How To Achieve An Upfront Lead Vocal

Getting your vocals to sit just right at the front of a mix is a bit of a milestone for many engineers and producers. No matter how talented a singer is or how good the timbre of a particular voice sounds in the context of a song, the mix still needs to meld everything together into something cohesive.

Just like everything else in mixing, this work is a bit of a balancing act. Make a vocal too loud and you’ve suddenly disconnected it from the rest of the song. This is a common mistake made by people who mistake loudness for presence. On the other end of the spectrum, you have people pushing their lead vocals too far back in the mix to try to get it to play nice with everything else. In those cases, the lead gets buried.

So how do you go about finding the middle ground where your vocal is loud and present without being obnoxiously so? How do you get a vocal that stays upfront without “jumping out” in front of everything else?

It all starts with a vocal chain that can massage a vocal into place.

EQ & Compression

Dynamic processing is the bread and butter of the audio world. It goes with just about anything and can work as a staple on any track to help achieve the results you desire.

With vocals in particular – order matters.

You need to think about each vocal subjectively. Determine what it is about each voice that makes it unique, and then decide if you need to bring more of that uniqueness to the front or suppress some of the harsher elements of it. From a frequency spectrum perspective, this is the main thing that will dictate which should come first between your EQ and compressor.

Most often, I find myself putting compression at the front of my vocal chain. Because I’ve worked with a singer to pick the right mic for their voice, there’s usually not a lot of EQ required right from the start. I’d much rather have a compressor at the front of the chain giving me a smoother, controlled vocal before using EQ to make some artistic boosts as I see fit in those scenarios.

At other times, I’ve found that vocals sound particularly harsh and need an EQ first. Even in situations where I worked the tracking sessions and thought I was content with the vocals we recorded, it doesn’t mean the vocals going to sound the same in the context of the full mix. When that happens, it’s important that I’m able to switch my EQ around in the chain so it comes before the compressor – getting rid of the unwanted frequencies before the compressor starts applying any kind of saturation to the vocal.

The Role of a Double

In the studio, we’ve got a great opportunity to double a vocal for reinforcement in a way that we just can’t replicate live. Vocal stacks of the same singer can be used to create more presence, with slight harmonic and time variations in each performance playing their role in the resulting effect.

Doubling is a much subtler way to add presence to a lead part than simply having a background singer performing the same part because it’s still a single voice doing all of the work. Without having to get into ad-libs or harmonies, doubled vocals are a great way to get a more present, upfront sounding vocal performance without a lot of extra effort.

Time & Space

What would “upfront” actually mean without something behind it?

Maybe it’s the age-old chicken or the egg scenario, but you just can’t have something sound upfront without instantly implying that there’s something behind it. While this likely means the rest of the instrumentation for most engineers, they’re only really getting to half the solution if they’re not thinking about the space behind and around the vocal as well.

For me, this means delays. Something that helps create resonance with the vocal in a way that it just can’t be heard when sitting on top of a mix. Adding time-based effects like a quarter note echo, no matter how gently it’s mixed in, is a great way to add space and dimension to your mono vocal, and when done right, makes the voice sound all that more present in your mix.

A Vocal Producer’s Guide to Presence

As I mentioned, there are plenty of musical ways to make a voice stand out beyond just doubling. Things like ad-libs and harmonies are commonplace in pop music and frequently get used in other genres too when the songs call for them.

If you’re new to the concepts of vocal production or looking to expand your skill set, make sure you pick up a copy of The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook40 pages of writing, recording & mixing tips and tricks for vocal producers of all levels.

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