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6 Tips for Using Space When Mixing Vocals

Jan 28, 2024

For a professional sound, a track’s vocals need to have a sense of space. Here we’ll give you the inspiration to get the right depth and width from any vocal.

6 Tips for Using Space When Mixing Vocals

It’s important to caveat this article by first saying that there is no replacement for proper level adjustment and panning of all elements within a mix. As producers and mix engineers, we’re all guilty of occasionally getting over-excited and rushing straight to our newly enlarged plugin folder. But actually, we can get a lot of mileage out of giving volume and panning its due care and attention. For example, quieter, narrower elements sound further away than louder, wider elements.

With that out of the way, we can begin to look into some more advanced techniques for using space when mixing vocals. For more production and mixing tips, sign up to the Waves newsletter now.

1. Processing a Reverb Send with Effects for More Width

If you’ve experimented with sending a vocal to a reverb in the past, you’re probably aware that it’s a great way to give your vocal some space and character, without detracting from the clarity or impact of the dry channel. This is particularly helpful for lead vocals, as it’s usually desirable that they remain front and center of your mix.

With this revelation in mind, we can start to think outside the box in terms of adding extra processing to our signal, safe in the knowledge that it won’t detract the focus from your dry lead vocal. The first technique in this video on 6 Creative Ways to Supercharge Your Reverb Effect shows us how to sidechain compress a reverb return for more clarity, but what else can we do to our reverb return?

A common method of making a mono vocal seem wider is by sending it to a stereo reverb, which we’ve done here with the Abbey Road Plates plugin.

Abbey Road Plates

But we can take this even further by making the stereo reverb return wider. S1 Stereo Imager’s simple interface lets us increase the width of the vocal reverb return by increasing the Width amount. We can then blend the return channel level in with the rest of the mix, or even automate it between sections in order to make the vocal seem narrower in the verse and wider in the chorus, or vice versa.

S1 Stereo Imager

2. Using Two of the Same Reverbs with Differing Settings for Creating Depth

Mix engineers often think of music in three dimensions: width (stereo image), height (frequency range) and depth (sense of distance). It’s the third dimension – that sense of depth – that is often the trickiest of the three to manage, but there are ways to emulate depth perception, letting you place elements further back in the mix, or closer as necessary.

Reverb is just one way of doing this, more specifically, using two identical reverb plugins, but with different configurations. By setting one reverb up to simulate a nearby sound source and the other a far away sound source, the contrast between the two is a great way to create the perception of natural depth. This is particularly useful for mixing a backing vocal to appear to be coming from further away than the lead vocal.

Renaissance Reverb is packed full of features that let us control the perceived depth of an algorithmic reverb, but the PreDelay and Reverb Time parameters are our main friends here.

Renaissance Reverb

For the near reverb (upper image above), set a Time of under one second. This results in a reverb that doesn’t really create a sense of space in itself, but instead makes the vocal appear to be louder and therefore closer. For the further reverb (lower image above), a Time above one second will create a feeling of space and therefore depth.

The PreDelay time sets the length of time between hearing the dry, direct sound, and the first reflections. Longer PreDelay times result in the sound appearing to be closer (upper image below), while shorter PreDelay times appear further away (lower image below).

Renaissance Reverb PreDelay

Already, comparing the two reverb configurations should give us some sense of depth, but we can emphasize this by tweaking a few more parameters. On the near reverb, we can accentuate the Early Reflections and attenuate the Reverb (upper image below), and we can do the opposite on the far reverb (lower image below).

Renaissance Reverb Reflections

We can also make use of the fact that we hear closer sounds to be more bright and open, while further sounds appear to be duller or darker. RVerb’s inbuilt EQ means we can create shelving EQ bands that boost and cut the high frequencies for the near and far EQs respectively.

Renaissance Reverb EQ

Here’s how our two reverb effect sounds once complete – one ‘Near’ reverb send (upper) and the isolated ‘Far’ reverb send (lower)..

If you want to dig deeper into using reverb on vocals, take a look at this article on 4 Vocal Tips to Make Your Mix Sing.

3. Changing Reverb Settings Throughout a Track

Using two reverbs, as above, is one dimension, but what’s entirely another dimension is manipulating the settings of a single reverb as your track – or even a single phrase of it – progresses.

With our latest multi-effects plugin, Space Rider, this is a simple thing to do by simply throwing its crossfader!

Here’s an example with a dry (but compressed) vocal. Next, we’ll add Space Rider and create a setup that has a different character in both its Alpha and Beta slots.

