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12 Essential Steps to Mixing Lead Vocals

Jun 18, 2020

Follow these 12 steps to transform raw vocal tracks into a performance that is finished with polish and sheen. Make sure you’re not missing out on anything in your vocal mixing process, from editing to adding EQ and compression.

12 Essential Steps for Mixing Lead Vocals

Step 1: Comping and editing

The first step to mixing vocals isn’t mixing at all — it’s editing. If you’re responsible only for mixing, this will likely be taken care of by the artist before they send you the session. If not, it’s up to you to help create the best vocal part out of the available takes, which is a process called comping.

This process will vary a bit depending on the DAW you’re using, but the idea is the same: to compile the very best of several takes of a part, fitting them together in a way that sounds cohesive, natural, and makes up the best overall performance.

Aside from comping, other editing tasks may include trimming away sections of a song while the vocalist was not performing, or editing breaths that stick out too much.

How much of the breath you trim is up to taste – it’s often dependent on the style of music, and ultimately up to how it sounds in the mix. Sometimes you do want them there, and sometimes you don’t. Either way, editing breaths is easy, using a plugin like DeBreath.

While comping should always be done first, the other detailed editing tasks can be taken care of at a later time when you feel you need a break from the creative work. Switching mental gears throughout the mixing process can be very helpful in maintaining a fresh ear and a clear perspective.

Step 2: Tuning

Sometimes, there will be pitch and tuning imperfections in a vocal performance. While that’s not inherently a bad thing, you may want to touch up any questionable notes with pitch correction software like Waves Tune Real-Time.

After applying pitch correction, it’s a good idea to commit, or print the effects (non-destructively) to set the new audio into play and to save processing power during mixing.

Step 3: Gain Staging

Vocals tend to be some of the most dynamic instruments in a mix. But being one of the most important parts in a song, they should be well-controlled.

To avoid audible pumping effects from too much compression when trying to tame a dynamic recording, you should first get the clip gain to a healthy ballpark. You can even out the dynamics manually, or by applying the Vocal Rider plugin.

Step 4: Subtractive EQ

With a fine-tuned foundation, it’s time to start focusing on the tonal qualities of the vocal. The first step is to clean up any problem frequencies. This usually includes excessive low-end buildup from the proximity effect and any harsh frequencies that came through in the recording.

One of the easiest places to start is with the low end. The human voice doesn’t extend much below 80-100 Hz, so it’s common to use a high-pass filter to roll off frequencies below that range.

If you’re having trouble identifying other offending frequencies, try using the sweeping technique:

  • Turn the Q up on one of the EQ bands so it’s quite narrow.
  • Considerably increase the gain on that band
  • Slowly ‘sweep’ through the available frequencies in that band
  • When you hear a particularly resonant, offensive frequency, stop sweeping
  • Now, instead of boosting the gain on that frequency, reduce so you’re attenuating it
  • Adjust the Q value to taste

Remember one of the golden rules of EQ: cut narrow, boost wide. That means it’s usually best to use a higher Q value when using subtractive EQ, and a lower Q value when using additive EQ.

Dynamic EQ can be extremely useful with vocals, since their frequency content often changes throughout a performance. This style of equalizer uses level-depended bands that engage only when a set threshold is crossed, making it so you can affect certain frequencies only when you need to.

In this video, mixer Dave Darlington (David Guetta, Avicii, Sting) shows how to transparently tame harsh vocals without sacrificing presence, using the F6 Dynamic EQ:

Step 5: Additive EQ

After you’ve addressed any problematic frequencies in the vocal, it’s time to start adding some character. For instance, it’s common to have a heavy low end when mixing hip-hop vocals to add a sense of power, to boost the midrange when mixing rock vocals to help cut through a dense mix, or to boost the high end in pop vocals to add presence.

Just be careful when boosting around 2-5 kHz — you don’t want to create any additional harshness.

Signal flow

Some engineers prefer to apply compression before equalization, some prefer to EQ first, and others apply both in stages. Each will give you a different sound, so be sure to experiment to find what works best for your situation.

Step 6: De-Essing

If a vocal does have some harshness, it’s common to use a DeEsser to solve the problem. De-essers are compressors that focus on a specific frequency range, and they’re typically used to remove harshness caused by sizzling “S” and “T” consonant sounds in vocal tracks.

Simply use the monitor feature to listen to the range you’re de-essing, and find the offending frequency. Then, set the threshold so it reduces that range when it becomes harsh.

Step 7: Compression

Once you’ve got the tone of the vocal down, it’s time to tighten up the dynamics so that the performance can stand strong at the front of the mix. There are many compressors out there that are used commonly on vocals – many with slightly different tonal characters and dynamics handling.

It’s common to apply between 3-6 dB of compression using a peak limiter style compressor like the CLA-76, or the SSL E or G Channel compressor. The compressor should only engage to tame the loudest peaks: it shouldn’t be working during the entire vocal performance.

Next, it’s time to set the attack and release times on your compressor. Here’s an easy way to find the best settings:

  • Start with the slowest attack and fastest release times
  • Slowly increase the attack time until you start to shave off the initial transient of the vocal, then back off
  • Next, slowly decrease the release time until the compressor starts to “breathe” in time with the song

It’s common to compress so that the needle shows 3-6 dB of gain education during the loudest peaks, then just before it returns to 0, the next peak gets compressed again. You don’t want to squash the life out of it, but you do want to add energy and strength. Finding that happy balance is what takes a developed ear and practice.

