How To Mix Vocals: A Step-By-Step Guide
“You can’t polish a turd.” You may have heard this phrase. If you want to learn how to mix vocals, that’s a great truism to know going in. Mixing starts with a good recording (more on that below).
Assuming you’ve got great raw vox, this post will show you a basic step-by-step instructional on mixing vocals. First, we’ll cover what the different plugins do, then we’ll cover how to best use those plugins on vocals.
Then we’ll discuss the steps you’ll need to take when you’re learning how to mix vocals:
How to Approach Mixing Vocals
During your recording sessions and definitely before you start mixing, write this phrase on a sticky note and put it in your studio space: “You can’t fix it in the mix.”
This is the mindset you’ll need if you want to end up with vocals that sound professional. Mixing is not a fix-it station. It’s a polishing station. So, in order to end up with a great mix, the recording has to be solid. You have to be happy with the sounds you’ve captured or else you won’t be happy with them after they’re mixed.
Then when you do start mixing, it’s all about subtlety. It’s better to make a lot of small adjustments than a few big ones. And because you’ve nailed the recording part, mixing will be much easier.
Essential Vocal Mixing Plugins and What They Do
When mixing vocals, there are a handful of plugins you can use on a vocal recording to enhance it. The two main plugins that you’ll almost always use on vocals are EQ and compression. But there are some other very important plugins, like a de-esser, reverb, delay, and chorus.
Here’s a quick intro to each plugin that explains what they can do.
An Equalizer (EQ) is the first plugin you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. It may be the most important plugin involved in mixing, yet it shouldn’t be heard. Let me explain.
When you effectively use EQ, it’s what you don’t hear that counts. EQ is a plugin that helps subtract unwanted frequencies to allow other frequencies to fill the space, making the whole thing sound better. You can use it to boost frequencies, but the key is to subtly subtract what you don’t want.
One of the main things EQ does is balance the tone. EQing a track means you’re balancing frequencies — more of the good, less of the bad. You’re basically balancing the instruments with each other, making sure they all play nice together.
Another important thing EQ does is to remove overlapping frequencies. The more tracks/instruments you have in a song, the more likely it is to sound muddy, especially the vocals. By using subtractive EQ, you can help separate overlapping frequencies.
Let’s say a vocal is overlapping with an acoustic guitar (which is common). This can lead to the listener losing the full effect of one or both parts. Things just get convoluted. Carving out a space for each instruments’ frequencies helps them both stand on their own and sound great together.
A third thing that EQ does for your vocal mix is control it. If a vocal is too muddy, EQ can clean it off a bit. It can help tame harshness in a vocal or bring out the best parts in the Singer’s voice. Basically, EQ helps remove ugly frequencies and boost the pretty ones.
A de-esser plugin removes plosives — sounds like “s”, “z” and “sh.” Your pop filter should catch most of these sounds, but sometimes a Singer has very prominent annunciation that sneaks into the recording. A de-esser can help lessen these.
Compression takes a little more practice to understand, but it’s a crucial part of mixing vocals.
At its most basic, compression takes the quietest parts and loudest parts of a track and brings them closer to the middle in terms of its dynamic range. It evens out the volume, so to speak. This can allow you to make the track louder overall without the audio peaking or being damaged.
That’s the first thing that compression is good for — automating the volume control. Adding compression to a vocal track is one of the most common uses. Think about it — a Singer can go from a soft and quiet verse to a loud and passionate chorus. In a vocal take with no compression, these differences will seem stark.
Compression helps even out the loudness, making the whole track more consistent with itself throughout the song.
But compression can also help ramp up the energy of a vocal recording. By using compression with a slow attack (more on how to do that below), you can make the soft parts jump out more and ensure the loud parts aren’t too in-your-face. This helps bring every part of the vocal forward and increases the energy of the whole song.
A more advanced use of compression is tone shaping, although using a compressor naturally changes the tone, even if only subtly.
Reverb is a great little tool that can add a lot to your vocal recording.
The first thing it does is change the size and sound of the “room.” You can make it sound like the Singer was in a cathedral or right up in the listener’s face, depending on what you want for the song. Reverb often works really well on a vocal during the chorus.
Another way to use reverb is track blending, which is when you use reverb to blend all the instruments together. This can help them sound like they were recorded together, especially if you use the same reverb setting on each one.
If reverb can change the size of the room, delay can change the size of the cave. The main ways I like to use delay are to add ambience and to transition to a new part of the song.
