It goes without saying but for dramatic purposes, the vocals are THE MOST important part of the song.
But vocals are tough-really tough to mix and time is key in getting them to sound the exact way you want them to sound. They can be inconsistent, out of tune, out of time, and every single one sounds different. You can honestly sound different before and after you take a drink of water.
So how do you get your vocals sounding their absolute best before you release your music?
That’s exactly what you are going to learn in this blog! With these 6 tips, you’ll be able to create some absolutely amazing vocals.
Decide on your vocal sound
Before you start mixing your vocal, decide what do you want your vocals to sound like?
A common mistake in mixing is to follow tutorials without thinking. You put on effects and twist knobs just because a few articles told you to. STOP IT!
You’re basically mixing with a blindfold on.
ALWAYS make sure you’re mixing with intention. When you’re adding compression and EQ, do it with your end game in mind.
This is especially important with vocals because they differ so much between genres.
Rock and metal vocals are traditionally rougher and punchier. They use more distortion and a slower attack with their compression.
In pop and R&B, they’re extremely consistent and exciting. They use lots of compression and effects.
In folk and jazz, they’re raw and clean. They don’t process the vocals much at all—a little bit of compression, EQ, and reverb.
How do you decide what your vocal target should be? Pick a few reference tracks and base your target on their vocal sound.
Once you’ve decided on the vocal tone you want, it’s time to start your mix.
Step 1: Using EQ rid your vocals of any nasty frequencies.
First off, you need to clean up your vocal.
If you’re recording vocals at home, you’ll likely have some room resonances unless you're recording in a nice studio.
These are basically frequencies that are extra loud in a particular room, due to its size, shape, and amount of acoustic treatment.
The room you’re recording in was likely designed for some other use. A bedroom, a basement, a bathroom, a closet… these will all have room resonances.
To find the nastiness, put an EQ plugin on your vocal. Boost one of the bands by 12-24dB at a Q of around 3.
Then move the EQ band slowly from the low end to the top end. This is what’s known as an EQ Sweep.
Listen as you’re sweeping. Do any of the frequencies jump out and get extra loud? Do any frequencies sound particularly “nasty” to your ears?
These are likely room resonances. CUT THEM OUT.
How much you cut (and how wide the cut is) will depend on that particular track. Sometimes the resonance isn’t that bad—a few dB should do the trick.
Try to concentrate mainly on the biggest problem areas. Your room probably has lots of resonances, but focus on the ones that are most annoying to you.
Too many high Q filters can cause phase shift and comb filtering if you’re not careful.
Sometimes it can be really bad. You may even have to cut 10-20dB out of the sound.
As far as the width (Q) goes, just remember this: if it sounds like it’s in one specific area, a narrow Q will do. Think between 5-15. If it sounds like it’s in a wider area, then a slightly wider Q will help. Somewhere between 2-5.
Once you’ve cleaned up your audio, it’s time to move onto the next step: de-essing.
Step 2: Use a de-eser to tame your sibilance
Vocals are notoriously difficult to tame. And a big reason why is sibilance.
Simply put, sibilance is the sound you make when you say a consonant (like s, t, or z). It’s that “hiss” sound that you make with your tongue.
In the real world, sibilance doesn’t really bother anyone. It sounds normal. But in the music world, your microphone tends to accentuate it, making it sound unnatural and harsh.
That’s why we have de-esser plugins. They’re meant to tame that sibilance.
Before you start: this step is optional. If your vocal sibilance sounds normal, then don’t try to de-ess it! It could make it sound much worse.
De-essers are basically multiband compressors. They compress a very specific part of the frequency spectrum, and are only triggered when that part gets too loud.
They’re pretty simple to use. First, solo the vocal and loop a particularly sibilant part of the song. Then, turn on the “monitor” or “side-chain” mode. Sweep around until you find an area that sounds particularly harsh during sibilance. Once you’ve found it, switch it back to regular.
Now set your threshold. You only want the de-esser activating during sibilance. If it’s activating at other times in the song, your threshold is too low.
The trick is to get the right threshold. You don’t want it compressing too little, or it’ll do nothing to your sound. You also don’t want it compressing too much, or it’ll sound like the singer has a lisp.