Step 8: More compression

Many engineers like to apply compression in series, meaning they use multiple compressors in small amounts. Often, they’ll start with a fast peak-limiter style compressor, then use a slower compressor to “squeeze” the vocal and help to level out the dynamics.

One of the most popular compressors for this is the CLA-2A optical compressor, but any relatively slow compressor like the PuigChild or Kramer PIE are great as well.

The idea is to use the first compressor to quickly tame peaks, and the second, slower compressor to squeeze the vocal and create more consistent dynamics.

In this video, Graham from the Recording Revolution shows you how he double-stacks compressors on vocals:

Step 9: Even more (parallel) compression

If you’re going for a modern, in-your-face vocal, it’s common to use parallel compression. Simply send the vocal to an aux channel with an aggressive compressor (like the CLA-76 or dbx 160), and smash it to smithereens.

Don’t be afraid to use high ratios, fast attack and release times, and low thresholds. Then, blend in a bit of the hyper-compressed signal to taste. This will help keep the vocal forward while still retaining the natural dynamics of the original take.

Step 10: Saturation and distortion

Very small amounts of saturation and distortion can fatten up a vocal and make it cut through a busy mix by adding harmonics.

With analog recording setups, saturation was added through preamp gain, the circuitry of the channels on the console and the tape machines used. Thankfully, modern plugins allow you to emulate those unique forms of saturation easily in your DAW.

The Scheps 73’s preamp section works great for this, as well as the ‘drive’ section in the NLS Channel console emulation.

If you’re going for a more aggressive sound, try sending the vocal to an aux channel and apply saturation and/or distortion liberally. Then, blend in the effected channel to taste. Remember, a little goes a long way!

Another plugin which can perform wonders for this task is Abbey Road Saturator. The plugin contains emulations of two classic console preamps from the fabled studio, the tube-based REDD, which has a crunchy driven sound and the solid-state TG which has a smoother, rounder sound. Alongside these emulations is a Compander module, which acts like an exciter on the signal and can produce a unique high-frequency shimmer.

Blending a little bit of harmonic saturation from Abbey Road Saturator into your vocal signal, whether through an aux send or an insert, provides a palette of tonal options for the type of “color” you can add to your vocal signal at this point in the chain. Spend a few moments playing around with the settings just to see how versatile this plugin can be for the voice’s character.

In this video excerpt, Dave Darlington shows how he adds parallel distortion to a lead vocal in one section of a song to make it subtly stand out, using the Manny Marroquin Distortion plugin:

Step 11: Reverb and delay

Now that the dynamics and tone of the vocal are in a good place, it’s time to add some space. Stereo reverb and delay effects are great for adding width, while mono effects work well for creating a sense of depth.

Typically, reverbs and delays are timed to the tempo of the track. Shorter times create a smaller space, while longer times make larger spaces.

To avoid muddying up the mix, try to have the decay of the effects fade away just before the next phrase. Depending on the cadence of the vocal, that could be an 1/8 note, a 1/4 note, a 1/2 note, and so on.

The H-Delay plugin works great for adding a delay or echo to emphasize certain words and phrases. For this setup, it’s common to insert the delay plugin on an aux channel, and automate your vocal’s send to that aux. Then, selectively send the words or phrases you want to be repeated, and set the delay’s time, feedback, and EQ filters to taste.

MIX HACK: Signature Series

Applying EQ, compression, dynamics processing and adding effects to vocals is a science and an art. Thankfully, seasoned mixers Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Muse), Greg Wells (Adele, Katy Perry), Butch Vig (Nirvana, Garbage), Jack Joseph Puig (U2, Lady Gaga) and Tony Maserati (Beyoncé, Jay Z) have helped translate their go-to processing chains into all-in-one signature series plugins.

The Signature Series plugins offer unique combinations of EQ, compression, reverb, and dynamics processing, specifically designed for a variety of vocal applications. Each comes with a variety of presets to help you achieve desired sounds quickly.

In this video excerpt, Greg Wells demos his VoiceCentric plugin, A/Bing sections of his mix with and without the plugin so that you can hear the added compression and harmonic characteristics:

And here, mixer Ross Hogarth (Van Halen, Keb’ Mo’, REM) shows how he adds presence, air and distortion to his doubled vocal part in a rock track, using the Butch Vig Vocals plugin:

Step 12: Automation

Automation is the cherry on top of your vocal processing. Simply varying the volume of the vocals throughout the song can be a very effective way to bring them to life as it develops.

Similarly, automating very slight changes in reverb and delay or saturation to fit the development of the song can add a subtle lift that can allow the musical or lyrical content to have more of an impact to the listener. Experiment with this technique in subtle ways so that the effects are more emotionally ‘felt’ than heard.

In the mixing process, it’s okay to jump around with certain steps. If you hear an idea in your head, do it! If you open the session and hear the raw track, but you can perfectly imagine the how the EQ and compression should sound, go for it! Don’t snooze on inspiration.

Similarly, if you’re deep into your channel strip plugin, making tiny adjustments with a lost perspective, jump to some more ‘mechanical’ editing tasks that need to be done. Switching activities is extremely helpful for the mixing mind, and will allow you to do some of your best work.

Ready to dive deeper into the depth of your mix? Learn how to best add depth with reverb, and get tips for adding delay to vocals.

Do you have any lead vocal mixing tips that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.

Originally published on April 18, 2018