Rock music is one of the staple genres that seem to transcend time. Even though rock music has been around for decades, a lot of its defining characteristics are just as prevalent in modern rock music production as they were in the seventies, eighties & nineties. As the genre has grown and morphed into a modern powerhouse alongside pop and country, rock has more effectively stayed true to its roots better than almost any other genre I can think of.
To accomplish this, rock music has stuck with the formula its fans know and love: big, bombastic drums, walls of distorted electric guitars & at the front of it all a singer belting out powerful, brazen vocals. A distinctive tonality comes with nearly every voice in rock that exudes confidence and authority in a way that no other genre consistently does.
That’s not to say other genres don’t have amazing vocalists – a vocalist in any genre can have these traits and be successful using them. But for me, rock seems to be the only genre that demands those characteristics of its singers.
As the mix engineer on those sessions, how can you be sure that you’re enhancing your singer’s performance to showcase those features?
Aggressive, But Not Sibilant
A great lead vocal track requires the right signal chain and a generous amount of compression/saturation. By making a vocal harmonically denser and dynamically controlled, you’re able to push it further up in the mix for more perceived presence, even if the peaks and being heavily compressed. You’re getting a fuller sound without the inconsistencies that make uncompressed vocals a headache to mix.
Regrettably, most heavily compressed vocals come with an unintended side effect: sibilance. While this isn’t strictly a compression problem, a vocal with too much sibilance will irritate the listener on words with hard “s” sounds. It’s really not too different than when cymbals get too washy or loud in the mix.
One of the most common ways to address this is through the use of a de-esser on either side of the compressor (or on both sides if the problem is really bad). Alternatively, plugins like Gain Reduction 2 include a Sibilance knob to give you direct access as part of the compression chain for better compatibility.
Regardless of how you approach it, just know that you’ll often find overly sibilant vocals when mixing rock, whether the result of a particularly hissy performance or a microphone with a nasty bump in the high end of the frequency spectrum, which is common amongst budget condenser microphones.
Take My Breath Away
Another particularly distracting aspect of a rock vocal has nothing to do with the notes themselves, but the breaths the singer needs to take between lines to belt them out. Some singers naturally move away from the mic to mask some of these breaths, but what do you do with a session when they breaths take over the performance?
Hearing someone gasping for air isn’t very musical in most situations, so it’s your job to get them under control. This can be done using basic volume automation or a noise gate with varying levels of results depending on how much time and effort you want to spend on it. Out of the two options, I prefer “ducking” the breaths with automation so that a little bit still makes it through and keeps the performance feeling a bit more human. After all, it’s a bit strange to hear someone belting out huge notes without any source of oxygen.
Just like the Sibilance knob, Gain Reduction 2 offers a breath control that works to clean up the breaths in your vocal track as part of the compressor’s signal chain so you don’t have to waste time with tedious alternatives.
The final major aspect of a great rock vocal is the breadth of the singer’s range. You need to make their lows sound full bodied and warm while their highs need plenty of air and shimmer on the top end. Achieving this requires saturation on both ranges of the frequency spectrum to work effectively. See how it’s done in this video by Stijn Bos:
Another great trick for getting your top end just right is using a shelving filter. Adding just a few dB with an EQ above 10k or so can add brightness and air to a vocal without sounding shrill or unpleasant.
As we started with – vocals are just one part of what makes rock music so great. A mixers job is to make all of the timeless elements of a great rock mix fit together, not just end up with a great sounding vocal.
To accomplish this, I highly recommend checking out Toneforge Bootcamp & Taking Control of Your Drum Mix. The first is an 11-part course on crafting great guitar tones, while the second is an exclusive eBook on the basics of mixing live drums (including our Drum Mix Checklist).