Mixing Vocals: A 13 Step Guide For Beginners

In my last article, I talked about the overuse of high pass filters. I said that I would create a follow-up post where I create a detailed list of my approach on how to mix vocals.

I thought long and hard about it because when it comes to mixing vocals it can be a pretty convoluted process as nothing is ever the same.  That said, I did realize that I have somewhat of a checklist (in my head) that I run through as I’m mixing vocals.  Some performances go through every step; some go through very few, and others go through some extra steps.

The good thing about these vocal mixing techniques is that you can apply them to any one genre or style of music.  So if you are mixing lead vocals, female vocals, male vocals or if your mixing backgrounds vocals than I’ve got you covered.  You might be working on Rock, R&B, Rap, Country or anything else for that matter, and that’s okay.  It’s about the concept and not the technique.

This article is, however, should not be taken as gospel and every step I lay out should not just become the default for every mix.  Take it with a grain of salt and decide for yourself if each step is necessary.  Or you may want to add your steps – I applaud the ones who take action and think outside the box.

Also, I am constantly changing and improving (at least I think I am) on my mixing technique.  So a year from now, this checklist could have more steps, fewer steps or the steps could be laid out in a different order.  The best thing to do is find something that makes sense to you and try it out.  If it makes your process easier and your mixes better, than keep doing it, if not then stop doing it.

1. Talk to the Client

This step is very important because finding out which direction the vocal mix needs to go is going to give me a destination.  It doesn’t have to be my road map and, of course, I can get there however I want, but I need to know what the client wants otherwise I am just throwing darts.

Every step after this won’t matter if I don’t know the direction that the track needs to go.  A lot of times the client will provide a reference/demo mix, and that is usually a great indicator of where the track should end up.

I’ve found that the client isn’t usually shy about what they want, so I just try and listen to them as much as possible and takes notes if I have to.  If I send them a mix, and it’s not what they expected, I just take it on the chin.  I simply ask them to explain to me what is wrong with the mix so I can correct it and make them happy.

If you are mixing your own songs than I assume you already know what you want! 😀

2. Listen to the Performance

Before I even lay down a plugin or effect, the first thing I will do is listen to the performance.   At that point, I can start to create a blueprint for how I should treat the vocals.

I can determine if the vocals need effects like reverb or delay throws plus I can get a general idea of how much processing is going to be needed.

It also gives me clues on which plugins to use.  Like if the vocal is edgy, I might need to soften it up, so I start planning out which plugins I think will help me achieve that effect.

After I’ve listened to the performance and got a good idea of what should be done I’ve pretty much already figured out what steps should take place.

Of course there will be a lot of experimentation to follow but I can pick out the things I have to do to the vocal.  At the very least I can hear where the vocal should sit in between the speakers.  From there I can just try out as many different techniques as possible until the vocal ends up where I hear it.

3. Clip Gain/Automation

For the most part, I am using the Clip Gain for this step and not the volume automation but just realize that Clip Gain is a form of automation that I use a lot for gain staging.  One benefit of using the clip gain over volume automation is that it is pre-insert, and it comes in handy later when we start processing.

This process is the beginning stage for me, but it also continues throughout the entire mix.  As the mix builds and other things start to stand out, I find that I have to refine the Clip Gain a lot so that the vocal can maintain a certain balance.

The goals and points of using the clip gain:

1. Fix the Balance

These days it’s not uncommon for vocals to be comped and recorded on completely separate takes.  As a result, the balance between the comps is usually off, so the clip gain helps to even that out.

2. Remove Plosives

Sometimes I can hear some obvious P’s and B’s from the vocals, and the clip gain can remove those things fairly easily.  Also, if the vocalist hits the mic stand and, as a result, I hear a pop in the performance I can fix that with the Clip Gain as well.

3. Remove Esses

There are times when the Vocal DeEsser doesn’t quite do the job, and I need to go in and take out the Esses manually.  I prefer to do this with the clip gain so that it gets fixed before it goes into my inserts but if you want to you can use volume automation to fix this after.

4. Improve Performance

Depending on the skill level of the artist and their microphone techniques, I may have to bump up a word here or there to help improve the performance.  Especially at the ending of words where the vocals tend to die out too quickly.  I would take the clip gain and bump up or fade up the ending word so that I can pull out the emotion and intimacy of the vocal.

I think the biggest thing I like about using Clip Gain is that I can retain as many dynamics as possible but keep them controlled, without a lot of compression.  Less compression allows for a much more emotional performance and is less fatiguing on the ears.

The clip gain automation is something I talk about a lot in the Premium Tutorials

Check out this video where I show how I use clip gain in the gain staging process.

[youtube id=”U2mKylUceFE” autoplay=”no” ]

4. Balance/Leveling

So now that the clip gain has fixed any problems, and I feel the vocal is in a place that will make it easier to fit in the song, I start the balancing process.

The balancing part is normally one of the most important aspects of mixing vocals for me.  It allows me to feel out the performance and gauge the vibe of the song.

Feeling out the vocal can take a bit of time to get right and usually involves continued manipulation as the mix unfolds.  The balance is one of those things that kicks off the processing but never it stops, even as more plugins are being introduced.

I try to get this as close as possible to what I think the final balance should be and then proceed to the next steps that I list below.

 

5. Find Any Frequency Problems

One of the more frustrating things about learning how to mix vocals is trying to get the vocals and the instruments to sound like they were meant to live together. Usually, I find it’s frequency problems that make the vocals and instruments feel separated – Not always, but usually.