If you add delay to a vocal track, it will probably just be subtle. However, delay can sound really nice on a backing track or harmony. Delay is also just a fun tool for making crazy, “out there” sounds.
Chorus is another way to polish vocals, adding a shininess to them. Like all of these plugins, your use of Chorus should be subtle. Just add enough to give the vocals a little depth, not so much that it’s distracting.
During your recording sessions and definitely before you start mixing, write this phrase on a sticky note and put it in your studio space: “You can’t fix it in the mix.” This is the mindset you’ll need if you want to end up with vocals that sound professional. Mixing is not a fix-it station.
The Step-By-Step Guide To Mixing Vocals
Now let’s get down to business. Here’s the best FX chain to use when mixing vocals — almost every DAW has these plugins built in.
Remember, be subtle with these steps.
Step #1: EQing
I usually use a 4-band EQ and one of the first things I do is apply a high-pass filter. This cuts out the really low frequencies, like low rumblings or some mic noise.
Then you’ll want to use the 2 and 3 bands to cut unwanted frequencies. Narrow the bandwidth of the band you’re working with, grab the band and drag it all the way up, then slowly slide it left and right to listen for the weirdest sounding frequencies. Once you find the ugliest sound nearest the band, bring that band down to about 2-4 dB gain reduction.
After doing this with the 2 and 3 bands, you can use the 4 band to slightly boost the higher frequencies, if they sound nice. When boosting frequencies of a vocal, keep it to 1-2 dB of gain increase.
Another thing you can do with EQ is frequency slotting. This is when you cut certain frequencies in other instruments to make room for the frequencies in the vocal. So let’s say you hear a piano that has conflicting frequencies with the vocal. Instead of boosting the frequencies in the vocal, go to the piano and cut the overlapping frequencies.
Step #2: De-essing
If you need to cut down on plosives, add your de-essing plugin to the vocal track. It may be best to start with a preset, like “Female De-esser,” and adjust the settings to your preference.
One thing you need to be careful of is using too much de-essing. If you overdo it, it can make the Singer sound as if they have a lisp.
Step #3: Compression
In most cases, compression should be very subtle. When it comes to shaping the tone with compression, you can either use a slow attack time or a fast attack time. Both extremes will give you different tones, but both will help your vocals stand out from the mix.
Slower attack times (around 5ms) will give you an aggressive and punchy vocal while faster attack times (around 30ms) will give you heavier and thicker vocals.
Because compression can get a little confusing, here’s a list of steps to get you started:
- Set your attack time to about 15ms and adjust as you please
- Set your release time at about 40ms and adjust
- Set your ratio to somewhere between 1.5:1 and 2.5:1
- Lower the threshold until you hear and see the compressor working
- Lower the threshold until you see about 2-3dB of gain reduction
- Bring up the vocal track volume as needed (you should have more headroom after using the compressor)
Reverb is a great little tool that can add a lot to your vocal recording. The first thing it does is change the size and sound of the “room.” You can make it sound like the Singer was in a cathedral or right up in the listener’s face, depending on what you want for the song. Reverb often works really well on a vocal during the chorus.
Step #4: Delay
Delay is one you have to do a lot more playing around with. How you use delay can vary widely depending on the sound you want and even what part of the song needs what type of delay.
With delay, I usually start with a preset and adjust from there. For example, a 5-tap ping-pong delay works great for transitioning from a big and full part of the song to a part with minimal instrumentation.
Here are some general tips for using delay:
- Don’t go crazy with it — too much can wreck the stereo-ness of the track
- Using delay on tracks not panned down the middle can lessen the effect of the delay
- Try bussing your delay to allow you to adjust the delay on multiple tracks at once
- Use delay to fill out an empty vocal
Step #5: Chorus
To add a little more shimmer to your vocal, apply a bit of Chorus. Go easy on it though. You only need a touch of it to make a difference. Too much and it could end up being distracting.
I would say start with a preset and move the settings as needed.
Furthering Your Mixing Knowledge
This post is a basic step-by-step guide for mixing vocals, but you can go a lot deeper than this once you get some practice.
If and when you want to increase your knowledge of mixing vocals, you can check out websites run by professional Mixing Engineers, like Musician On A Mission or The Recording Revolution. If you’re looking to go pro with audio engineering and mixing, you may also want to consider getting a degree from a music school.
Whatever route you end up taking, I think this guide will get you started on the right path.
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