Your track’s vocal part should be its main focal point – here’s how to get this vital element clearer and more professional, just like it is in your favorite songs.
Whether you’re mixing male vocals or female vocals, it’s a core skill in the world of music production. Mixing lead vocals to a professional standard is no easy feat, so we’ve compiled some tried-and-tested vocal mixing techniques for making your singer into exactly what they should be: the star of the show.
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In This Article
1. Make Your Vocal Stand Out for all the Right Reasons
Without naming any names, it’s fair to say that we’ve all heard a mix where the vocal is the first thing you hear, but not because it sounds super clean and polished. Tuning issues, sibilance, unwanted breathiness and room noise are all common causes of vocals that stick out like a sore thumb.
Before you start applying further processing to your vocals, or try to mix them in with the rest of the composition, it’s best practice to iron out any of these issues first. This will save you countless hours and many headaches when it comes to mixing the finished product.
In our case, our finished product sounds OK, but the vocal is definitely struggling to shine through the mix. With a few vocal mixing techniques, we can bring this vocal out of the mix and give it that much-needed clarity.
Check out our ‘Before’ vocal below, and wait until the end of this article to hear the ‘After’ version after all our tips have been applied.
2. Remove Unwanted Frequencies from the Lead Vocal with Silk Vocal
Now we’ve got a nice clean lead vocal to mix, let’s take a look at where we can remove some frequency content without compromising the overall tone of the recording. Although it may seem counterintuitive to remove frequencies when we’re trying to make the vocal stand out, it actually helps to give everything its own space within the frequency spectrum.
Due to background and hardware noise, most recordings will contain some low frequencies that are only necessary to keep in the case of recording kick, bass or other low-frequency instruments. We can use the Low band in Silk Vocal to control all of the information below 300Hz in a natural and musical way.
Place Silk Vocal on your vocal channel and turn off the Mid and High bands by clicking on the corresponding blue buttons. Straight away, you’ll see the plugin get to work on reducing the signal below 300Hz. We can afford to be quite aggressive here, so increase the Reduction Amount until you’re happy with the resulting signal.
Not only does this help to focus the vocal in on the frequencies that are most important, but it clears the way for instruments that should take precedence in the lower frequencies, thus creating more clarity and headroom when it comes to the final mix.
3. Tackle Frequency Masking to Unveil the Lead Vocal
Currently, parts of the vocal are being masked by the same frequencies in some of the song’s other elements, most notably the chords and backing harmony. We can use F6 Dynamic EQ and Silk Vocal to attenuate or accentuate certain frequencies of clashing elements, in order to give them their own space within the frequency spectrum.
Separating the Chords from the Lead Vocal with F6 Dynamic EQ
Let’s start with the chords, as they seem to be the biggest perpetrator of this problem. Depending on your workflow, you might find it easier to hear your processing if you solo the elements you’re trying to create space between.
The masking sounds most obvious during the emphasized syllables on the first beat of each bar, and we can see from F6 Dynamic EQ’s analyzers that the majority of the frequency masking is occurring between 200Hz and 1000Hz.
By creating a slight cut around the 600Hz range of the chords, the vocal becomes much more open and transparent.
Removing too much of this frequency range causes the chords to lose some of their body. To counteract this, we’ve also reintroduced some of the frequencies adjacent to the 600Hz range.
Separating the Backing Vocal from the Lead Vocal with Silk Vocal
Place another instance of Silk Vocal on your backing vocal channel, select the appropriate voice type and turn off the Low and Mid bands by clicking on the corresponding blue buttons. Because we aren’t de-essing in this case, we’ll also put Silk Vocal in general high-end processing mode.
We can see that Silk Vocal is immediately attenuating nasty high frequencies from the backing vocal, which lets the airyness of the lead vocal shine through a little more.
4. Multiband Sidechain Compression for Natural Ducking
While we have reduced the amount of frequency masking occurring around that troublesome 600Hz area, we haven’t been able to totally eliminate it without completely changing the chords’ tonal balance. Using C6 Multiband Compressor’s external sidechain functionality, we can set up a band of compression around the problem area that reacts to the lead vocal.
Place the sidechain version of C6 Multiband Compressor on the channel that you want to duck out of the way of the vocal, and set the lead vocal as the sidechain input within your DAW. Set the first band to External Sidechain mode, and set the frequency to the problem area.
Reduce the first band’s Threshold until the problem words or syllables are triggering compression, then reduce the Range until you achieve a suitable level of gain reduction. The goal here is to apply subtle compression rather than an all-out pumping effect. If you set the Threshold or Range too low, the compression will start to sound lumpy and unnatural.
You can use the Attack and Release settings to tweak the speed at which the compression starts and stops. Setting quicker Attack and Release times tends to make the level reduction sound more natural and musical, but this depends on your source signal.
5. Create Stereo Separation for Greater Transparency
Not only were the lead and backing vocals occupying much of the same frequencies, but they’re both right in the center of the stereo field too. In the case of the lead vocal, this gives it maximum impact across all playback systems. For the backing vocal, though, we can place this wider in the stereo field.
Using S1 Stereo Imager, let’s add some width to the backing vocals. Simply place the plugin on the channel and increase the Width amount. This creates some much-needed stereo separation, thus allowing both elements to be distinguished from one another more easily.
Doing so causes the backing vocal to sound slightly louder, as it’s now in its own space. We can counter that using S1 Stereo Imager’s Gain fader.
6. Compress the Lead Vocal for More Energy
While our lead vocal recording isn’t excessively dynamic, it does contain some peaks that jump out a little. Making a vocal’s overall level more consistent can help it to retain energy within a mix.
Using Silk Vocal’s inbuilt Dynamics Processing, we can apply compression by pulling down the Dyn fader. Lower the fader to increase the amount of compression being applied. We just want to compress those extraneous peaks in order to make the vocal more tight and impactful, so keep an eye on the dynamics meter as you listen to the vocal.
7. Sidechain-Compress Effects from the Dry Vocal
In order to give the lead vocal some space and character, it’s been sent to a return channel containing H-Delay, which is applying an eighth note delay with a short to medium feedback.
The Feedback amount has been set so that the delay tails fill the spaces between the vocal lines, but in some instances, this causes the tail of the delay to overlap previous words, which affects its clarity. This can be solved using some clever sidechain compression.
Place Renaissance Compressor after H-Delay on the return channel, and set the dry lead vocal as the sidechain signal within your DAW’s routing. You can now reduce the Threshold and increase the Ratio until you can hear the dry lead vocal triggering the delay to be ducked.
Tweak the Attack and Release settings until you achieve the desired effect. The Attack time should be extremely fast so that the ducking occurs instantly, and the Release should be set according to the tempo of your project, the cadence of your lead vocal and whether you want a rhythmic ducking effect or a more lazy feel. In the case of this project, a sixteenth note at 117 BPM equates to 128ms, which works nicely here.
This technique doesn’t just work on vocal delays, but on reverb effects and other elements too. It’s a great way to add space and depth to any element within your mix, without adding unwanted mud and smearing.
Take a listen to this dynamic effects setup in action on a snare drum reverb in our video What Is Sidechain Compression: 5 Top Production Sidechaining Tips.
With these techniques, we’ve taken a jumbled, muddy mess that was lost in the mix, and transformed it into a transparent lead that occupies the front and center of our track.
For more tips on mixing vocals, why not check out our article on the 12 Essential Steps for Mixing Lead Vocals.