6 Vocal Mixing Tricks For Release-Ready Sound
You don't have to be a musical pro to recognize badly mixed vocals. They are disharmonious, irritating, and frankly make you want to yank your ears off. And it can be heartbreaking if the vocals aren't sounding right even after mixing vocals in your track.
Vocals make the highlight of a song. The beat creates the mood and ambiance for the vocals to come in and tell the story. Think of the beat as the curtain-raiser and the vocals as the main performer.
Now imagine yourself in a concert hall awaiting to indulge in a great orchestral performance. You paid a premium price for the VIP tickets so you can get closer to the action. But as the performance starts, a bunch of blokes in the regular section break out into a loud unending banter.
Annoying right? Well, that is exactly how you feel when listening to badly mixed vocals. Some vocal-mixing mistakes are pronounced while others are subtle and take a good ear to spot them. But whether the mistakes are loud or whispery, badly mixed vocals ruin the flavor of your track.
To avoid these rookie mistakes, how do you properly mix your vocals and make them release-ready? Stay with me as I reveal the 6 golden mixing vocals tips that will turn your good sound into a great release-ready master.
Clean bad sounds when mixing vocals
The first thing you want to do is hunt for dissonant frequencies in your recorded vocals. Remember the orchestra analogy? Dissonant frequencies are equivalent to the blokes whose annoying banter muffled the performer's soothing voice. Dissonant sounds or frequencies affect the main vocals by making them muddy, harsh, or otherwise unpleasant.
Bad sounds or frequencies come from recording a track in a less-controlled environment. If the vocals were not recorded in a soundproofed studio, the room resonances contribute to the bad frequencies in your vocals.
Bad or dissonant frequencies are also caused by;
- Too much low-mid buildup which robs the vocals of their clarity and richness
- Nasal sounds. For instance, if the singer had a cold, then sadly the recorded vocals will have the flu too
- Poor recording instruments. Yes, that cheap microphone you bought online didn’t do a good job.
Fortunately, it is easy to hunt for bad frequencies in vocals. You only need any basic EQ and a good ear. If you are mixing vocals on Logic Pro X, Ableton, Reaper, or FL Studio, the standard in-built EQ will do just fine. The choice is yours.
Without further ado, here is how to sweep for bad frequencies.
Step by step procedure
- Start by isolating or soloing the vocals in your track
- Load the EQ and remove the bass frequency with a low-cut
- Next up, take a peak band and raise it to a value between 12 to 24db. Set the Q to something very narrow so that you can hear just a small piece of the sound.
- Now hold the EQ band and sweep across, from the lows to the highs, hunting for dissonant sounds.
- Whenever you find a bad dissonance- a screech, warble, or a weird bass- dip it down with the EQ
- By doing this you are telling the bad dissonant sound to hush (if only we could do so to the blokes) and let the good sounds play.
Cleaning your vocals helps you
- Take away any unwanted frequencies created by poor quality recording or sub-standard equipment
- Remove any background noises- especially when recording a live performance
- Declutter your track and create rooms for the musical instruments to shine
- Prepare the track for the mixing and mastering phase
Tone down Sibilance with De-Esser plugins
Sibilance here refers to those hissing sounds we make when pronouncing some letters like S or Z. A good example is listening to Daffy Duck repeat the word ‘Nervous’ while grilling Porky at the witness stand.
It is hard to hear sibilance when you speak unless you just got a tongue piercing. But a professional microphone will amplify the slightest hiss sound made when pronouncing the letter ‘S’ or the phonic ‘Sh’. This can be annoying to listen to and can make your vocals sound unprofessional.
But not all sibilance is bad. There is good sibilance like in Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’. You can spot some good sibilance in George Michaels’ Careless Whisper too. And if you are an old-school hip-hop head, you probably jammed to the sibilant hook in Vanilla Ice’ ‘Ice Ice Baby’.
It all comes down to a good ear and your artistic verdict. If the sibilance doesn't add value to your vocals, you need to reduce the Ss. A great way to do this is grabbing a De-Esser plugin of choice and following the process below;
Step by step
- Load the De-Esser plugin on your vocal track
- Solo the vocals
- Next is to set the de-essing frequency for your vocals. For female voices, the frequency will generally be higher than for males.
- Now set the threshold. This sets a sibilance limit for the vocals. If the S or Sh sounds pass this limit, the de-Esser will compress them down.
- Next is to set the maximum reduction for de-essing. This determines how much of the S sounds you take away.
- With these three parameters set, go in and start hunting for sibilant sounds
A rule of thumb is to not overdo the De-essing as your singer will sound like, well, Daffy Duck. Use your good ear to make the right judgment.
Balance the volume when mixing vocals
Vocals can go from low to high, and vice versa, instantly and randomly. Listen to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’. A good mixing and mastering genius will employ one or two compressors to smooth out the voice transitions while mixing vocals.
Using multiple compressors is known as serial compression and it works better than using one compressor. Working with one compressor is fine too if there is not that much dynamic range in vocals. Otherwise, you risk your vocals sounding too mechanical from overusing one compressor.
Here is how you go about serial compressing;
- Load a compressor of choice
- Reduce the threshold while you raise the ratio of the compressor. This will help you hear all the changes you make.
