Setting Your Vocal's Tone As You Mix

Ever notice what a difference a vocal’s tone and timbre can have on the overall vibe of a song? It’s crazy to think how much of a two-directional relationship vocals have with the rest of your mix. The ambience of the track is one thing, but the tone of your vocals is something else entirely.

For these reasons, mixers and producers have come up with some truly profound styles of music where the vocals are either taken in a completely different direction from the rest of the track or mixed in a way where they manage to tie everything together.

Today, we’re going to take a look at a few ways to accomplish the latter – after all, doesn’t everybody want their vocals to be the thing that takes their mix to the next level?

Creating A Sense Of Wonder

When mixing, it’s important to put your listener in the headspace that the song is trying to convey. For some, this could be a dark, empty room, while others pull you into a world that’s fast and loud. Music should be able to teleport you anywhere when done right.

We see this with bands like Panic! At The Disco whose first album was completely over the top with circus productions and theatrical music – making the listener feel like they were in a big top with a ringleader narrating their experience.

So how did they accomplish this tonally? It’s easier than you might think.

The majority of the vocals were actually mixed loud and clear at the front, but with support from more theatrical instrumentation that you’re more likely to hear at a carnival than in a rock song. The music was the first step in setting the right tone.

From there, manipulating vocals in a way that brings them into that ringleader persona was a simple matter of adding some lo-fi effects to the vocal. This effect, while in no way subtle, created a sense that the listener was hearing the voice through a megaphone or over the radio – instantly drawing out some nostalgia through the ways we think about circuses.

Check out this example of a recent indie track from Josiah Everhart where similar techniques were used on a delay while mixing the vocals:

It’s an excellent trick for breaking things up sonically and putting your listener in a new headspace – and it’s one that’s been used for years.

Dynamics & Intimacy

The other major component of your vocal’s tonality comes from the dynamics, or how loud or soft your singer gets. A softer vocal turned up louder in the mix is going to make things sound intimate as if they’re right there next to you. Drowned in reverb and delay, vocals start to sound further away.

Many mixers try to find a balance somewhere in the middle. After all, isn’t that the easiest way to match what listeners are hearing on the radio? Yes – but it doesn’t mean you can’t break out of that comfort zone once in a while.

My Chemical Romance is a great example of just how dynamic vocals can be mixed for maximum impact over the course of a single song or throughout an album. Take a look at one of their earliest hits, “Helena”.

The song starts with a few soft, clean guitar parts and a single, quiet vocal. This whispered voice is integral to setting the stage for the song, and without it, the song may not have had nearly as much success as it did. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of the song musically, but without that intro, do you think it would be as instantly recognizable as it is today?

The whispered vocal isn’t the only part of the puzzle though – it’s the abrupt change in dynamics that really drive the point home. By immediately following up the intro with loud and fast music and lyrics, the listener is thrown forward into the song. It’s not until the half-time chorus that they finally get a chance to come up for air and by then, they’re hooked.

Tone’s Role In Production

Your vocalist’s tone is so important to the vocal mix which is why it’s important to take your time in the studio when tracking to get some variations and comp together the best possible take. It’s usually the producer’s job to make sure this is happening, but without a dedicated vocal producer in the session, that can be tough.

If you’re looking to build your vocal production chops and get in the mindset of today’s top vocal producers, make sure you grab a copy of The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. It’s an amazing reference that everyone should review at least once.

Get your copy here.