it’s time to start shaping it and making it sound exciting. First up, another EQ. It’s practically impossible to give any settings here, but the aim is get the vocal to feel one with the instrumental with broad strokes. You might use a high shelf to add some “air” to the vocal, or take away some high end and dull it down. You could use a boost between 2k-5k to add some presence and bring the vocal forwards. You could add some bottom end to give it a rich and warm quality. Listen in context with the song (don’t use the solo button) and remember, if it sounds good, it is good. I normally like an analogue emulation of some sort for this. (Slate’s SSL emulation pictured)
5. Compress for Tone
Next I use a second compressor to add some more movement and tone to the vocal. (It’s hard to describe what I mean without using these silly words) I like to use a few different analogue emulations for this depending on what sort of sound I’m going for. One of my favourites is Slate Digital’s 1176 emulation, using a slow attack and fast release. For a dynamic, quieter track I might use more subtle settings (4:1 ratio, 2-3db of gain reduction). Or, for something that needs a more upfront, aggressive vocal sound I might use an 8:1 ratio and knock off about 5db. Really hearing the tone compression can add is something that took me a while, especially with vocals, so don't worry if this doesn’t click immediately, keep at it!
6. What else is needed?
The bulk of the processing is done now, so it’s time to think if there’s anything else that could be needed for this specific performance. Is there too much sibilance despite manually de-essing at the editing stage? Maybe you need a de-esser. Looking for a more vintage sound, or something with a bit more character? Try some saturation. High-mids still a bit harsh in places, but not in others? A multi-band compressor could smooth that out.
7. Reverbs and Delays to Your Heart’s Content!
Now that your vocal is sounding perfect, you can start thinking about the spatial effects you want to use. I would always recommend setting these up on auxiliary channels (so that the effect has its own fader) for maximum control. This will work differently depending on your DAW, so if you’re not sure just Google “How to set up an effects track in [insert software name here]”.
My favourite way to mix reverbs and delays is to turn the effect all the way up and shape the sound, then bring the fader all the way down once it’s sounding how you want it to. From there, slowly bring the fader back up until it feels like the right blend of wet, effected signal and the dry vocal.
I hope this helps you to make better mixes! If I could give you just one more piece of advice it'd be this - There are no rules and no set guidelines for mixing vocals. Use your ears and don't be afraid to experiment!
If you'd like a mix critique to help you with any of this, get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.