- Next is to set the attack time. The attack time is the amount of time it takes for the compressor to fully clamp down after the signal passes the threshold
- Attack time is all about deciding how much punchiness you want in the vocals. If you want more punch in how the singer pronounces words, you go with a slow attack time. If you want to make the vocals gentler, faster attack time is better to sooth out any peaks at the start of words.
- With your attack time set, next is to set the release time. 40ms is a good place to start but it can be different in various plugins for mixing vocals.
- With the attack and release time set, bringing the ration down to somewhere around 3:1
- Now adjust the threshold and ratio once more until you achieve a 2db to 3db gain reduction. Again this depends on the type of vocals you are mixing. For mixing rap vocals or any music with heavy vocals, a higher dB gain reduction may be better
- Lastly, increase the makeup gain to raise the sound's volume back to normal. Compressors usually make the sound quieter.
- From here, all you need to repeat this process with one or more additional compressors. Different compressors have different characters, so you should experiment with a few to find the right sound for your track.
Serial compression helps with raising the vocals to compete with the instrumentals. It helps add punchiness to words or bring the singer’s voice closer to the listener.
Find your tone when mixing vocals
Establishing a tone is all about giving the song a unique personality. If you want the song to sound retro, then you can create that feel through EQ and other effects. There are plenty of EQ plugins and presets you can work with.
Remember there is no one-stop shop when it comes to setting the tonal EQ of your track. It all depends on what tone you think will be best for your vocals. But to guide you, ensure you have a reference track to guide you as you set the tonal EQ in your vocals.
Whatever you do, make sure the vocal tone sounds as close to the reference track as possible. Also, be subtle when tweaking the tonal quality. Your boosts and cuts should not go beyond 5db or it will ruin how your vocals sound.
Throw in some reverbs and delays
Reverbs and delays make your vocals sound more natural. We normally record vocals in a soundproofed room where sound seldom bounces off the walls and creates reverbs. We do this to record the best quality sound in its driest form.
A reverb is adding that echoey touch to make your vocals sound more natural and pleasant. If you want a perfect example of reverb and delays in music, listen to this sweet hook from Wyclef Jean's 'Sweetest Girl'.
Now, not all songs need huge reverbs and delays. Some will sound better relatively dry. But if your artistic ear tells you that your mixing vocals need a little more spice to sound real, then follow these steps.
Reverb and Delay: Step by step
- Start by exporting or sending your vocals to an Aux track
- Load your reverb plugin on the vocals. Note that reverb plugins will be different whether you are mixing vocals in Pro Tools, Audacity, Logic, or Ableton. But the plugin features are similar.
- Set your vocals to ‘100% wet’. Doing this protects direct sounds from bleeding through
- Identify the decay time that is appropriate for your track. A long decay makes vocals and other sounds bigger and more full, but can also make things muddy. Alternatively, a short reverb can be a good way to add a natural sense of space, but may not have the grand feeling you're looking for. For this reason, it's not uncommon to have multiple reverbs that are turned on and off for different parts of a song. Maybe the verse has a short reverb for space but gets swapped out for a big reverb in the chorus or at the end of particular phrases.
- Play around with the pre-delay features. A pre-delay of 30 to 100 ms would work for most vocals
- Set the distance parameter as well. This helps you bring the singer closer or further to the listener.
- Add an EQ plugin to control the tone as you play around with reverbs
- Set the reverb level. This helps make your reverbs subtle and not so obvious to the listener. To do this turn the reverb down and start raising it as the vocals loop.
- When you start hearing the reverb effect, that is your limit. From here, tweak the reverb downwards until it gives the vocals a rich sound that blends with the rest of the track.
Use Mixing Vocals effects to add flavor
Mixing vocals effects add more flavor to your vocals. They turn boring vocals to musical melodies you will beg to hear more of. When you think of effects, think of chorus, flangers, or autotune (does Travis Scott come to mind?). Other mixing vocals effects like Pitch Shifter bumps up your sound and makes it warmer. You could also use a Guitar Amp to make your voice more bluesy.
It is all about personal preference when it comes to mixing vocals effects. Have a reference track with you for direction.
Follow these 6 rules for mixing vocals and your tracks will be on their way to achieving a professional sound. When you apply these rules, you make the mastering engineer's work easier as they spend less time correcting avoidable mistakes in mixing vocals. And all engineers feel more inspired to do a great job when working from vocals that are professional and not muddy.
Looking for someone to mix your vocals?
Mixing vocals can be daunting. It takes time, patience, and a good ear to sweep out those unwanted frequencies and give your voice the rich flavor it needs. Suffice to say, you need someone with loads of experience in mixing vocals.
Which is why you should come to us. As Mr. Mix and Master, we have won 48 platinum awards in 2019 because we got the vocals right for our A-list artists. Oh, by the way, we have worked with the likes of French Montana, XXXtentacion, Ceelo Green, Sean Kingston, Lil Pump, Dj, Khalid, and Future.
We are not saying this to brag. We just want you to know that you can trust us with your sound. Mr. Mix n Master has mixed and mastered vocals for celebrity artists. If they liked the job we did, you can like it too.