Mixing Vocals to Sound Upfront

Jan.01 / 2011
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Mixing Vocals to Sound Upfront

One surefire way to make your mix stand out as “professional sounding” is to make sure your vocals are well balanced. Especially in pop music, it’s important to have vox that are clear and stand out in the mix.

There’s a real art to making your vocals right, but it also requires a lot of time, focus and patience. In that pursuit of getting them just right, you’ll most likely spend more time mixing your vocals than any other track in your session.

Here’s a couple tips on how to mix your vocals so they sound upfront.

1. Get The Right Equipment

First things first, if you want professional sounding vocals, spend the money and get a proper mic. If nothing else, start with an SM58, but a good vocal mic like the Rode NT1A won’t break the bank. The next step up would be an SM7B which is a choice dynamic mic for a lot of pop artists.

2. Live Setup

First, picture your recording setup the same way you would set up a band on a stage. Vocals should be upfront, with all other instruments to the side and behind it. There are many ways to achieve this effect through mixing, but the most common is through equalizing, panning and of course raising it’s overall level. If you want you vocals to pop, they should be the most prominent sound. If you visualize your mix as a live band, it will help you mix not only your vocals, but the rest of the instruments as well.

Unless you’re going for something a little more abstract, keep your vocals front and centre. Panning is great sometimes for an artistic effect as well as harmonies, but lead vocals should remain locked up front.

3. Create Headroom

Once you have your vocals recorded, a good first step is choosing an equalizer to remove some of the low end. Even if your vocals are turned up through level or through your gain, if they aren’t EQ’ed properly, the will still blend into the other instruments. Vocals that are low-end heavy will sound muddy and intelligible, so if you are using a mic with a low-pass filter, try turning it on.

Depending on the mic used, your vocals may have too much low end or high frequencies. If you’re adjusting the EQ by boosting frequencies, that’s fine in moderation but make sure you first start by cutting out the opposite frequencies. This may mean cutting out frequencies on your vocals tracks or on levels of your guitars and other effects as well.

To start, you can pretty much cut everything below 60Hz since it’s all murky low-end. While being mindful of the 100-350Hz range, you may want to come back and boost somewhere between 125Hz and 250Hz for some meatiness, balancing it out by raising the 2kHz to 4kHz range for improved articulation of the voice. If you find your vocals are really breathy, apply a filter in your mix on 10kHz to 16kHz.

4. Use A De-Esser

Once you start raising vocals, harsh consonants such as “s” “ch” and “z” can sound excessively sibilant. To counteract this problem, use a de-esser. They are a simple and easy tool that most professional engineers use.

5. Multiband Compressors

Depending on your artist’s range, your vocal track can end up all over the place when they get to higher and lower registers. If you find the vocals are really loud in some spots and quieter in others depending on where they are singing, using a multi band composer is a better option than manually adjusting through EQ. What you are looking for is a solid vocal track with a pretty consistent level throughout the song.

6. Monitoring Levels

When mixing your vocals, check your levels every time a big change is made by turning your playback down as low as possible. Listening back to your song quietly will let you hear what’s prominent and what’s not. The vocals should be just barely louder than the rest of the song.

On that note, another easy technique is to mix in mono. Your finished product can still be in stereo, but mixing in mono makes it easier on your ears to pick out levels. This trick is like putting training wheels on your mix.

If we can impart one idea with you, it would be that in mixing sometimes the simplest solution is often the effective. There’s an art in being subtle with your mixing, rather than overcomplicating it with hordes of effects and edits. Sometimes it’s the simple changes that make the biggest difference.