Space Rider stores two lots of parameter settings, then lets you blend and morph between them using the ‘rider’ fader at the bottom of the plugin. Here we’ve set up an ‘Alpha’ side with a dotted delay and medium reverb, while our ‘Beta’ side has lots of Chorus and a triplet delay with high feedback.

Space Rider

By throwing, or in this case, automating the ‘Rider’, each phrase of our vocal alternates between the Alpha setup and the Beta setup.

The result is a call-and-response idea, but for the effects and space within a track. Here, we’ve moved beyond the traditional model of ‘instruments in a room’, and arrived at a place where things aren’t fixed or expected.

4. Creating Depth with Delays

As above, reverb is a great way of creating depth in a mix, but overzealous use of the effect can cause washiness and consume too much space in the stereo panorama. Delays are an alternative tool, which also prove hugely useful in creating depth as well. In general, applying a synced delay to a signal causes it to sound further away.

In this example, we’ve sent a vocal line to two return channels at -12dB, each containing an instance of H-Delay. One is set up as a synced delay with a time of 1/16th, and the other with an unsynced time of 89 milliseconds.

H-Delay: synced delay

On the other hand, we perceive a shorter delay of sub-100 milliseconds to be either the same sound as the source signal or as an early reflection, which we interpret as meaning the source signal is extremely nearby. This is known as a slapback delay, and is extremely popular on guitars, vocals, or any other elements you want to bring into focus within a mix.

H-Delay: slapback delay

As with the previous technique that used Renaissance Reverb, we can use H-Delay’s inbuilt filters to emphasize the feeling of depth. Here we’ve cut the lows of the slapback delay (upper image below) the highs of the synced delay (lower image below).

H-Delay: delay filters

5. Creating Contrast is Key

Much of mixing is about creating and capitalizing on contrast. We can only perceive certain elements to be loud when they’re mixed against something that’s quiet. Something only sounds wide compared to something that’s narrow, and so on. The same is true for placing instruments or vocals within a space; your vocal will only sound close when played alongside something that’s far away.

Here, we’ve got our dry vocal and some dry piano chords, mixed to peak at the same level.

We want the vocal to pop out from the mix, and the piano to be set further back. First, let’s bring the volume of the piano down by 3dB to 5dB, which will immediately push the piano back slightly.

Now, let’s send our vocal to our slapback delay return from earlier in this article. This places the vocal in a space, and makes it sound louder and therefore closer.

We can also send our piano to the plate reverb return we set up earlier, but because we want the piano to sound further away, we want it to be more in the center of the stereo image. To achieve this, turn down the Width fader in S1 Stereo Imager.

S1 Stereo Imager: contrast width

6. Keep Certain Elements Close

So far, we’ve only looked at ways of adding space and depth to elements, but what about when we want to remove a sense of space from an element? Whether you’ve recorded your own vocals and there’s a bit too much room ambience, or you’re using a vocal sample with some element of reverb baked into it, it’s useful to be able to dial back the level of space, too.

Take this vocal for example, which currently has a relatively long and dark reverb, that would prevent us from mixing this really up front and personal in a mix.

Using Waves Clarity Vx DeReverb Pro, we can apply high-quality reverb reduction processing to the audio, and quickly achieve a much drier vocal sound. Place Clarity Vx DeReverb Pro on your vocal channel and select the appropriate Neural Network for your application, along with the relevant Analysis/Width option.

Waves Clarity Vx DeReverb Pro

Slowly increase the processing amount knob to introduce the reverb reduction. Because this is a particularly wet vocal, and we want to go completely the other way with it, we’ve used quite an extreme value of around 70%. The outcome is a completely dry vocal.

Dereverb vocal

Using DeReverb Pro’s Presence control, we can start to bring the vocal closer to the listener by emphasizing the high end.

Dereverb presence

You can now bounce the vocal down to a new channel, ready to mix in right at the front of your composition.

If you’re looking for a simpler way to dry out overly ambient vocal samples, then the smaller DeReverb plugin is a great option to try. Check out the video below to see how easy it is to remove baked in reverb from vocal samples and how this also gives you a creative opportunity to replace those unwanted ambient effects with reverbs and delay chains you feel are more appropriate for your tracks from within StudioVerse.

Armed with this knowledge on using space when mixing vocals, you can begin to get creative with how you explore the 3D space in your productions. As always, don’t be afraid to try new things: try panning time based effect returns hard left and right, or automating their pan between sections of a track, or reversing reverb tails for an otherworldly sense of space. Sign up to the Waves Newsletter for more mix inspiration.

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