In this article, I will be giving you effective tips on how to mix vocals that sit well in a song as a cohesive part with other instruments in the music. This is often a hard nut to crack for newbie mixing engineers, especially home hobbyist producers. So I will be sharing step by step processes below which can surely help you get better sounding vocals pretty quicker than you can imagine.
This tutorial will be following these basic processing steps and more to help you achieve this: Noise gating and reduction > de-essing > equalizing > compression/limiting > saturation/exciter > reverbs and delays.
As more and more music are being made out of home studios nowadays, most home studio producers don’t have the luxury of a perfect acoustically treated live rooms and gears. As a result, issues like background noises and headphone bleeds are inevitable. These can be fixed by using noise gates and other special noise filtering tools like the waves X-noise, Z-noise, and X-hum etc. Dedicated noise gates are not a must, especially if you will be making use of all in one processors. Channel strips like the Waves SSL channel, and some compressors like the Waves R-vox have very good integrated gates. Just tweak these plugins controls appropriately till you get rid of the undesired sound. For an insight on how noise gates work, read…..Basic effects
This process will not be necessary if the material you are working on does not have ambient and piercing “S”. By this I mean the sss and tch sounds. De-essers are used to target the problem frequencies by using the filters built into most de-essers. The rate of problem frequency attenuation is adjusted using the threshold control. Recommended de-essers are Fabfilter Pro-DS and Waves RDeEsser.
This process can also be done using special settings in compressors with internal sidechain function like the Waves C1 sidechain. You don’t have to bother yourself if the compressor technique is over your head as a newbie, just use a simple de-esser.
Equalizers are very good tools for tone-shaping, filtering out unwanted sounds/frequencies and boosting the desired sound. Filtering out unwanted sounds is called corrective or subtractive equalizing. When processing vocals, it is often best to filter out the lower part of the frequency to get rid of unwanted bassiness and rumbles using the high pass/low cut filter. How drastic the bottom will be cut depends on the texture of the voice and your desired sound.
A few notches can be used to filter out other unwanted character of the vocal in other parts of the frequency spectrum ; at the mid low frequency to get rid of boxiness or at the high end to get rid of harshness. These problem frequencies are best discovered by boosting the EQ with a fairly narrow bell shape and sweeping along the entire frequency spectrum starting from bottom to the top. When you get an undesirable sound, notch it down. How deep the notch will be should be determined by what you are hearing.
Additive EQ is done by boosting the desired frequency to bring out the desired tone of the vocals. It should be noted however that this increases the volume of the sound, so you may have to pull down the output volume of the EQ to bring it back to the level it was before. But not necessary if does not affect the volume balance of your mix. Just make sure you are not clipping the track.
A good tool used to even out the volume of the louder and lower parts of a vocal performance to ensure consistence. It can also be used to infuse energy or calmness into the vocals to better present the mood of the song. For an energetic/pumpy feel you should set a slow or long attack time in order to let the transients through and set a fairly fast or short release. Then adjust the threshold and ratio appropriately to suit the material you are working on. On the other hand, to tame transients a very fast attack and fairly long release is required.
While mixing in the box, it is a good practice to use two compressors in line in the processing chain, with each instance sharing the workload. For example if you want to compress a sound by 6db gain reduction, you can use two comps of same or different plugins with each attenuating by 3db each. Some compressors can be used in limiter mode to catch some really spiking peaks by simply toggling a switch to change its function. To do this you set a fast attack, a fairly long release and a very high ratio (from 8:1 to 10:1 and above) , while adjusting the threshold so it catches only the peaks just as much as you want it. Or you can just use a limiter plugin like Waves L1 or Fabfilter Pro L to do same.
At times you may find the vocal performance good enough as it is or you just want clean and natural sounding vocals, so much you find it unnecessary to use a compressor. The best thing to do to keep a consistent volume in this case will be volume automation. You can even do some volume automation before using compressors so as to make the compression minimal. Or just use compression in parallel and subtly mix it in with the original. The suitable approach to use will depend on the song you are working on. This further shows you there are a thousand ways to do things while mixing.
Saturation and exciters
These processors are used to breathe life into a performance by adding characters like warmth, brightness or desirable harmonic distortion. These plugins model tape machines, tube saturators, harmonic exciters and extreme distortion boxes. Popular ones are Slate Virtual Tape machines, Soundtoys Decapitator, Waves Kramer tape, Waves Vitamin, Fabfilter Saturn, izotope Thrash 2 and many more. If you are restricted by budget to acquire any of the above, here is a link to FerricTDS an awesome free one from Variety of sound. You can get a the rest of their very good free VST plugins with the link as well. Though saturators and exciters can be used directly as inserts, they are best used as an auxiliary send. If the vocals ever call for it, just load up a suitable one for your song on an auxiliary bus and send to your vocals till it sounds right. In making use of exciters and saturators, subtlety should be the watchword.
Reverbs and delays
After making the vocals sound right with aforementioned processes, it is time to create an environment around them to give a sense of space and depth. Using same reverb and delay or two for the whole elements of a song could help gel them together. These two effects and others like chorus, phasers and flangers are time/space based effects. Though they can be used directly on a track as inserts while making use of the mix control, they are also best used as sends. Doing this you will have more advantage to still have the vocals very much upfront in the mix than probably having it drowned in the effects if directly inserted. You will also get to save your CPU power by using a single effect for many tracks, plus you can control how much of the vocals is being sent to the effects through the send volume control. It also makes it easier to automate where and when to make the effects prominent as the song goes. When using effects on auxiliary bus as send, make sure the mix button is turned 100 percent wet. A useful trick worth mentioning is to slightly send a delay bus to the reverb bus to give a fading distant effect.
That’s about how I do my vox people. I bet almost every good mixing engineer out there employs similar techniques and more. It should be noted however that this processing chain arrangement is not a status quo, as there are no specific rules guiding how things are done. At times you might need to make use of all the processes and more to achieve a perfect outcome. Other times you might need just two or three of them. It all depends on what you are working on, and what you are trying to achieve. For a good list of awesome plugins to acquire to help your get pro sounding mixes, check best VST plugins collection to acquire for pro sounding mix. Now go boot your DAW and try to mix some killer vocals that will make people go whao! Happy music making.