Any vocal engineer is going to tell you that the key to a good song is in the quality of the vocal. Of course they would - it’s their job to make sure that’s the case on every session they touch. But they’re not wrong…
Other engineers tend to put heavier emphasis on other parts of the mix, depending on where their skills and attention are needed. This is also fair, because a good vocal alone doesn’t mean your mix can’t be absolutely destroyed if something else isn’t meshing well.
But no matter who you talk to, a commercially successful song is one that’s got to have a great sounding, locked in vocal (outside of instrumental-only music). Here are the top ways to crack the code and ensure a perfect vocal every time:
Focus on the Pitch
If your singer cannot hit the notes that were written for the song, you’re starting a long, uphill battle early on. If you have the luxury of working with a band during the writing session, have an open and honest discussion about what works and what doesn’t. A singer may be hesitant to say they can’t do something, just like any other musician might be slow to admit they’re having trouble with a complicated riff.
Make the conversation as easy as possible for your singer to provide their honest feedback. Instead of asking “Are you struggling to hit that note?” ask something like “Are you completely happy with that melody?” This kind of question leaves the singer room to second guess and give you their input without having to admit they’re struggling outright.
Let’s say you weren’t involved with tracking, or you noticed an issue with some notes after the tracking session. This is the time and place where an analytical mind can shine in the studio. Using tools like AutoTune, Melodyne, or Waves Tune – engineers have tons of options for pitch correction in the studio.
Don’t just stop there though! On top of the basic pitch correction, these tools have different parameters for things like pitch drift, vibrato, formant, and much more. If you spend a bit of time with even a well-recorded vocal, you’ll find that small variations can be cleaned up, removed, or accentuated in almost any performance.
Take the time to get the notes of the vocal performance just right ahead of time, and mix sessions will be easier to manage later on.
Pocket Your Timing
A good, dynamic vocal can play off of the other elements of the mix. You can have the singer come in on a downbeat with a kick drum for some added impact, or nudge it just before to sound urgent and rushed. A lot of the emotion of your vocal will need to be based on the type of song you’re mixing.
Some of the earlier mentioned pitch plugins also offer timing adjustments, so if you get really familiar with one of those tools, you might be able to do all of your vocal editing in one pass. However, if you prefer, the old-fashioned slice & dice approach works just as well, and sometimes even better than the modern plugins.
Regardless of your approach to vocal pocketing, be wary of breathing and space around vocals. Slice your voice in the wrong spot or stretch a syllable too far, and you end up with something jumpy and unnatural in your final mix that’ll pull your listeners right out of the zone.
Lock It All Together
The last way to lock down your vocals is by using some bus compression to tie them together and tighten them into the rest of the mix. A good vocal bus compressor like BG-Vocals gives you several different tonal options to match to your particular song.
Choosing a mode that is aggressive or transparent will help you add different colors to the overall vocal mix. Find the right color for the rest of the song, and you’ve got a winning recipe for success!
Check out how Nick dials in the perfect compression mode for a modern rock mix below:
Notice how the nuances of the vocals change slightly as he dials it back from Squashed to Bold around the 3:10 mark?
Locking In Other Parts of Your Mix
Once you’ve had a chance to really nail down your vocal mix, you can start evaluating other parts of your session that could use a little TLC. Maybe your bass guitar needs a little reinforcement. Maybe your toms could hit harder.
Whatever you’re struggling with in your mix, chances are there are dozens of other engineers that have struggled with it too. Come join the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook, where you can bounce ideas off of thousands of other engineers and producers!