Knowing all about the vocal mixing techniques is the key of success for all audio engineers.
The Vocal is the most important instrument in the song, and the element that you must mix with whole energy and enthusiasm. That is the element that communicate with every listener, because all of us understands singing, or we know what is good singing. And because of that fact, you must emphasize the vocal. Even drummer will not comment about the sound of the hi hat. Whole music world is spinning around the vocal, if you have big, quality, clean, and in tune vocal, you can live it acapella and you will have the applause.
Mixing the Vocal
We are not magicians, but we have skills and tricks which can turn average vocal into unique world star vocal.
I always mix Vocal AFTER I mix drums or sometimes I mix the vocal first. That is my workflow because Drums and percussions are not tonal, they will not take frequency part from the vocal, and drum section will not dictate tonal balance of vocal. Rhythm section gives me feeling about the groove and movement of the song.
Before I even think of Mixing the vocal, I check up for out of tune moments. If there are small detuning’s, I would use soft and slow Auto Tune, like Auto Tune EVO From ANTARES. But for bigger out of tune problems, I would use waves tune (which is perfect for tuning). After the tuning of the vocal I start with the mixing process.
Vocal Mixing Chain
1. Low Cut EQ
I cut everything under 80Hz, and sometimes even under 100Hz(depends from tonal spectrum of the singer and the sound that we are after). I cut the lows before compression because the lowest frequencies are from background noises, rumble, and I don’t want to emphasize sound that it is impossible to exist in the vocal. They make compressors acting crazy and compress the whole signal because of their presence.
2. De esser
As I treat low frequencies I also treat high, harsh and ear piercing frequencies. Sounds like S, Sh, C and T that are too loud or too harsh must be treated with de esser. I do this step before compression because they will easily activate the compressor and whole sound will be compressed in vain, and you will see gain reduction meter jumping, and the sound will be unstable. Also I am using de esser before coloring EQ because it will give me bad sound perception for High Frequencies in the vocal, and in the end, you will be in lack of high end and air, because the S, C, Sh, T are lying that you have to much high end. To treat them I use any desser with response for frequency above 5kHz with wide method, and only in small number of cases if wide sounds unnatural I would go with split method of de essing. Wide is more natural because it lowers the whole frequency range when harsh sound happens.
I always do compression before coloring EQ. EQ is in vain if you compress a lot after it. You will need to eq again because the compressor will change the desired tonal balance. I use almost always two serial compressors on vocals. One slow and one fast, almost like limiter. I use one slow compressor to reduce the initial dynamic range of the vocal. With 2:1 – 4:1 ratio with slow attack and medium to fast release. Something like LA 2A, or RVox from Waves, or 4:1 setting on LA 1176 with Slow attack on 2-3, and release on 5-6. In this initial stage of compression I go far as I can, to make the vocal stable, to give character and body. And still not squash it. I would go with 10 – 12db of Gain reduction if the recording doesn’t have initial compression in recording process. After the slow compressor I will engage fast compression with bigger ratio so I can catch all of the peaks that can easily make problems in mix bus to jump from the mix. I would often engage Limiter just to catch the peaks, or if I want to add more compression and character I will add Fairchild 160, puigchild from waves, or CLA 1176 with 7 on the attack knob and 6-7 on the release knob. This will give you conscript vocal that will stand stable in your mix, and freedom for the best coloring eq.
You can use whatever eq plug inn that you have, it is all in your ears and judgement. I will give you my workflow while I am EQing. First I will do lo cut everything under 80Hz just in case. I will clean if there is muddiness in the vocal around 250-350 Hz, depends from the room where it is recorded. Now when muddiness is gone, I can judge if I need more low end and body to the vocal. I often boost in 100Hz-250Hz. Then I will find the sweet spot in the vocal in the range of 1kHz-3,5kHz and boost it a little bit, and check if it is adding too much of harshness to clean it up (around 2kHz). After that almost always I boost in the range of 4 – 5Khz to give clarity, presence and diction. And in the end I do High shelve eq for everything above 8-10kHz to give what is called the AIR in the vocal. I often use combination of two serial eq’s. For example I use REq 6 from waves for locut, muddiness clean and boosting in the mid range, and I use Puigtech or Pultech Eq for Boosting low end and High End in the vocal. Remember: Combination of two or more elements with subtle changes for same purpose, gives more natural result than engaging one plugin to do the same job.
5. De esser
In the end of the vocal processing, I always use de esser because I boost a lot in the high end and with that I have also boosted those noisy, sharp and harsh frequencies. I will look for the more natural sound of the vocal. Some times it should be stronger desser so that vocal can better fit in softer songs, and sometimes we should live a little bit of sharpness in messy and full mix so that the vocal can be understood and noticed.
This is just one of the possible chains that you should use, this is principal it is not a scheme.
This is not let us use this vocal chain and see what vocal we will get, but we know what vocal we want, and we will see what we will use to have it.
A young engineers we often follow rules like “do not compress too much, not more than 4-6 db of gain reduction” but in the end following the rules will not make the vocal to sound good. It is all about the sound that you desire. You don’t develop signal chain for vocals, you develop taste and sound character. Follow your ears, because the audience will judge with their ears.
After my Vocal is clean, stable and colored we are adding character, attitude and style with different effects.
FAMOUS EXPERIENCE: Yoad Nevo compresses the hell out of vocal with 20 db of gain reduction, and then he starts with EQing.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: I tried to follow rules from school, do not compress too much, do this, do not that, until the time when following rules didn’t get me good sound. Many of the engineers didn’t compress much because they do not have quality tools to do that. Our tools and the infinite number of tries with computer technology gives us freedom to experiment and get what we imagine and feel.I find my own chain, and I have different approach for every artist and genre.
REMEMBER: All your knowledge and tools should make your ears happy. Give everything that you have for everything that you want, do not give everything that you want for everything that you have.
You will see my effects chain in the next post.