Want to stay current with your vocal mixing? Hone into the vocal sounds and trends of 2021 by checking out these 4 essential mixing tips.
By Charles Hoffman, Black Ghost Audio
Pop music is perhaps one of the most intimidating genres of music to dip your toes into. The production value of pop music that hits the airwaves is incredibly high, and getting that polished and pristine sound may appear daunting.
The good news is that with the right mixing techniques, it's possible to create radio worthy pop music at home. We'll be looking at 4 tips to get a “2021 sounding” pop vocal. You'll learn some essential vocal tuning tricks, how to set the level of your lead vocals appropriately, how to maintain control over your spatial effects, and a unique way of generating vocal harmonies.
1. Tightly Tune the Lead Vocal
Everyone is entitled to their opinion when it comes to tuning vocals. Some people believe that pitch correction software gives a platform to people who otherwise can't sing. In online forums, disgruntled engineers will argue until the end of time over whether using pitch correction software is "cheating." With the business side of my brain speaking for me here, the real questions people should be asking are "What's currently trending?" and "What's going to sell more records?"
Within the realm of Pop in 2021, the trend is pitch perfect vocals, but this doesn't necessarily refer to T-Pain-style robotic vocals. Pitch correction that has been applied poorly or creatively can sound robotic, but pitch correction that has been applied effectively should be unnoticeable to the average listener.
You can use Waves Tune to pitch correct vocals. Load the plugin onto a vocal track and then engage playback to scan your vocals into Waves Tune. Click the "Select All" button, choose the scale you're working in, and then click "Apply." Every note gets quantized to the scale you've selected. For the most part, this works pretty well, but software is incapable of distinguishing desirable color notes from incorrect notes. For this, you need to use your ears and adjust funky notes manually. Luckily, this is extremely easy using Waves Tune.
First, take a listen to how Waves Tune performs when you apply it to a track and quantize every note to a particular scale. You can hear that some note bends are creating a weird robotic effect, but it sounds pretty good for the most part.
In comparison, when you manually adjust the notes contributing to an unpleasant or robotic sound, pitch quantization is much less noticeable. Adding some synthetic vibrato to sustained notes helps quite a bit as well because sustained notes are more susceptible to a robotic tone than staccato notes. Adjusting the Depth of the synthetic vibrato by +15 or -15 cents usually does the trick.
Unlike lead vocals, you don't need to worry about perfectly quantizing the pitch centers of background vocals. In many cases, slightly detuned background vocals will sound more powerful, rich and full than pitch perfect background vocals. Detuning the various voices of a polyphonic synth provides a similar effect as a result of the diverse harmonic content. Your background vocals still need to be roughly tuned to the appropriate notes, but feel free to maintain a healthy amount of vibrato within each voice.
2. Don't Bury the Vocals in the Mix
In a Pop song, the vocals are by far the main attraction, and the instrumental is meant to help carry it along. Rock and metal often emphasize the level of guitars, EDM highlights synths, and hip hop makes the presence of drums well known. Since these are the driving forces behind these various genres of music, none of this comes as much of a surprise. However, producers attempting to shift to mixing Pop vocals from other genres of music tend to struggle with setting their vocal levels appropriately. Based on what they're used to, adjusting the level of vocals so that they're extremely upfront and present might feel odd.
"Break Free (ft. Alyssa Lynne)" by AkaHendy and PRZM contains beautiful ethereal vocals that complement the song well, but due to how far back the vocals are sitting in the mix, the song has more of an underground EDM vibe rather than a modern Pop aura. When you apply a healthy dose of reverb to vocals, they appear deeper in the mix. I'm not suggesting that this was meant to be a Pop song, but it's a great example of a track that walks a fine line between genres. Based on the genre fluid nature of some songs, you may be able to target certain listener demographics using specific mixing techniques. In this case, the artists chose to target EDM listeners.
"Psycho (ft. Rubi Rose)" by Dixie contrasts well with the previous track. The vocals are upfront and present in the mix, making it easy to sing along, and the instrumentation is simple and defined, which is another characteristic of many Pop songs. If you have trouble setting your vocal levels properly, try adjusting the level of your vocals until they start to disappear in the mix. At that point, boost their level a few decibels; this ensures that they're sitting just above the threshold level at which they start to get lost. Summing your mix into mono with a utility plugin tends to make this judgment process easier since all your track elements compile together in the center of your stereo image, and you can more easily discern how loud the vocal should sit.
3. Use Effect Throws to Maintain Clarity
2021 sounding Pop vocals use reverb and delay sparingly. You'll typically hear a gentle amount of reverb consistently applied to a vocal throughout the duration of a track, with throws added in for dramatic effect. Creating a throw involves automating the amount of signal sent to a reverb or delay on an aux track at a specific point in time. On the word or phrase that you'd like to apply extra reverb/delay, boost the level of the signal being sent to the aux track. The following image demonstrates what two throws look like within a send's volume automation lane in Pro Tools.
