Vocals are the most important thing. It doesn’t really matter what you’re discussing, music, podcasting or voice acting… The human voice is what everyone focuses on.
You already know this. It is now up to you to mix vocals so that they can compete with professional productions and releases. Once you know the order of operations, it’s easy to do.
In an effort to improve the quality of their recordings, people spend a lot on acoustic treatment and recording gear. Half of the battle is in post-production, also known as signal processing or mixing.
Let’s take you through the entire process, from the first step to the last. You can even work along in your digital audio workstation if you wish. It’s something I would recommend. Let’s do it. You will find links to other articles as you read, which will allow you to explore different concepts in greater detail.
Step 1: Take the highest quality pictures you can
It’s obvious that recording at the highest quality possible is your first priority. This means getting out all your gear and setting up a DIY vocal booth, if necessary, before heading into the studio. For proper gain staging and headroom, you want your vocals to be at an average volume of around -18 dB within your software.
Record more than one take. You can loop the section of the song that you are ready to perform, and then record as many takes as possible. As you can see in the above image, your DAW will add all takes to the same track of multitrack.
For example, in Logic Pro you will see the dropdown arrow at the top left. Click it to collapse the takes. It will also label the main take as a Comp, meaning composition. I’ll explain this next. It is important to record as many recordings as possible.
Steps 2-5 should be performed with the vocals in solo mode. This means that you only can hear the vocal track and no other instruments. The vocals must be heard alone, without any interference.
Step 2: Make the perfect composite track
The best take doesn’t necessarily have to be chosen. This means you don’t need to worry about getting the best performance in one go. A composite track can be created from the best parts of each take. This is called a Frankenstein monster.
Clicking on a sub-track can be used to select the best parts from the recordings. You can apply a crossfade to the volumes of each recording to ensure they blend seamlessly. However, you might need to adjust some settings.
The top track now shows the composite version. You can click on the top left dropdown to collapse it all onto one track on the multitrack. You now have a track that is better than any you could manage in one performance.
Step 3: If necessary, add pitch correction and timing
This is not something that everyone does because it’s often not necessary. If you have a perfect track that has a section where the timing needs adjustment, this is the right time. To splice the part, you can use a scissor to adjust it by milliseconds forward and backwards.
You can then add a pitch correction plugin to the track. Many people prefer Melodyne’s Autotune, but you can also use the stock plugin from Logic Pro. Select the right notes on the scale, and adjust the pitch as quickly as possible. You’ll sound robotic if you play too fast or too fierce.
I recommend that you only fix what is necessary (Our guide How To Use Autotune). Autotune will eventually lose popularity as a whole, so I wouldn’t recommend slapping it on the entire track. Fads can make your music sound outdated.
Step 4: Open the Noise Gate
It’s now time to polish the track and remove any unwanted noise. It is easiest to add a noisegate plugin. To find the perfect settings, you’ll need to play around with the threshold, attack and hold, then release.
The track will mute itself if your vocal volume drops below the threshold. This is to ensure that no noises can pass through the track when it is supposed to be quiet. This is important. If you need assistance, click the link above.
You can also apply an automation track to a gain plugin (as shown in the next step), and draw a line representing the volume. This will mute those areas manually. It’s not a good idea. A noise gate is a better option. This will save you a lot of time.
Step 5: Add Gain Plugin and Automation Track
The track is now quiet, the timing and pitch are good. The volume could be too inconsistent. Perhaps the vocalist was moving away from the microphone, which could have caused volume fluctuations. We’ll now fix it.
Add a gain plug to the track, and you can start your “automation track”. This allows you to tell the computer how the gain plugin variables should be changed automatically, so that you don’t have to stick with the same setting. You want to modify the gain parameter, which works in a similar way as a volume fader.
Automating the gain plugin is better than automating the volume fader. You still need to have access to the fader. You won’t have the ability to use the fader later when you balance the levels across the track. This fancy trick will save you a lot of headaches later.
You want to reduce the volume of the vocalist’s breaths. You should also identify the parts of the track that are too loud or low and adjust them.
You want the volume levels to be consistent across the track by the end. However, they should not be perfect. There is a compression method that will make it easier to finish the job later. Don’t get too involved in this step. Just want the same intelligibility of the spoken words and the same volume to avoid falling into the traps of over-compression.
Step 6: Gain staging in full context
You now want to dive into gain stage. This means two things. You can adjust the volume of your vocals by using the fader. This will allow you to set the track’s relative level. You can adjust the volume and pan the instruments until the song sounds balanced.
