Congratulations on your first gig mixing vocals! Maybe you’ve been working on your own projects for a long time or maybe you’re brand new to the recording community, but you’re in for one of the most satisfying parts of the job if you’ve reached this point.
Many engineers and producers can feel intimidated the first time they sit down to work on a vocal session – not me. Vocals are hands down THE most unique instrument you’ll ever work with. Because of the nuances of the human voice, each performance comes with its own set of obstacles and opportunities.
It’s hard work to make a bad vocal sound good, but inversely, it’s really difficult to make a great vocal sound bad. The processing we do as mixers is intended to bring to light the best qualities of every voice (while suppressing the less appealing qualities). Keeping this in mind as you approach your vocal session will help keep you on track regardless of the quality of the performance.
While we should strive to work with the best possible recordings, it’s not always in our hands. If you find yourself faced with a subpar vocal, don’t think you can’t handle it. You just need to take a methodical approach to cleaning things up.
That same approach can be applied to a great vocal performance too – it’s all about doing what it takes to enhance the sound.
One of the most obvious things you’ll notice with vocals is that they’re rarely perfectly in tune. Small variations in the note happen naturally due to natural vibrato within a singer’s voice. Best-case scenario: tuning software like Autotune or Melodyne can smooth these variations out in a transparent way. Worst-case scenario: your singer was so far off the note you’ll need to manually edit it to the correct place.
Tuning software takes a lot of practice to perfect and they seem to constantly add new features giving us more and more control over things like pitch, timbre & vibrato. If you’re looking to do all of the tuning work yourself – focus on the transitions between the notes first. A voice can’t naturally jump from one note to another instantaneously, so adding a bit of glide between the two can help humanize a tuned vocal.
If you don’t have access to tuning software today or don’t have time to learn to do it correctly, there are plenty of options out there for others to tune your vocal for you. While results may vary by the editor, there are lots of freelancers on sites like Fiverr willing to do the work for much less than the cost of the software. Find someone that works for you and you’ll have a go-to for future sessions where you don’t have time to do it yourself.
Just like any other instrument, the frequencies that make up your vocal track can be tweaked using EQ. A standard EQ will let you boost frequencies you want to hear more of and cut harsh, unwanted frequencies you want less of. The beauty of EQ is that it’s the same process for nearly every instrument – sweep to find the frequency you want to tweak and adjust the gain to raise or lower it.
Vocals in particular tend to get great results from high-pass filters that clean up the muddy low end, and high shelves that add air to the top end of a vocal. Experiment with the frequency of your high shelf if you use one – while this technique adds air, it can quickly make a vocal sound brittle and harsh if the wrong frequencies get boosted.
For more information on how to use EQ effectively, check out The Truth About Additive and Subtractive EQ.
One of the best ways to make a vocal sound more consistent (and expensive) is to apply vocal compression. We’ve done full guides on how to accomplish this at various stages in the mix, but for beginners, a simple design with a lot of controlled tone is a great start.
Tools like Gain Reduction Deluxe were built specifically to address vocal treatment without having to spend too much time tweaking small parameters. Simply set the Slay, Body & Gain for a full-sounding, compressed vocal sound.
I’ve replaced a lot of my past vocal signal chains with this one plugin alone, freeing me up to focus on the other parts of the vocal like EQ and creative elements like delays.
Add Size With Vocal Delays
Adding delays to your mix can really place your singer in a room with your listener. Tape delays can give a very warm, analog feel to your sound, which in turn creates a nostalgic familiarity with your listener.
Short slapback delays create a springy, close environment with longer delay times and multiple repeats making more of an effect.
Use delays to create an ambience around your vocal that both reinforces the main vocal track while filling out the space in your mix and you’ll be golden.
Fit It In The Mix
Mixing your vocals isn’t ever going to be about just that one voice. It’s about how it interacts with everything around it. It’s about how your other tracks make room for the vocal while reinforcing it to create a full, professional mix.
If you’re looking for the complete solution to mixing your vocals along with other parts of your mix, come check out the JST VIP section where we’ve pulled together the best guides, tutorials & courses to help you do just that.
Learn how your mix elements work with each other and mixing becomes second nature to creating a great sounding song.