Mixing amazing pop vocals can be quite the challenge. Pop has always been known above all else for it’s clarity and audio quality. Even those who aren’t fans of pop music in the industry respect their peers that have the skills to make their mixes sound massive and detailed.
While there are some producers and mixers out there who spend hours trying to dial in their pop vocals perfectly, the process is actually incredibly simple with the right resources and signal chain. Small adjustments can go a long way to make your vocals sound their best in any genre, but the stakes are never higher than they are with pop.
Let’s take a look at a quick, step-by-step process to getting perfect pop vocals in your mixes.
Setting Input Levels
No matter what processor you start with in your signal chain, hitting it at a nominal level is essential if you want your plugin to act efficiently. Often, some of the biggest issues in mixing come from loading a plugin onto a track that’s clipping. Because the vocals are clipped from the start, things like compressors don’t have any “real” peaks to work with. A whole bunch of false peaks throw the processor off.
Likewise, a plugin isn’t going to work well with a signal that’s recorded without enough gain. In these situations, there’s a ton of noise floor in the signal that just bubbles up as you compress the signal harder.
Achieving a decent signal means recording clear and consistent vocals from the start with plenty of headroom. If you aim for your peaks to hit -6 dB or even lower during tracking, you’re getting plenty of signal to reduce the effects of noise floor without running the risk of clipping your input.
Compression & EQ
Vocals are naturally very dynamic instruments, and as such, they can really use some compression to help smooth them out. Use a compressor with a fast attack to catch the peaks of a jumpy vocal and create a more consistent vocal.
If your compressor has an Output/Makeup Gain control, use that to offset and leveling issues that occur as a result of processing. Doing so will ensure you’re hitting the next plugin in your signal chain at a nominal level still.
Usually, mixers will pair their compressor with an EQ – the order can change depending on the needs of the session, but they’re almost always at the front of the signal chain.
Basic vocal EQ consists of cleaning up any problem frequencies, such as the low-end buildup and rumble that can occur in some recordings. Using a high-pass filter, you can easily eliminate a lot of this from your source.
From there, boosting lower frequencies can bring out the body, mid-range frequencies can draw out presence, and a slight high-frequency boost can add air to your vocal. Experiment with the width of your EQ and the frequencies you’re targeting. While boosting everything is really just going to make your vocals louder, doing some very targeted boosting can give you an expensive-sounding vocal even with budget recording equipment.
Time & Space
After spending some time with EQ & Compression, it only makes sense that you’d want to add some shape and size to your vocals. This is where time-based effects come in and where pop vocals really start to shine.
Plugins like doublers and spatial wideners do a great job of taking a mono source and stretching them wider, adding to the presence of the vocal. By adding a bit of an offset to a double of a vocal, it will sound instantly fuller.
The fun doesn’t stop there though – reverb and delay create movement around your pop vocals too. Smaller rooms and shorter delays help create a sense of intimacy and closeness perfect for pop vocals, though a few longer delay throws can help create interesting sounds in your mixes that will make them sound far more polished and produced.
Check out this great example of how pop vocals are mixed and automated from the JST Community:
As you can see, starting with a great raw vocal makes the whole process simpler, but the final, produced vocal doesn’t really take shape until the automation is introduced at the end.
Building Your Own Signal Chain
Tools like the Howard Benson Vocals plugin are great for getting quick and easy workflows set up for your sessions, but you need to be able to replicate them using individual processes for instruments where they don’t make sense. This could be anything from a bass guitar track to a drum bus that needs specific attention.
If you’re looking for tips on optimizing your signal chain, make sure you check out our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets – available now to JST subscribers.