3 Tips for Breathing Life into Your Vocals

Adding a bit of liveliness to your mixes is something every mixer struggles with at one time or another. Whether the recording engineer tracked everything with a bit too much compression or the performances left something to be desired, breathing life into a song is an art form that every engineer should strive to learn and understand.

At the top of the list of the most challenging situations you might find yourself in comes dull, lifeless vocals. What are you supposed to do when the lead vocal track is lacking character and needs a major overhaul?

Well with these three tips, you might still have a chance at breathing some life back into those vocals… 

1. Take an Honest Look at Your Vocals

The first thing you should do when you start working with a new vocal track is determine how bad the issue really is. Be honest with yourself about whether the track can be repaired or if it really needs to be re-tracked. You’re not doing anyone any favors by working with a vocal that’s gone beyond repair. 

What does a vocal that’s too far gone sound like?

Well for starters, a vocal that’s heavily clipped during tracking to the point where you can hear noticeable artifacts can’t be revived. Not only do those recordings lack much needed headroom, but they’re losing much needed content that drives the way things like tuning software and other plugins work. A heavily clipped vocal isn’t just hard to work with – it’s nearly impossible.

The same can go for the other end of the spectrum. If a vocal is recorded with insufficient gain, you may be able to raise the level with clip gain or compression. But this only goes so far…

If your vocal track isn’t loud enough and trying to raise the level simply makes the noise floor more noticeable rather than bringing your vocal into focus, consider re-tracking and getting the right sound from the start.

2. Shelve It

No, I’m not recommending you put the vocals off for later in your session – I’m talking about using shelving filters. Shelving filters are one of the most underrated components of graphic EQs, but they serve a purpose that feels almost custom-built for bringing life to instruments that are lacking.

For vocals in particular, a high-shelf filter is the perfect way to boost a bit of air and increase the breathy tonality of a singer’s voice (figuratively “breathing life” back into it). This technique has many different applications in the studio, but vocals tend to be where it makes a big, noticeable difference.

By using a shelf for the EQ curve, you’re effectively setting a threshold and telling your EQ to boost all the frequencies above that level evenly rather than “ramping” up or down as you might with a traditional filter. By adding a few dB of gain above about 10kHz, you can instantly get an airier, lighter sounding voice. Back it down to 5 kHz or so and you start getting more pronounced consonants. Just be careful – this range is also where sibilance builds up, so keeping a de-esser on standby is usually a good idea.

3. Compress Your Vocals Differently

As much as compressors are made to tame and control dynamics, they’re also perfect for adding a bit of color and character to an instrument. Using vocal-focused compressors like Gain Reduction 2, you can dial in things like clarity, breathiness, and sibilance as you work. Just check out this example from Mendel bij de Leij:

As Mendel shows off in the video, raw vocals can be transformed in a session using a few different processors and a plan for how you want them to work together. Even something that sounds simple and a little dull can be turned into something massive and powerful if basic gain levels are met and you know how your plugins will change them!

Is Vocal Mixing Your Passion?

With modern music, mixing is all about the vocals. As much as we love other instruments and the art of making them all work together in a single, cohesive mix, we know that the vocals at the center must be perfect if we want any chance of commercial success. 

For this reason, many mixers have started turning their focus to vocals, becoming obsessed with getting the core of their song right and building a vocal-centric mix around it. If you’re interested in learning more about this process, be sure to check out the JST Vocal Mixing Bundle, which includes more than half a dozen vocal plugins, exclusive VIP perks, and vocal mixing resources from myself, Howard Benson & Mike Plotnikoff to ensure you get the most out of each and every tool.

Check it out!