Mixing vocals isn’t easy, but it’s so worth it when you nail it!
In this post, I’ll share everything I’ve learned over the years about how to mix lead vocals so they sound pro.
Get ready for a boatload of tips on EQ, compression, effects, and more to take your mixes to the next level!
Editing and Comping
If your vocalist totally slays their performance in one take, cheers – you can skip comping vocals altogether! But for most of us, comping multiple takes is part of the process.
When comping, your #1 goal is creating a seamless final vocal by stitching together the best parts of different takes. Even Frankenstein can sound flawless with careful editing!
Comping also lets you tighten up loose phrasing or timing. If a word is dragging, use your DAW’s nudge tool to gently line it up with the beat. But don’t overdo it – too much nudging can make the singer sound stilted and robotic.
Preserve the vibe and emotion while comping – a technically perfect take doesn’t matter much if it loses the singer’s magic. Keep it musical!
Choose a Fixed Number of Tracks
One mistake to avoid is overdoing it on vocal takes. Recording too many options makes it crazy hard to pick the best ones later. Decision fatigue sets in and you end up second guessing yourself into oblivion.
Aim for 4-8 takes max per section. This focused approach prevents choice overload and helps you nail down solid performances.
Work in Short Sections
Don’t tire out your singer by having them run through the whole song repeatedly. Record vocals in shorter sections instead.
This lets you focus on nailing each part before moving on. It’s also much easier to comp and edit small sections than an entire song. Trust me, future you will thank you!
Clean Editing is Crucial
When editing vocals, listen carefully for any pops, clicks or big breaths that should get cut out. Sloppy editing makes a track sound amateurish quick.
Be extra mindful of breaths if recording close-up with a condenser mic. Isolate them on a separate track and reduce the volume -6dB so they don’t get amplified later.
Now that you’ve edited and comped the vocal takes, it’s time to move on to vocal tuning. This involves using pitch correction plugins like AutoTune or Melodyne to tune the vocals and make them more in-key.
When tuning, be careful not to overdo it. Heavy-handed tuning can make vocals sound artificial and weird. Aim for tuning that sounds natural and complements the original performance.
Know When Real-Time Pitch Correction is Effective
Real-time pitch correction works well on solid vocal takes, especially when used sparingly. Just a subtle amount of correction can add clarity without going overboard.
When used in moderation, real-time pitch correction can enhance the overall sound of the vocal track.
Surgical Tweaks Allow Detailed Pitch Edits
For precise vocal tuning, surgical pitch edits give you tons of flexibility to fine-tune details. With surgical tweaks, you can alter the timing, tempo, and intonation of individual notes. This surgical approach is great for polishing imperfect vocals.
Find the Key Center for Proper Tuning
One crucial step in tuning is finding the vocalist’s key center note. This identifies which notes need correction vs what’s already in tune. Knowing the key center makes it easier to tune vocals accurately.
Choose the Right Tools for Pitch Correction
For vocal tuning, tools like AutoTune, Melodyne, and Logic Flex Pitch each have their strengths. AutoTune excels at real-time and surgical pitch correction. Melodyne offers deep surgical editing. And Flex Pitch is great for Logic users. Pick the one that suits your needs and style.
Preserve Emotion When Tuning
When tuning vocals, keep in mind the intended emotion of the performance. While pitch correction fixes notes, you don’t want to lose the soul. Keep the tuning natural rather than chasing perfection, to maintain the vocal’s authentic vibe and character.
An equalizer lets you boost or attenuate specific slices of the frequency spectrum, like a sound sculptor. Low frequencies represent bass notes, while high frequencies give you treble and crispness.
With EQ, you can carve away muddy or clashing frequencies so the vocals shine through clearly. Or emphasize sweet spots like air and presence to add polish. It’s all about molding the voice into sonic perfection. EQ gives you the tools to eliminate the bad and boost the good for vocals that captivate.
One of the first things you should do when cleaning up a vocal recording is to use a high-pass filter to roll off frequencies below a certain range.
This will help eliminate any low-end rumble that might be muddying up the vocal recording. To find the right frequency cutoff for your high-pass filter, start with a low setting and slowly increase it until you find the point where the rumble disappears, but the vocal still sounds natural.
If any offending frequencies need to be reduced, use the sweeping technique to find and reduce them.