This is necessary to be able to see how your vocals clash with other instruments. Don’t be concerned about perfectionism while you do this. You just need to get it closer to the original so that it sounds balanced and tastes good.
If you are happy with the main vocal mix, it would be a good idea to move it to another track or remove any other tracks. It’s one thing to stay organized, but the main benefit of this is to decrease the CPU and RAM usage of the computer so that you don’t get bogged down later. If you have a fast computer, this is not necessary.
Step 7: Use Equalization for shaping the vocal tone
Once your vocals have been set up and can be compared to the whole rough mix, we will go back to working on the vocals in isolation. However, don’t solo the vocals any longer. The full rough mix is what you want.
You can add a parametric equalization plug-in to your vocal track. Now, you can make large-scale changes to the vocal track and adjust the surgical EQ. One example is to increase the low roll-off to around 80 Hz, and then let it reduce volume to around 20 HZ. This will eliminate hum, mic stand sounds, air conditioner rumblings, and other unpleasant noises.
Also, you’ll want to listen out for any specific issues. A muddy or boomy sound is likely. To fix this, you can use a wideQ and lower the volume by approximately 5 dB between 200 Hz and 500 Hz. You can reduce volume by avoiding high pitched squeals known as sibilance. These will be fixed next.
It takes practice to equalize. Equalization is an art form. For more information on equalization and the steps involved, please visit our Mixing With EQ: 23 EQ Tip article. Or our How To EQ Vocals article. This will help you to find your feet with boosting, cutting and sweeping frequencies, Q settings, and so on.
As you mix vocals, this is something you need to master. Try to copy the image below and compare it to the original track if you are a beginner. The changes will be audible and you’ll begin to associate them with frequency ranges.
Step 8: Apply De-Essing using a De-Esser
Now your vocal track sounds very natural. There may be instances when the singer used “S” or T consonants. In these cases, a loud, sharp and high-pitched sound will come out. This happens all the time, but microphones pick up it louder. A tool called a DeEsser (or DeEsser) is the solution.
A De-Esser locates loud, sharp parts and lowers their volume. This compressor focuses on specific frequencies. You will need to identify the frequencies that are problematic, just like in the EQ step. You can find them by opening another EQ plugin, and then sweeping a tight Q-10 dB boost until you hear even more sharp sounds.
It doesn’t take much to scan the entire frequency spectrum. These problems are usually found in the frequency band of 3 kHz-6 kHz males, and 5 kHz-8 kHz females.
We do this using a de-esser, not an EQ plugin. This is because the deesser reduces the volume of these frequencies only when they become too loud. It doesn’t affect them otherwise. An EQ would reduce the track’s length even if it isn’t being problematic for us.
Step 9: Apply vocal compression (The Core Difference).
This step is crucial in making your vocals professional. First, all the cleaning up and balancing needed to be done. This is because we are about to use a compressor and don’t want any bad noises or frequencies to trigger it. We removed them first.
We’re going to reduce the peak volume of the waveforms so that your loudest vocals are not as loud. This is vocal compression. This will make the quieter parts of the track seem louder and increase the average volume. This will make it easier for listeners to understand the song and help them stay focused on the singer.
There are four main settings you can choose from:
The threshold is the volume setting that you set for your vocals. If it goes above this level, it will be reduced in volume. For now, keep your threshold at -20 dB. You don’t want the vocals to be distorted, but you will need to compress more than you think. As you listen, consider the context of your rough mix.
Once you have the three other options set up, you will gradually reduce the threshold until your gain reduction is around 5 to 10 dB. It’ll depend on your taste, and will vary for each track. You can adjust the Make Up Gain knob to increase volume for whatever track you choose.
The ratio is the measure of how peak volumes are reduced. A 5-to-1 ratio (or 5 to 1) is a good starting point. This means that for every 5 dB volume that exceeds the threshold, it will be reduced until it exceeds it by 1 or 1. For 10 dB, the volume would drop down to 2 dB. This makes the changes smoother and more musical.
The compressor’s reaction time to volume exceeding the threshold is called the attack. This happens slowly and smoothly. Use the fastest possible attack for rap vocals. You can experiment with slower speeds for singing vocals, up to 30ms.
The release is the exact same, but tells the compressor when to stop compressing if the volume drops below the threshold. A faster threshold is better for vocals. However, it’s worth trying to see how it works.
