A Minimalist Approach to Vocal Mixing

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Vocal mixes don’t require complex routing or hours of automation to sound intriguing and full. Often, the right vocal chain (and more importantly, knowing how to use it) is going to do more for your sound that any tricks or fader movement will. I’d take a static mix with a solid chain than one with tons of automation any day.

With that said, parsing down your vocal production chain even further can be a worthwhile exercise with several major benefits. Knowing how to get the sound you want with fewer tools will immediately speed up your workflow and reduce the time you spend diving through menus in your DAW. If you’re someone that works with presets – stock or ones you’ve created yourself – you’ll have fewer “starting points” to choose from as you dial in your vocals. Not to mention all of the additional processing power you’re freeing up on your computer that can be dedicated to other tracks/plugins that might need it more.

So what should you be taking into consideration when it comes to limiting the number of plugins in your vocal chain?

Using Vocal-Centric Plugins

A vocal-centric mix is one where your production is built up around your vocals, but beyond that you need vocal-centric plugins that are geared toward crafting a great sounding vocal. To accomplish this, you need to move beyond stock plugins. They’re great for learning what a processor does with distinct, clear controls, but they’re also made to work across all types of sources – not specific ones.

Take, for example, all of the elements of a vocal performance that you don’t spend as much time focusing on elsewhere in your mix. The breathiness of a vocal performance is unique to the human voice, as is the articulations and inflections with each and every syllable. The body of your vocal sits differently in your mix than say that of a bass guitar. You need something optimized for these characteristics.

De-esser plugins may have their use on other tracks, but they’re primarily a tool for cleaning up the “s” sounds in a singer’s voice. By rolling off the harsh and distracting parts of the voice, mixers are better equipped to use the rest of their signal chain more effectively.

Combining Common Processors

With modern vocal production suites, it’s becoming apparent that more can be done in a single plugin without breaking the bank. Plugins like Gain Reduction 2 have taken a lot of the elements required for vocal mixing and combined them into a single interface – making features like de-essing and harmonic saturation a part of the overall compressor rather than standalone elements that require a dedicated slot in your chain.

This new approach also means that your presets can be consolidated. Rather than maintaining a list of settings in each plugin that you need to recall between sessions, a single preset can encompass your compression and all of the associated elements within the plugin. From there, it’s just a matter of tweaking it to fit your mix.

Check out this awesome example of how mixers like David Caplinger are replacing layers of limiting, compression, dynamic EQ & de-essing with a single vocal-centric plugin:

There’s no shame in using fewer tools to get the sound you’re after if you’re able to do it more efficiently than your competition. While some engineers pride themselves on their massive plugin collections and ability to weave intricate webs of plugins for the sounds their after, I’d rather just be able to get a great sound easily and get back to making music – wouldn’t you?

Minimal Mixes with Massive Sounds

Going beyond vocals, your mixes shouldn’t require complex routing either. A few aux tracks for bus processing is fine, but if you’re constantly getting lost in hundreds of tracks in your sessions, you’re probably doing something wrong.

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