To do this, start with a wide Q (resonance) setting and sweep through the frequency spectrum until you find the frequency that’s causing problems. Once you’ve found it, narrow the Q setting and reduce the level until it’s no longer causing problems. Repeat this process for any other frequencies that need to be addressed.
Finally, we come to dynamic EQ. Dynamic EQ is an advanced technique that can be used to affect certain frequencies only when needed.
For example, let’s say you have a recording where the singer sounds great when they’re singing in their lower register but starts to sound nasal when they sing higher up.
You could use a dynamic EQ to reduce the level of nasal-sounding frequencies only when they’re being sung at higher volumes. This would allow you to preserve those frequencies when they’re being sung in the lower register and avoid having them stick out when they’re sung higher up.
To set up a dynamic EQ, start by creating two separate bands—one for boosting and one for reducing—with different frequency ranges for each band.
Next, set each band’s threshold, so it only kicks in when needed—for example, when the singer goes above their natural pitch or sings above a certain volume level.
Finally, tweak each band’s ratio and makeup gain settings until you achieve your desired sound.
Additive EQ is the opposite of subtractive EQ, where instead of reducing frequencies, you boost them to achieve the desired sound. This technique is used to bring out important elements in the vocal, like air and presence, add character, and help the vocal sit nicely in the mix.
There are a few common approaches that work well for different genres. You’ll generally want to boost the low end for hip-hop vocals, the midrange for rock vocals, and the high end for pop vocals. However, be careful when boosting around 2-5 kHz so as not to create additional harshness.
The goal is to find the right balance between adding character and maintaining clarity. Experiment with different frequencies to find what works best for each song. And always listen to adjustments to the vocal in context with the rest of the mix.
As always, trust your ears and make adjustments until you’re happy with the results.
Check out our review of the best EQ plugins if you’re looking to upgrade your plugin arsenal.
Compression is a process of reducing the dynamic range of a signal. In other words, it evens out the loud and quiet parts so that the volume is more consistent. The human voice is one of the most dynamic instruments, and it is essential to use compression to help it sit in the mix.
How much compression to use depends on a couple of factors, such as the genre of music and the performer’s style. Generally, the more dynamics there are in the performance, the more compression you’ll need to even out the levels.
Be cautious when using too much compression, though, as it can suck out the life of the vocal.
There are several different ways to compress vocals. The most common method is to use a peak limiter style compressor, applying 3-6 dB of compression.
The attack and release times on the compressor should be adjusted so that the transient of the vocal is shaved off, but the compressor doesn’t “breathe” in time with the song.
Many engineers like to use multiple compressors in small amounts, often starting with a fast peak-limiter style compressor followed by a slower one.
Parallel compression is another popular technique for compressing vocals, which involves sending the signal to an aux channel with an aggressive compressor and blending it into taste.
There’s also a sidechain compression technique often used by EDM producers to add movement and excitement to vocals. Sidechain compression has many applications and can also be used on other instruments for creative effects.
No matter what technique you’re using, take your time experimenting with different settings until you get the sound you want. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to compressing vocals, so it’s important to develop your own style.
De-essing is the process of reducing sibilance from a recording. Sibilance is the “hissy” sound that is produced when certain consonants are pronounced, and it can be very distracting to the listener and harsh to the ears.
Fortunately, there are a few different ways that you can reduce sibilance from your vocal tracks. We’ll take a look at three of the most common methods.
This is the process of attenuating the level of the vocal signal whenever sibilance occurs. Some engineers do this manually, either by EQing out harsh frequencies or by using fader automation when sibilance occurs.
While this approach does require a bit more time and attention to detail, it does allow you to be very selective about which sibilant sounds you attenuate.
Using a dynamics processor, such as a compressor or limiter, you can automatically attenuate the level of the vocal signal whenever sibilance occurs. This is done by setting the processor to only respond to sibilant frequencies.
Automatic de-essing can be a quick and easy way to reduce sibilance, but it can also sometimes result in unwanted artifacts if not used carefully.
Using a De-Esser
Finally, using a specialized plugin is the easiest way to control sibilance automatically. A de-esser is specifically designed to find and attenuate only the sibilant frequencies. De-esser saves time and effort and probably gives the best results in most situations.
