November 5, 2021
Probably one of the biggest roadblocks I found when starting out as a producer was how to get my vocals to sit in a mix comfortably. The more tracks I had, the more difficult it became to have my vocals loud enough without overloading the track and to make it sound like it was in the same universe as the backing. The two main issues at play here are dynamic control and creative treatment - one is more technical and the other is more about personal taste decisions.
Volume and EQ
So what do I mean by dynamic control? With an audio track, you have two things going on: the actual ‘volume’ of the audio that your computer perceives and the ‘volume’ that you perceive. Music is actually really tied into psychology (I could talk for hours on that so perhaps another time) but what we’re concerned with here is that the ‘loudness’ you register a sound at is almost never true to the actual ‘loudness’ that your computer sees. The way we perceive loudness is actually how much attention we are paying to that sound within a mix. You’ve probably experienced this when producing where you can’t hear a track very well in a mix but when you solo it you find it’s actually playing quite loud. I appreciate this is a bit of an abstract concept to here’s an example:
Say you have a full mix of drums, bass, percussion, vocals, and guitars. Now say one of your guitar parts is quite bassy but lacking in high frequencies. In your mix you have a kick drum and a bass both providing a lot of low end - that is what you are expecting to hear in the low end and so you will be most consciously perceiving those two things in the lower frequency range. Now, this will make your bassy guitar part hard to hear because that lower end is dominated by the bass and drums. This doesn’t make your guitar part technically any less ‘loud’ as far as your computer is concerned. In fact, it could be turned up pretty high but still get swallowed. Now if you turned up the high frequencies just a bit, the technical volume of that guitar part might go up only by a few decibels (dB) but suddenly it’s cutting through a mix and you can hear it! You can also cut out a lot of the bass frequencies in that guitar part and you won’t notice the difference in the mix because you weren’t paying attention to that - doing that, the ‘technical’ volume of that guitar part will go down because you are removing some of the signal, but it will remain about the same volume to you in the mix.
So what do you do with this information? Well, start paying attention to what part of each sound you notice within your mix. I recommend doing a lot of switching between listening to your full mix and then soloing your vocal track. Are there any frequencies that are suddenly noticeable only when you solo your vocals? If there are, you have 2 options - remove or reduce those frequencies in the vocals, or reduce those frequencies in some other tracks in order to make room for hearing them in the vocals.
Good vocal mixing comes hand in hand with good general mixing. The better I got at making sure everything had its own space within their frequency ranges, the clearer everything became, and suddenly I wasn’t having to whack my vocal track right up just to hear it. As a rule of thumb, I always recommend having a high pass filter on your vocals - my cutoff sits at around 100-200Hz but that will depend on your own vocal tone. I also always boost my high frequencies to help the vocals cut through the mix, but how and how much is very dependent on the mix. At the top of the section is an example of the sort of EQ settings I put on my vocal tracks.
Volume and Compression
Compression is one of your production best friends when used right. If you don’t know what compressors do I highly recommend a good google, but basically it will reduce the dynamic range of your track (i.e. the difference between the quietest and loudest parts of your track is reduced). A classic issue with getting vocals to sit well within a mix is that you can hear certain louder parts but quieter parts get swallowed and simply turning the whole track up will make those louder parts overload. The solution? Compression. Applying a compressor to your vocal will make the dynamics way more consistent and will manage to loud peaks, allowing you to turn up the vocal track as a whole without anything overloading. Obviously, too much compression can also be used and your vocal will lack any kind of dynamic interest, this is where knowing how compressors work and really experimenting with them will help. Again, Google and the good old fashioned ‘what does this button do’ approach will get you comfortable. If you’re looking for a place to start, your main parameters to be messing with are the threshold (the volume at which the compressor starts to turn down the loud parts), the ratio (how hard it pulls these peaks down) and the output gain (how much gain you apply to the sound once it has had its peaks reduced). Play with these settings and aim for a place where your vocal dynamics sound managed, you can hear everything nicely in the mix, but the vocal doesn’t sound completely deadened or squashed.
As a quick side note here, I also recommend using a de-esser which acts as a compressor but only on the high-frequency end of your audio. It will help reduce any harsh ‘ss’ or ‘t’ sounds in your singing.
Finally, you hit the creative decisions - this is where you can go wild. Once you’ve got the dynamics technically controlled then really it’s what sort of sound you want from your vocals. Do you want them to sound far away and spacey? Crunchy and close? Bouncing between the left and the right? Mess around with all the tools at your disposal so you know what you’ve got to choose from.
I will generally always add at least a bit of reverb to my vocals to make them slightly less dry and less like I’m singing right in your ear - the busier and thicker your mix is, the more likely you are to want a bit of a wetter vocal (wet just means affected). It also depends on how wet the rest of your sounds are - if you have got reverb on a lot of components in your backing you will probably want more reverb on your vocal so that they sound like they are roughly in the same universe.
Overdrive is a form of saturation and the calmer cousin of distortion: it creates a richer, crunchier sound. This is to be used carefully as it will mess with the frequency balance of your sound but I use it particularly on vocals where I’m speaking or rapping to give it a bit more power and chunk.
Here is another best friend for you. I almost always double track vocals in choruses and anywhere where the mix is quite full. Double tracking is where you record a number of takes of the same vocal, and often people will pan 2 different takes left and right to give it more stereo width. I highly recommend doing this if you’re looking for a thicker vocal.
This overlaps with your arranging too, but harmonies can really help a vocal to push through the mix. If your main vocal is quite high and feels a bit thin, a lower harmony and even an octave down can help it feel richer. If you have a lower vocal, higher harmonies can help it cut through the mix. The one thing with harmony vocal tracks is to be a bit harsher with your EQ - if you’re stacking loads of extra vocal tracks then any unnecessary frequencies will multiply and contribute to the extra volume on your song without providing much extra value. I will be pretty harsh with my high pass filters on any high harmonies.
Obviously, there are loads more effects to try - delay, distortion, filters, pitch shift, chorus, phasers, etc. - but I highly recommend going away and just trying them. Find what sounds good for you and your vocals and have fun!