Most DAWs come with a stock de-esser that will get the job done.
Step 3: Control your dynamics with serial compression
Vocals are a very dynamic instrument. They go from soft to loud in an instant—sometimes randomly. When you’re trying to create consistency in a song, they tend to stick out.
You want to use a compressor to control those dynamics and smooth out your vocal. More specifically, you want to use multiple compressors. It’s called serial compression.
Serial compression is a technique where you use 2-3 mild compressors instead of 1 heavy compressor.
When a compressor is working extra hard, it tends to sound mechanical and unnatural.
But with a few light compressors in a row, the vocal sounds controlled yet natural.
It doesn’t sound like it’s been heavily compressed, even if the amount of compression is exactly the same.
To set up your serial compression, follow these steps:
Load up a compressor. Any will do.
Next, lower the threshold and raise the ratio to extreme settings. This allows you to clearly hear the compressor working.
Start with a medium attack time around 15ms and adjust to taste. A fast attack (5ms) will make your vocals sound thick and heavy. A slow attack (30ms) will make your vocals sound punchy and aggressive.
Dial in a medium release time of 40ms and adjust from there. Try to get the compressor pumping in time with the music.
Once you’ve settled on an attack and release time, bring the ratio down to somewhere between 1.5:1 and 3:1.
Adjust the threshold and ratio until you’re averaging 2-3dB of gain reduction (or higher for heavier music).
Increase your makeup gain so that the track’s volume is the same as before.
Finally, duplicate the compressor plugin. Check the settings to make sure you’re getting the same amount of gain reduction. If you want more gain reduction, duplicate the plugin again.
Remember, sometimes these settings won’t work throughout the entire song.
If there are parts of your song that are too loud for the compressors, try using gain automation. It’s the secret sauce to a consistent vocal.
Step 4: With another EQ shape your tone
Now that your vocal is sitting “in the pocket” nicely, it’s time to shape your tone with some tonal EQ.
Tonal EQ is exactly that – EQ that shapes the tone of a track.
Rather than “cleaning” a track like room resonance EQ, tonal EQ lets you tweak the tone to find the sound you’re looking for.
What you do in your tonal EQ is entirely up to you. Each track is different, so it’s difficult to give any universal advice.
No matter what, make sure you’re listening to your reference track. You want to get your vocal to sound as close to your reference as possible.
So if your vocals sound muddier than your reference, you may want to cut some of the low mids.
If your vocals are duller than your reference, you may want to boost somewhere in the upper mids.
If your vocals are darker than your reference, a top end shelf boost may be necessary.
But again, every track is different. There’s no hard rules here. Use your ears and find your flavour.
It’s important to note that you’ll want to make more subtle moves during this part of the process. Usually your boosts and cuts will be between 2-3dB, and no more than 5dB. It’s easy to get carried away on a power trip and wreck your vocal with too much EQ.
Step 5: Add a little space with some reverb or delay
If you recorded your vocals correctly, they should sound too dry in your song. You want your vocals to be the most up-front-and-center element of the song, so recording a vocal in a well-treated room is a big plus. If you are not recording in a well-treated room don't freak out. Using these steps and really paying attention to getting rid of resonance can solve your problem.
That said, a bone dry vocal is always going to sound weird.
So you want to add a little space back with some reverb or delay.
Reverb sounds more natural, but it pushes the vocal back farther in the mix.
If you want a super close vocal (think pop or rap), you’re probably not going to use this. But if you’re wanting a more folk or ballad vocal, reverb is perfect.
Delay sounds less natural, but it keeps the vocal close in the mix. It’s pretty common to use a fast delay to create space in more produced genres, like R&B and pop.
Here’s how you create each.
How to create vocal reverb:
To create vocal reverb, start by sending your vocal to an AUX track. Put your best reverb plugin on it.
The process of doing both is different for every DAW, so search “how to create a send in [insert DAW here]” if you’re not sure how this works for your system.
Make sure your reverb is set to “100% wet” to keep any of the direct sound from bleeding through.
Next, time your reverb time to the tempo of the track. To do this, turn the reverb time up to 4 seconds, then slowly move the time down until it sounds good to you.
In general, shorter reverb times work best for avoiding a muddy mix. This usually means a reverb time of less than two seconds.