Which one do you put first into your signal flow, EQ or compression? This is a common question among producers, and the answer is that it truly depends on the specific needs of your mix.
Some producers prefer to start with EQ to avoid boosting unwanted frequencies, while others may find it beneficial to use compression first, especially if they want to smooth out high vocal dynamics before making adjustments with EQ.
There’s no definitive right or wrong way to approach this; it’s more about understanding the characteristics of the sound you’re working with and what you want to achieve in your mix. Experimenting with both orders and trusting your ears will help you find what works best for your particular situation.
Adding a bit of saturation
Saturation is an electrical phenomenon that occurs when an incoming signal becomes too strong for a transistor to handle, resulting in compression, distortion, and added harmonics.
When it comes to vocals, these extra harmonics can help cut through the mix and add some fullness and extra character.
In most cases, it’s best to be subtle when adding saturation, as too much can sound harsh and distorted.
If you want a more aggressive sound, you can also try blending in an overdriven parallel track with the original to get the desired effect.
Adding space, depth, and width
Now that you’ve finished editing, comping, compressing, and sculpting with EQ, it’s time to add some effects.
Time-based effects such as reverb and delay can really bring a vocal to life. Playing with width, depth, and space can create an immersive experience for the listener and help bring out the emotion of the performance.
There are endless amounts of mixing techniques and vocal plugins you can use, and it’s impossible to cover them all here, but here are 10 tips to get you started:
- Use stereo reverbs and delays to create a sense of width in your mix. This will help to add some space around the vocal, making it sound wider.
- Keep the reverb and delay times in sync with the tempo of your track.
- Experiment with different decay times to find what works best for your mix. A shorter decay time will create a smaller space, while a longer decay time will create a larger space.
- Use mono effects for depth in your mix. This will help to add some focus to your vocals and make them stand out in the mix.
- Choose the right type of reverb for the song. A large hall reverb might be too big for a rock song but might be perfect for a ballad.
- Use EQ to sculpt the sound of the reverbs and delays. For example, you might want to boost the high end on a delay to make it shimmery.
- Always listen to how the reverbs and delays affect the vocals in the context of the entire mix.
- Experiment with panning to create a wider soundscape.
- Use pre-delay to create space between the vocal and the reverb. Increasing the pre-delay time will create more space between the two sounds.
- Don’t use too much reverb on vocals. If you add too much, it will start to clutter up the mix and make it difficult to hear it clearly.
Automation is key when mixing vocals. You can use it to add life by varying the volume throughout the song. Automating changes in reverb, delay, or saturation can add an extra layer of interest and make you sound pro.
Lead vocals often require careful automation in order to achieve a balanced and pleasing mix. Volume automation can help to level out the performance, reduce any harsh-sounding notes, and create a more consistent vocal track overall.
10 more vocal mixing tips you can use
If you’re looking to take your vocal mixes to the next level, check out these 10 extra tips:
- Start by cutting the low end of your vocals with a high pass filter. This will help to clean up the sound and make it easier to hear them in the mix.
- If your vocals sound too nasal, try cutting some of the mids around 500 Hz. This will help to reduce that nasal tone.
- To make room for the vocals in the mix, try cutting some of the guitars between 1-3 kHz. This will help to reduce any competition for space.
- If you’re having trouble getting the vocals to punch through the mix, try sending them to a separate bus with an extra stereo spread. This will give them more presence in the mix.
- When equalizing, always cut before you boost. This will help to avoid any muddy or unclear frequencies.
- Keep reverb to a minimum: Reverb can be used to make vocals sound more epic and dramatic, but it’s best to keep it to a minimum unless you’re going for a specific effect.
- For an in-your-face vocal sound, try using a multiband compressor or Pultec-style EQ.
- If you want to grunge up a vocal, start by cleaning it up (or at least taming it) and then adding your dirt. This could involve distortion, saturation, EQ, or any other type of processing.
- Sometimes lo-fi processing can work well for vocals – it can add character and help them stand out in a mix.
- Go crazy with effects if that’s what you’re aiming for – just make sure the vocals are still understandable.
Remember, getting good at mixing vocals takes time and practice! Keep experimenting and trying different techniques until you find what works best for your taste, music, and mix.
And don’t be afraid to break the rules – sometimes taking risks can lead to great results!
Good luck, and have fun!