Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a mainstream metal band that doesn’t have at least some clean vocals in their mix. Likewise, you won’t be able to find much for hard rock or pop punk bands without some screams.
The prevalence of screams in modern metal and rock has put vocal producers in a new position. They now need to be able to create productions with these crossover vocal tracks, and if they’re in the mixer’s chair, a way to balance them.
Vocal production has always been at the center of commercially successful music, so knowing when one type of vocal needs to take the lead over the other is essential. You need to stack and process each type of voice in a way that compliments or contrasts the other in a way that your listeners are going to enjoy.
So what exactly does the right balance between clean vocals and screamed vocals look like?
The Role of Clean Metal Vocals
Your clean vocals should be acting to drive the narrative of the song lyrically, but where should they live sonically? For many producers, front and center is the obvious choice, but someone coming from a heavier metal background might not always feel the same.
Honestly, a lot of the panning for these vocal tracks depends on your goals for the song and how much each one is going to be featured. If your clean lead vocal is truly the focal point of the song, stay the course and mix it in the center.
On the other hand, if you’re swapping back and forth between the two vocals frequently, slight panning opposite of each other can create subtle movement in your mix – helping your listener create separation between the two tracks.
And then there’s the matter of your background vocals (which also happen to come in flavors ranging from clean to gritty to downright demonic)…
Fortunately your background vocals serve the same purpose they would in a less diverse vocal mix – and that’s to reinforce your lead. Don’t clutter up the center of your mix with background cleans or screams. Only the occasional double should be there, reinforcing your lead while the rest of your backgrounds get panned out to the sides.
The Role of Metal Screams
Much like a distorted guitar, metal screams serve your mix by adding some grit and aggression to your sound (even when there’s plenty of both from your other instruments). A great screamer can masterfully showcase their abilities in a manner not too dissimilar from a great ballad singer hitting a high note. They capture your attention and hold it as long as they can.
What’s interesting is that after decades of jokes from parents and relatives about “shouting” in music, those comments are essentially tongue-in-cheek now. Screaming is happening to some extent in Top 40 music and people recognize that it’s just another form of expression, no different than different genres.
In the current music industry, treating screamed lead vocals any differently as an element of your mix than clean lead vocals is just foolish. They use the same recording equipment, the same signal chains, and often even get routed down to the same subgroups for bus processing.
So yes, while you might choose to use a bit more saturation or compression on a screamed vocal to make it sound that much grittier, it’s just as much the center of your mix as any other vocal.
Stacking Things Up
Stacking vocals is a great way to create a balance of that grit with intelligibility, and we’re seeing many musicians take just that approach. Screams have replaced doubles in many places, with cleaner leads left intact at the top of the stack. Just take a look at this example from Zach Munowitz:
As you can see in his video – his actual vocal processing isn’t complex. He’s using many of the vocal-focused features of Gain Reduction 2 on both screams and cleans, relying on basic principles like panning and fader levels to create a solid vocal mix.
What Goes Into A Great Vocal Stack?
I don’t care what genre you’re working with, knowing how to create a great vocal mix is going to yield a better overall song. You don’t need to use harmonies and ad libs all over your session, but a few of them thrown in at the right time add tons of production value to your song.
If you’re serious about not only getting the right balancing in your vocal mixes, but also using the right production techniques for each situation, check out our eBook, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. It’s the perfect resource for anyone looking to step up their vocal game with some new concepts and techniques!