How To Build A Vocal-Centric Mix

With very few exceptions, modern music production demands a mix that’s centered on the lead vocals. From genres with sparse music production to sonic landscapes with vocals pushed right out in front, a quick scroll through the charts of any genre will show you that this is truer than ever.

Listeners want to hear a story and while the instrumentation will certainly help evoke emotion, the words being sung, spoken, or screamed are what’s going to hold the majority of your listener’s attention.

Because of this, I truly feel that engineers don’t spend enough time focusing on the voice. You need a voice that’s present and clear or no amount of production techniques will save your mix. You need something thick enough to cut through the mix, but airy enough to sound as if it’s floating on top of it. This balancing act isn’t an easy one, but it’s an absolute necessity when building a vocal-centric mix.

Picking The Right Vocal Microphone

The entirety of your vocal’s tone is going to start with the equipment you record it with. While a great engineer can force nearly any microphone to work in a mix, someone who’s building out a song with the vocal at the center is going to need a great source to work with.

If you’re working with a new artist for the first time, this can mean running through various microphones, and sometimes, even preamps to see which one suits the voice the best. Taking your time to get the right setup during tracking can save you tons of editing and corrective mixing down the line.

For the majority of vocals, a condenser microphone is going to be the best option. They’re naturally brighter than many dynamic and ribbon microphones and tend to offer that “expensive shine” for a vocal. Try out a handful of them on your singer and trust your ears to tell you what’s best. Lesser condensers may come across as harsh, brittle, or stale, but a good one is going to give you a clear, present vocal that will cut through the mix from the start.

Depending on the vocalist and genre, you shouldn’t immediately rule out dynamics or ribbon microphones either. An especially loud or nasally vocalist can often sound even better with a good dynamic microphone than they might with a condenser and a ribbon mic can sound extremely lifelike and natural, immediately putting your listener in the room with the singer.

It’s all about finding what works best for your session and setting yourself up for success later on.

Vocal Editing

After your recording session, the truly technical part of the process begins. If you’re tracking like a pro, you’ve probably got more options than you’ll ever need. The editing process is going to help you narrow those down and get to a vocal that’s worthy of being your centerpiece.

Comping is the process of taking multiple lead vocal takes and cherry-picking the best parts from each performance. This can be anything from full song sections to individual words or syllables – get as detailed as you need to in order for it to sound right.

When comping for a vocal-centric song, it’s helpful to toggle back and forth between solo and full session. This approach let’s you be hyper critical in isolation while also making decisions that sound good in the context of a rough mix. Your final vocal shouldn’t ever just sound great on it’s own – it needs to be pocketed and perfected with the drums, bass & any other instrumentation in your song.

If you’ve got doubled vocals in your song, make sure they’re pocketed and in tune with the lead vocal at this stage as well. Having supporting vocals that have been tightened and cleaned up will make your job vastly easier when mixing.

Vocal Mixing

Vocals in the mix don’t need to be difficult to work with. Always start with a static mix where your vocals are clear and present in the song. From there, you can take control with EQ and compression to really hammer them into shape. Always treat your lead vocal as the primary instrument; none of it should be masked by another instrument or backup vocal.

Your lead vocal is likely going to be the biggest part of your mix that will benefit from automation because of the dynamism of the human voice. Make sure you’re balancing your soft parts with your loud ones by riding the fader so that every single word can be heard.

Finally, you’ll need to pull in your vocals with some bus compression so they’re not sticking out of the mix. A compressor like Billy Decker’s signature Vox plugin can help make your lead vocal sit well with supporting vocals by providing a bit of glue. This approach is subtle – it keeps your fader automation intact while creating a link with the rest of your session that sounds professional and focused.

Mastering Vocals

If there’s one instrument that we could all learn to be experts with, it should be the human voice. Music played on any instrument is beautiful, but the voice is the most universal instrument there is. If you’re not featuring it in your productions, you’re creating your own roadblocks to success.

Get some professional advice about your vocal mixes as a JST VIP member. Members get exclusive mix crits, cheat sheets, and eBooks focused around helping you find balance in your mixes. Make sure your vocals are a step ahead of your competition by getting your mix critiqued by a pro today.