Vocals are one of most organic elements you’ll find in music and are therefore one of the most important, and most difficult aspects to get right. When making electronic music, mixing vocals can be even more difficult as you try to balance a dynamic, organic sound with mostly sampled and consistent sounds. Don’t worry though, as always Point Blank is here to help with ten vocal production tips to help you balance and mix a killer vocal in your tracks. If you want to learn more about mixing vocals and other elements of your tracks, you can find out more about our mixing modules – part of our wider Logic Pro Music Production Diploma – here.
Add a Sidechain Compressor to Control Reverb Return Levels
Balancing a dry vocal signal against the ‘right’ amount of reverb isn’t always easy. If you want a generous reverb level to fill in the gaps between vocal phrases, that amount can often seem too much as a vocalist sings, drowning the vocal performance and distancing the listener unnecessarily. There are two effective ways to address this problem. The first is that you can add volume automation to the reverb auxiliary return, pushing up the reverb level in the gaps, whilst dropping it during vocal phrases. The other way is to place a compressor after the reverb plug-in on its auxiliary and to send the dry vocal to it as a side-chain input source. This will duck the compressor (and therefore the reverb volume) whenever the vocalist sings but not in the gaps between phrases.
Don’t Have a De-Esser? Use Volume Automation Instead
It’s frequently the case that the EQ settings we add to vocals inadvertently increase problems with vocal sibilance. The ‘S’ (and sometimes ‘T’ and ‘F’) sounds which light up the frequency areas between 1.5kHz and 7kHz which cause unpleasant blasts of sibilant noise, are in the same frequency zones we like to boost to bring lightness and ‘air’ to vocals. If you don’t own a De-Esser to address problem frequencies, don’t worry. Carefully drawing volume automation ‘drops’ on the vocal waveform wherever sibilance occurs is often just as effective.
Breathe In (and Out)
Trained vocalists become very good at regulating the volume of sharp intakes of breath, which will be required whenever they’re going to sing loudly, or perform a long phrase. However, even if they’re under control, it’s tempting to chop out all breathing sounds at the mix stage. Weirdly, though, this can sound quite disarming. If there are no breathing sounds at all, the vocal can sound a little less ‘human’ and can actually leave the listener gasping for breath on the singer’s behalf! So, by all means add vocal automation to drop the volume of breathing sounds, or remove particularly unpleasant ‘moments’ of this type entirely – but don’t reach for the Scissors tool by default.
Parallel Compression on Chorus Vocals
If you’ve ever wondered how the power of lead vocalists seems to increase exponentially in the chorus of pop records, it’s likely that the secret lies in parallel processing. Parallel compression is the best-known example of this – sending the vocal channel to a new auxiliary for the chorus, where a compressor with near-Limiting settings is employed to produce a second ‘version’ of the vocal, to be mixed in under the original. However, parallel distortion and EQ can both be just as effective, so explore these techniques if you’re looking to give your chorus vocal a boost.
Be Careful Where You Add New Effects at the Mix Stage
So, your vocal is sounding pretty good and so is the mix. But, just before you’re about to print the stereo master, you decide that your vocal needs a touch of slap-back delay or a subtle new reverb treatment. Be careful – adding these as Insert effects on the vocal channel may well throw off your carefully balanced mix. Insert effects usually balance dry signal against wet, meaning that the portion allocated to creating the effect will lose volume. Adding those same effects on new auxiliary channels is the way to go, as you change volume balance in the process.
Maximize the Quality of Your Recording Space
Your aim should be to spend as little time ‘fixing the problems’ of your vocal recordings and as much time ‘creatively enhancing’ them as possible. This means considering your recording approach carefully, to ensure your results are as clean as they can be. Use a microphone on a stand (to ensure a lack of body noise), isolate the recording area around the microphone as much as possible (to minimise room ambience), use a pop shield (to eradicate plosive sounds) and do anything else you can to capture the cleanest result. A little preparation goes a long way later on.
Prepare Lead Vocal Harmonies in Advance
Adding vocal harmonies – where a second voice is added at a different pitch to thicken a vocal performance – is an extremely effective technique which continues to be employed on most records you hear. The only problem is that if your vocalist isn’t a great improviser, he or she might ask you which harmonies you ‘have in mind’, once the lead vocal is recorded. If music theory isn’t your strong point, this can be an awkward question, as it can feel pretty exposing to try to work out a suitable harmony on the fly. It’s better to prepare for this – using a synth or piano to prepare harmony lines which fit the chords of your track in advance, playing alongside the lead vocal melody to create harmonies which sound good. Keep it simple.
Save and Audition Effects Chains as Starting Points
The thrill of music-making and production often comes from the speed at which it’s possible to process sounds on the fly and to feel flow through your work. Mixing vocals rarely feels like this, as such specific settings for long chains of Insert effects are required. Sometimes it can be better to start ‘at the other end’ of the mix process by preparing chains of effects which can be ‘auditioned’ at the mix stage. Create a ‘super bright and airy’ chain, or a ‘heavily compressed and pumping’ one and flick between them as your track plays back. No chain will sound exactly right but as a fast-track process to discover what might work well, preparing effects chains will keep your mix juices flowing.
Keep Backing Vocals in the Background
Just as vocal harmonies can add power to the lead vocal, so backing vocals performed by a different singer can bring a fresh character to the mix to further support the lead line. Try to bring a different vocal quality to backing vocals, so that the lead vocal’s dominant role isn’t overpowered or diluted. Often, more extreme EQing, to produce a thinner-sounding vocal, with more reverb and a quieter overall level is a good combination to try at first, before tweaking settings to taste.
Do Whatever It Takes
Particularly when you’re new to mixing, it can be tempting to assume that there are ‘specific’ settings for EQ, compression, reverb amounts, delay levels, De-Essing controls and more which will make your vocals sound amazing. The truth is, whilst those plug-ins are regularly used to process vocals, there’s no way to suggest specific settings, as no two singers, tracks, microphones or recording rooms are the same. Mix engineers will use whichever tools are required to get the best results, sometimes throwing the rulebook out of the window to do so. So while using the tools most associated with vocal mixing is a good idea, being prepared to go your own way can be just as – if not more – effective too. If it sounds right, go with it.