Vocal Mixing Showdown: Dynamics vs. Effects

Anyone who’s spent a bit of time mixing music knows that there are really two groups of processors that address 80% to 90% of the work you do in any given session: the dynamics processors and the effects.

Dynamics processors include things like EQs, compressors, and transient shapers. They’re the things that change the dynamics – or the soft and loud characteristics of each sound. Most commonly, this is where mixers will start working on their project as they work to get everything “cleaned up” and under control.

On the other side of the channel strip are your time-based effects. These effects can give you a drastically different sound – warping and modulating your audio. Effects can be extremely cool in the right context, but too much of them can actually be counterintuitive to your mix.

When it comes to vocal mixing in particular, it can be difficult finding the right balance between dynamics and effects. Do you know where to spend your time to get your vocals sitting just right?

The Case For Dynamics

I have a feeling the majority of you would side with dynamics processors in this showdown, and here’s why…

Dynamics processors are taught very early on to be the bread and butter of the audio mixing world. A static or quick mix often consists of little more than fader levels, pans, EQ, and compression. Even if the mix doesn’t sound massive after a static mix pass, at least it’s all intelligible.

And that’s kind of the case for mixing with a focus on dynamics processors in the first place – they make your mix clearer. A great mix made without effects is going to sound raw and natural. The size will have to come from the natural ambience of the mix, but any small detail or adjustment can be made with these processors to get the perfect amount of presence and character on any vocal track or otherwise.

The Case For Effects 

But what good is a mix without a massive sound? Yes – transient shaping and EQ can go far to give your sounds the character it deserves, but it’s more difficult to place those sounds in a stereo space without some effects.

Reverbs and delays are the two most common time-based effects used in the studio as they can be mixed in subtly and artificially build size and dimension in your mix. Shorter delays and reverb times can make things sound intimate and nearby while longer intervals begin to sound fuller, wider and more expansive.

Effects don’t just stop there though – things like choruses and phasers have been used subtly as effects to change a voice, even if they’re just mixed in subtly under a clean copy of the track. One of the biggest tools available for vocal mixers is actually their spatial widener if they have one. Spatial widening helps take a mono vocal recording and fill out some space in the stereo field – making it a perfect option when a vocal sounds too narrow in a mix.

Here’s an example of how the Width knob in Howard Benson Vocals was used on a recent mix session by Sarah JoAnne Draper:

As you can hear – even pushed to the extreme, Sarah’s vocal stayed full and centered with the plugin enabled.

The Verdict

The truth of the matter is, no one group of processors is going to give you the complete sound you’re after without the other. Just like making music is a collaborative effort, handling the elements of a mix should be a collaborative effort of your dynamics and effects.

If I had to choose one to spend more time with – I’d go with dynamics. Getting your session cleaned up and controlled is an essential part of being a core mixer and having your EQ and compressor set up just right can only help your effects when you get to that part of your mix. After all, they’ll be working with a better-defined track that fits your vision for the mix more closely. 

Don’t forget – you can always EQ and compress your effects tracks as well for even more control over your sound!

Vocal Production & Mixing

Mixing alone isn’t always going to cut it in the studio, especially if you’re working with a young, inexperienced artist. These artists might have a vision for the sound they want, but you’ll want to play the role of producer as well to help them achieve it.

Most often, this means working with them to arrange and record vocal productions that will enhance the mix. Knowing the techniques used by the pros can help make you stand out from your competition and give you more to work with when you get to the mix.

Check out The Vocal Producer’s Handbook here.