In "Circles" by Post Malone, there's a clear reverb throw applied to the words "around," "now," "there," and "tried" during the first verse of the song. These specific words ring out much longer than the others and act to fill space between lyrics. The decay time has been set so that the effect has mostly died out by the time each upcoming phrase starts; this helps avoid a chaotic reverberant mess.
I like to use H-Reverb to create reverb throws similar to those you heard in "Circles." Place this plugin on an aux track and turn the Dry/Wet value up to 100%—you only want to hear the processed signal. Start with a Reverb Time around 6 seconds and adjust from there. If you click on the "Expand" disclosure triangle in the bottom right corner of the plugin, you can adjust H-Reverb's more advanced parameters. Although, it's the Finite Impulse Response (FIR) engine powering the plugin that really draws me in. Some reverbs are a bit too airy and thin for Pop vocals; getting the reverb to sound rich and full can be quite challenging. If you've ever used Ableton's old stock reverb, you know what I'm talking about. H-Reverb can produce lush Pop style reverb effects as a result of the FIR engine that it uses to generate reflections.
It's possible to create a similar delay effect yourself by placing H-Delay on an aux track and turning up the Dry/Wet value to 100%. Set the delay mode to Host, select a note value of 1/4 or 1/8th, and then adjust the HiPass and LoPass knobs to trim away some of the low end and top end. To avoid a mess, adjust the Feedback amount so that the delay has mostly died out by the time the next vocal phrase begins. For a clean and modern sound, set the Analog knob to the "Off" position to avoid the noise introduced by Analog modes 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Low cutting your throws around 300-500 Hz and high cutting them around 2,000-2,500 Hz helps separate them from the lead vocal. When your throws contain too much low end, they can muddy your mix and make the vocals sound convoluted. If there's excessive top end, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the dry vocal and the send effect, which typically results in a smeared mess.
Lots of reverbs and delays include built-in filters that allow you to trim away low end and top end, but they don't necessarily make use of filters with the same slope values. For this reason, I prefer to bypass the filters built into my throw effects and apply the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ to each aux track—using the same EQ settings on each track. In the following audio examples, an instance of the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ has been inserted after H-Reverb and H-Delay. As you'll hear, the EQ helps separate the send effects from the lead vocal, providing enhanced clarity.
4. Stack Harmonies to Create a "Thick" Sound
Thick harmonies are another defining characteristic of 2021 Pop vocals, and Ariana Grande is the queen of vocal harmonies—as is evident in the video below. Not only does she build vocal harmonies on the fly, but she tells the producer how she'd like to arrange the track while keeping all the harmonies saved to memory. As she's explained in past Instagram posts, Grande often records herself at home using Pro Tools which has likely contributed to her ability to work so efficiently.
Not every vocalist that you come across is going to be as confident and skilled as Ariana Grande. Some beginner vocalists have trouble coming up with appropriate harmonies. Often, the barrier is a lack of self confidence compounded by the pressure of being put on the spot rather than a lack of ability. Kicking off a vocal session with a fun repeat after me style vocal warmup can help a vocalist relax. Putting your vocalist in the right headspace is going to allow you to get a much better performance out of them because they'll be willing to take more risks. To come up with vocal harmonies, you must be willing to make mistakes.
At a basic level, you can use harmonies to emphasize certain phrases. They help break up arrangements into more interesting sections, fill space and deliver that "wow" factor.
The above audio example only contained 2-4 harmonies at any given point in time. That's a pretty moderately sized vocal stack, but it's possible to create additional harmonies using Vocal Bender. Start by duplicating your harmony tracks and applying an instance of Vocal Bender to each duplicate. The goal is to add a little bit of variation to each harmony to make the vocal stack feel thicker. Consider pitching the harmonies up/down an octave, adjusting the formants, or applying a very subtle amount of pitch modulation. Listen to the following audio example to hear the results of this mixing technique.
You can learn more about creating harmonies and vocal stacks using Vocal Bender in this live-session tutorial with producer/rapper duo Barrows & Sun:
To summarize, tune your lead vocals tightly but don't get carried away hard tuning your background vocals. Float the level of your lead vocals gently above the rest of your mix; they should be clearly audible. Use reverb and delay throws to fill space and hold the listeners’ attention. Additionally, make a point of recording vocal harmonies to thicken up the mix at various points in time.
Charles Hoffman is the owner of Black Ghost Audio—a website that provides free music production tips, tutorials, gear roundups, and premium online video courses. Visit Black Ghost Audio to learn how to produce music online.
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