Vocals are the bread and butter of modern music. Regardless of if you’re working with pop, rock, country, or metal – they’re all very centered around lead vocals (with the few exceptions being instrumental music). At this point, it just doesn’t sound right to hear a vocal buried in the mix – it’s what the fans are listening for.
You need to realize as the mixer of a project, it doesn’t matter what your resources are. People want to hear professional A-grade vocal mixes each and every time. They don’t care if those vocals were recorded in a million dollar studio or a bedroom on a budget microphone. Fortunately, the tools available to home recording engineers and pros alike have never been more prepared for the task.
Here’s exactly what you need to get a professional-sounding vocal mix:
Start at the Source
Great vocal mixes come from great vocal performances. How can you expect to have a great vocal mix with a singer that doesn’t know their part or is jumping all around the mic?
Work with your singers upfront as much as possible to teach them good recording techniques. Show them how to naturally compress their louder parts by pulling away from the mic when they go to belt a note out. Have them get closer during softer, more intimate vocal performances.
Shoot out microphones whenever possible to match the right one to the singers voice, then work on proper mic placement. If you can get a great sounding vocal from the start, the mix becomes infinitely easier to work out.
Comping & Pitch Correcting Vocals
Even with the best vocal takes, there are parts that are just going to sound better from somewhere else. Whether you tried something different in another take or you really just don’t like how harsh one line sounds, comping is a tried and true method for taking the best parts from multiple vocal recordings and combining them into a single, consolidated lead vocal.
Take your time to select the best parts from each take. If your DAW supports playlist views, toggle between the takes in real time & loop sections to help speed up your decision making process. Remember: you’re the tastemaker that’s going to be choosing the best of the best for the audience to hear.
Once you’ve got your perfectly comped take, pitch correction is the second half of your vocal editing session. Use your favorite tuning plug-in to snap the notes to the grid or create smoother transitions between notes. If your vocal comping already took care of the majority of pitch issues, tuning should be a breeze.
Don’t have any pitch correction software? Check out this alternative technique.
Mix-Ready Vocal Chains
I can’t think of any better instrument to throw the kitchen sink at than vocals. You might compress certain elements of your mix and EQ others, but your vocal’s channel strip is the primary place where you can use just about everything you’ve got in one way or another to get it sitting just right.
Don’t mistake this for me saying you should use a whole bunch of processing on your vocal track – it’s not always needed. Just be prepared to have everything at the ready, and don’t be afraid to experiment!
Let’s take a look at a lead pop vocal as an example. That pop vocal is likely going to need some dynamic processing right from the start with EQ & compression. The order and amount of each of these might change depending on your scenario, but they’re both intended to give you a more controlled, colorful voice.
From there, you need to be ready to morph a lead vocal into a 3D sound that fills the center of your mix just right. Doubling the lead vocal will add some harmonic density to it, while spatial widening can help push the sides of the vocal out wider (this is key in especially dense mixes with lots of tracks).
Finally, you’ve got time-based effects like reverb and delay to create a sense of space around your vocal. Add it all up and your vocal chain really needs to be ready to handle just about any scenario a modern vocal could be faced with!
The Hidden Value of Vocal Production
The tips and techniques here can be used to enhance just about any type of vocal, but we haven’t really dug into one of the most underrated aspects of modern vocals: production.
While vocal mixing techniques are used to maximize your results sonically, production techniques like adlibs & harmonies all work to enhance your song musically. To help you understand the differences and how each kind of technique adds to your sessions, we wrote The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook, a 40-page guide on everything from writing around your vocals to printing final vocal stems – available exclusively to JST VIP members for a limited time.