Get your vocals sounding great even before the mix. With these 4 essential tips, you’ll ensure you begin the mix with a radio-ready vocal, saving yourself valuable time and creative energy.
By Charles Hoffman
Getting your vocal tracks to sound right can be quite a time-consuming task, especially if you leave it all to the mix stage. In general, it takes much longer to mix vocals than it does any other element in your song.
To avoid this headache and a potentially huge amount of vocal mixing work, it can be helpful to divide the tasks earlier in the production stages so that when you get the mix, the vocals are already sounding great. If you’re successful, you’ll just need a little work to blend the vocals with the other instruments and add some additional flavor and FX. We’ll give you 4 tips to prepare your vocals for mixing.
1. Record Like There’s No Mixing
From the outset, you should always aim to record your vocal tracks at the best sonic level possible. The quality of your mix is dependent upon the quality of your recordings. Mixing a poorly recorded song is extremely challenging, as any professional mixing engineer will attest. There are many sound restoration plugins that can do wonders in restoring poorly recorded material, including X-Noise, X-Crackle, X-Hum and the NS-1 Noise Suppressor. However, repairing audio can take serious time, and since our aim is to reduce the time you’re spending on your vocal mixing, this should be used as a last resort.
The construction of a song is very similar to the development of a house. If you try to build a wooden frame on an unstable foundation, the whole house is going to collapse. Poor work performed by one contractor leads to issues that the next contractor has to deal with, problems snowball, and deadlines aren’t met. The exact same thing is true when recording and mixing a song.
Take your time at a recording level, and you’ll save yourself countless hours of mixing work. Make sure you’re in a quiet room without high levels of street noise. Turn off the air conditioner. Spend time setting up the microphone in the best spot in the room, without too many early reflections. Dial-in the correct preamp gain so there’s healthy volume and enough headroom. “We’ll fix it in the mix” is something you just don’t say at a professional level. Why bother spending two hours fixing something in the mix that can be re-recorded in 5 minutes?
2. Process Audio on the Way into Your DAW
Commitment… the one thing everyone is afraid of. Engineers who grew up having to commit signal processing to tape are a bit more acquainted with the concept of committing to certain sounds than those new to the recording scene. The benefit of committing processing to audio on the way into your DAW is that it saves time and CPU power.
Knowing that you can’t swap out signal processing chains after you’ve recorded vocals forces you to slow down and really think about the recording process. Tracking vocals this way requires a bit more of an upfront time commitment, but the time it saves you while mixing is well worth it. You can think of it as a time investment rather than an expense.
Mix engineer Jacquire King uses a rather thorough recording process, one that Graham Cochrane of the Recording Revolution outlines in a YouTube video called “Why The Pros Don’t Rush Recording.” King runs vocals through three different preamps and listens critically to how they interact with his sound source. He selects the preamp that works best and then moves onto choosing a compressor, listening carefully along the way. This can be a slow recording process, but it saves a ton of time once you start mixing.
Many people don’t own analog gear, which seems like it may throw a wrench into this workflow. However, you can set up a similar digital solution that allows you to save CPU. Start by creating a new audio track in your DAW and load it up with the analog-emulation plugins that you’d like to use. A good general place to start might be with the Scheps 73 Neve preamp and EQ emulation or the SSL E-Channel strip, which also provides compression.
The input of this track should be set to whichever input the microphone you’re recording vocals with is connected to on your audio interface. The output of this track will be set to whichever other audio track you want to record audio to, meaning you’ll have to switch the output multiple times if you're going to record more than one audio track. The track containing analog hardware emulations is merely being used for baking processing into the audio signal you record to the other audio tracks in your DAW, simulating the effects of an analog signal chain, committing to sounds, and saving CPU.
3. Coax a Quality Vocal Performance
The one thing that’s almost impossible to fix while mixing is the quality of a vocal performance. Recording-quality aside, a vocalist who under delivers in their performance can be the death of a song. Performance reigns supreme in the world of recording. Most consumers would rather listen to a phenomenal performance that’s been recorded poorly than a poor performance that’s been recorded well.
Unfortunately, trying to morph a poorly performed vocal recording into a quality one can be extremely time-consuming. It often involves splicing together different parts of words, and the time investment usually isn’t worth the minuscule improvement. Therefore, it’s essential that you coax an excellent vocal performance from your singer.
Luckily, there’s a fair bit you can do to help a vocalist along. Put yourself in the shoes of your talent and think about how they’re feeling. If they haven’t done much recording before, they may be excited or nervous and slightly off their game. Simply being welcoming and accommodating when they step inside your studio can help put them at ease and prompt a better performance.
Giving newer vocalists a little heads up to practice before their recording session can save everyone a hassle; you might be surprised at how many new singers don’t think to do this. At the very least, they should have their lyrics memorized so that they can focus on the nuances of their phrasing and performance.
When I record a new artist, I email them a one-page PDF with general studio rules, some tips on how to prepare for their session, and a brief outline of the recording process. It helps ease some of the anxiety that comes along with recording in a new space and ensures that most sessions run smoothly. Artists walk into my studio, they know what to expect, and we can get straight to work. Not only does this help improve vocal performances (which reduces mixing time), but it reduces recording time as well.
4. Use Pitch Correction…In Moderation
Pitch correction is an art form requiring a combination of a trained set of ears and pitch correction software like Waves Tune or Waves Tune Real-Time. Trying to get an out-of-tune vocal to drive the emotion of the song and sit in the mix can be a serious challenge, so spending a bit of time on pitch correction in the production stage is a worthwhile use of time. On the other hand, you can spend countless hours trying to tune each syllable perfectly, but at a certain point, the return on your time investment becomes insignificant. Depending on the genre of the song you’re working on and the skill of your vocalist, you can sometimes get away with applying minimal pitch correction.
There are two main ways to apply pitch correction to a vocal. The first way involves slight adjustments here and there, correcting pitch drift and modulation. The second method involves using Waves Tune Real-Time as an effect and really slamming your vocals through the plugin; this is how you can get that T-Pain sound.
If I’m using pitch correction as an effect, I generally find that cleaning up a vocal with light pitch correction before running it through a second plugin applying heavy pitch correction allows the second device to work better. Trying to get one instance of your pitch correction software to function both as a cleanup tool and as a hard-tuned effect can be quite frustrating and time-consuming; it’s best to split this processing into two distinct steps.
As you’ve seen, preparing your vocals for mixing starts at a recording level. Developing an effective recording strategy is essential and prompting quality performances out of your vocalists makes a world of difference. Using effective pitch correction solutions reduces the time it takes to get through the most tedious part of processing vocals. Keep these concepts in mind the next time you start a project that involves vocals, and when you get to the mix, you’ll be dealing with great-sounding sources.
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