You can use tricks such as having two compressors in series. One compressor compresses harder and the second compressor compresses less. You can also use parallel compression to combine a compressed and uncompressed version of the vocal track. These are advanced tips that you can use later.
Step 10: Use Saturation and a Limiter
Vocals should sound professional. The rest of the process is just icing to make your vocals sound better. Volume spikes shouldn’t be a problem. It is a sign that you have not done your gain automation correctly. If it is only one or two pieces, you might consider using a limiter.
A limiter is a threshold that states “no volume goes beyond this point”. You shouldn’t use more than one decibel on a track. This will cause distortion. Although it’s not recommended to do so, you need to know how to use one in order for other mixing tasks.
Saturation is an effect that you should consider at this point. Saturation, which is an imitation of hardware mixing equipment, adds harmonics to tracks. It gives it a rich, complex sound that is old-fashioned and reminiscent of recordings from the 1970s and earlier. A slight amount sounds great even today.
Step 11: Add Spatial Effects like Reverb & Delayed
This is the end of your vocal track. You can now add spatial effects to your vocal track like delay and reverb. Before you start, make sure you know you need to do this on an additional bus. It’s easy to set this up, but it is difficult to explain for all DAW software. You will need to do that yourself.
It sends a copy your vocal track to another track, where you can add effects. This track won’t contain the vocal track. Only the effects will be heard. This is hugely advantageous, and we discuss it in detail in our Mixing With Reverb article.
You can use a small amount or a large amount depending on the song. Delay should also be adjusted according to the song’s tempo. These effects can be avoided by using sidechain compression. While you don’t need to be concerned about it yet, it will add a lot more clarity to your mix once you apply the principle.
Step 12: Make Room for the Vocals
Vocals are now done! You may have some clashing with other instruments. This can be the snare, guitar, keyboard, synthesizer, or other vocals. Your vocals are the most important. You want the other instruments to be in the way of your vocals.
Although you have already used panning, it is not enough. Equalization must be applied to these tracks. You should first determine the dominant frequencies of vocals, then decrease their volume in the other tracks.
The frequency ranges that you should be paying attention to are the fundamental frequency between 85 Hz and 255 Hz. To address this, you will use a low shelf EQ or low roll-offEQ on other instruments. Next, focus on the midrange band between 1 kHz and 4 kHz. This will allow you to cut instruments with wide Qs and reduce them by only 3 dB.
Focus on frequencies between 5 kHz and 8 kHz, where you will find the presence and understanding of male and female vocals. Focusing on this frequency will yield the greatest gains, but you should not cut any more than 3 decibels or less. Otherwise, it can lead to a reduction in the quality of other instruments. There will always be overlap, and there is no perfect track. The frequency ranges of tracks will always be the same.
Step 13: Reset the volume in the whole mix
The rough mix should have your main vocals well placed. Other instruments should not be distracting or clashing with your vocals. You should be able to hear a lot more clarity if you have the volume set correctly and the EQ and compression adjusted.
You want to finish the job. Now you want to automate volume with an automation track. I recommend this using another gain plugin, rather than automating the fader. You can still use the fader!
You want to draw attention to specific parts of the performance. Do certain vocal phrases sound better when they are 2 dB louder? Or do they require it because the intensity of the other instruments builds up? This is how you set the final volume in relation to yourself.
Step 14: Mix in your Background Vocals and Harmonies
You may also have background vocals. These background vocals can be EQ’d just like step 12. They should also be lower in volume.
You might pan them slightly. Check your mix in mono to see if there are any clashes. These background vocals should be compressed more than the lead vocals. They will be more quiet and have a steady volume.
For each background vocal, you will need to repeat steps 1-10. Once you have all your background vocals and lead vocals in place, output them to an auxiliary bus with the label “Vocal Bus.”
You can use the fader to treat all vocal tracks as one stem, since they are balanced. All vocals can be combined to increase or decrease their volume, while still keeping their related volumes equal. This can be used to mix the rest.
These are the best vocal mixing techniques
That’s it. The majority of the steps are very simple. Some steps, such as equalization or compression, may require some practice and research. You’ll be able to figure it out in no time.
This is both an art and science. Nobody can master them all in one go. As you get more experience mixing vocals, your mixes will improve. Once you have mastered the art of mixing vocals, it is time to practice it again and improve. You should already be able to mix vocals well, far better than what you could have done without this guide.