For as long as I’ve been working in music, it seems like the cleaner a vocal was, the harder it was to get it to cut through the mix. Maybe it’s just my ears associating cleaner vocals with softer performances, but even in the cases of ballads, a clean singer just doesn’t seem to have enough grit to their voice to cut through denser mixes.
As producers and mixers, it’s our job to make that happen.
Just because a vocal doesn’t naturally cut through the mix doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with it. A clean, soft vocal can float above any 808 or synth with the right techniques – just look at pop and dance music. The solution requires you to know what processors to use to achieve this and how to use them.
Plus a few tricks of the trade along the way…
Your EQ Is A Swiss Army Knife
There are few tools in the studio as common as the EQ, but the way they get used is completely different depending on the mixer you talk to.
For some, EQ is all about subtraction – taking away the problems in the mix whether they are harsh frequencies or muddiness in a particular range. When it comes to getting clean vocals to cut through, you need to consider your EQ choices both on the vocal track and on the other tracks in your mix.
Think of your EQ as a way to shape your mix around your vocal. Anywhere you boost on your vocal track can be cut from surrounding instruments – especially those that occupy the same parts of the spectrum. Guitars and synths are notorious for taking up the space the lead vocal needs, so even reducing that band where the consonants of your vocal sit by a few dB will go a long way to clean things up.
On the vocal track, try to take a two-pronged approach with shelving and subtractive EQ. With shelving, mixers can easily boost the top end of the frequency spectrum, adding a few dB of air or breathiness to a vocal. This works best when recording with a good microphone; using a lower quality one may be overly hyped in the top end already and sound brittle when boosted.
Simultaneously, you should be using subtractive EQ to remove the parts of the vocal that take away from its overall tone. Depending on the singer, this might be a boxy or muffled sound from the low mids or a nasally tone in the upper mids that can be pulled out. The narrower you can get with these cuts, the better – don’t take away more than you need to.
The more time you spend with EQ, the more effective it’s going to make the next part of your chain.
Compression Will Push Vocals Front & Center
Once you’ve got a solid foundation with EQ that’s free of most problematic frequencies, compression can step in to bring even the softest vocals out to the front of the mix.
The way compression works, you’re able to reduce the dynamic range of the vocal for a more controlled performance, giving you the ability to push its level up higher in the mix. This brings out the softer parts of the performance without clipping the louder parts. Everything sounds smoother and more consistent.
At the same time, compression can add so much more to your sound than that – and it’s one of the not-so-secret ways that mixers add a bit of dirt or grit to clean vocal performances.
With heavier amounts of compression comes saturation – a form of harmonic distortion that our ears love. Some call it Warmth or Heat, but it’s all part of the compressor’s response to heavier input levels and the way it handles them. When used correctly, your listener will still hear a clean vocal, but one that’s fuller, more present, and definitely cuts through the mix.
Just check out this example from Sebastian Elizondo where he uses Gain Reduction 2 to help his vocals cut through the mix:
In isolation, you can definitely hear some of that saturation happening on his voice, but once it’s been brought into the mix, you’d never know the difference!
Vocals Start With Pre-Production
A single clean vocal is rarely all you need in a song when you’re recording something that’s worthy of playlist placements. You need a whole vocal mix that adds movement and depth to your songs.
Regardless of if you’re a self-recording artist or professional engineer, having the insight into a vocal producer’s toolbox can be invaluable, which is why we’ve collected some of the top production tips and tricks in our eBook, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. Download your copy today to start adding their techniques to your productions!