If you can avoid this step, then I would highly recommend it.  The more you have to fix problems in the tone of the vocal then the worse the end product will sound.  Of course it will sound better than a vocal with problems but it would sound much better if you started with a great recording.

The problem areas that I normally have to work on are:

1. Extreme Lows

I hear this around 100 Hz and below and usually can be handled with a High Pass Filter.  You’d be surprised what a low shelf filter can do and often will result in a much more natural sounding vocal.  I rarely high pass more than 100Hz and if I do it’s because I want an effect.

2. Low Mids

The Low mids (for me) is anywhere from 200-350 Hz and is more often than not the biggest problem in poor recordings.  It’s caused mostly be either room resonance or poor mic techniques.  I like to use either a peak filter EQ to dip a little bit out or the Waves C1-sc to dynamically remove the problem frequency.  The C1-sc is great because it only works when it needs to and can often sound more natural.

3. Mids

Anywhere from 400-900Hz is the “boxy” zone to my ears.  Boxiness can usually come from poor mic technique or just the wrong vocal chain for the artist.  Sometimes it’s just inherent in a vocalist’s tone but I find it can be fixed with a good vocal chain or better mic technique.  Just like the low mids I would go for a Peak filter the Waves C1 to fix this area.

4. Upper Mids

The upper-mids is the zone that hurts the ears; I’m talking 1-5khz.  If this area gets out of control, I will most likely grab the Waves c1-sc to take out the harsh frequencies of the vocals, or use something similar.  I rarely use a peak filter for this just because I never liked the sound of it, but I do use it the rare time.

In the video below I talk about resonant frequencies and how I normally approach them.  Removing resonance is probably one of the best vocal mixing tips I can pass on because resonance is a major problem with home recorded vocals.

[youtube id=”J69b2u2PR7s” autoplay=”no” ]

6. Compression

So now the vocal is tonally a lot closer to where I think it should be in the context of the mix, but something still isn’t right.  I would probably start listening to see if I think it needs some compression.  Usually, I’m adding compression for a couple reasons.

The first reason is for tone.  If the vocal sounds a bit loose or soft, compression can help tighten it up and give it some edge.  Or if the vocal is a bit hard sounding I find that compression can help soften up the vocals to get it to a place that’s more ear pleasing.

The next reason I might add some compression is because the performance is a bit peaky in parts.  I would try and fix this issue with the clip gain, but sometimes it just sounds more musical to add the compressor and let it play off the vocal.

As far as what kind of compressor to use and what brand, that’s really up to your personal taste.  I’m a pretty big fan of the Waves audio plugins, so I lean towards the Romp, or RenAXX quite a bit.  The CLA bundle also sounds fantastic.  The best thing to do is, check out some different brands and styles and develop your tastes.

Here’s a video on my “Sandpaper Theory” for using compression.  It helps in dealing with dynamic vocals

[youtube id=”pqZg0iwEAT0″ autoplay=”no” ]

7. Distortion/Saturation

This step is not used very often, but I found that it can be useful from time to time.  Also, I put this one after the compression but, to be frank, it could come in really at any point in the vocal mixing process.

I find that a little bit of saturation can make a vocal come to life.  It gives it a certain amount of mid-range presence that EQ can’t get and somehow just pulls the vocal out.

Now all that said, the vocal would have to need something extra for me to add this.  If you have a really good vocal chain, I find this is not needed that often but I do have to pull it out from time to time.

8. Frequency Highlighting

So the balance is great, and the tone has been fixed but still the vocal isn’t quite coming through the listener.

Now I would probably start trying to find some frequency areas that I could highlight to make the vocal just a bit more appealing.  Often it’s a boost in the upper mids or highs but sometimes I have to boost a little in the lows (maybe 150Hz) just to round the vocals out and bring them slightly forward.

Beyond just frequencies, I’m also listening to the vocal to decided what type of EQ sound I want.  Some EQ’s have some bite to them, and others sound soft and feathery.  Depending on the song and what the performance dictates I would choose the best option accordingly.

 

9. DeEssing

Whenever I am mixing vocals, deessing comes after my Frequency highlighting like 95% of the time.  When you think about it for a second, it makes sense because once you start boosting in the highs you are boosting all those Esses too.  Boosting before the DeEsser is a great way to get the high end that I want but at the same time control those areas that pierce the ears from time to time.

10. Limiting

Limiting is the final step in the vocal mixing chain and at this point the vocal is like 98% where I think it should be.  I tend to use this for a couple of reasons.

One reason for using a limiter would be to catch the odd peaks now and then and just helps solidify a vocal that maintains a certain amount of stability in the mix.

The other is for a volume fader or an output gain at the end of my chain.  A lot of times certain plugins like DeEssers don’t have an output gain.  If I have any form of volume automation on a vocal track, it makes more send to us the Limiter output to adjust the output level.  It’s much easier than having to go in and edit the automation of the track.

[youtube id=”hEdemBZ2mRY” autoplay=”no” ]

11. Parallel Compression

Depending on the type of record I’m working on, I might need some parallel compression.  Parallel Compression is great because you can preserve the initial dynamics and bring up the lower levels of the vocal.  This results in a louder vocal but also one that sounds natural or at least as natural as possible.

On the whole I would say I probably use some form of parallel compression on the vocals even if it’s just a small amount.  It does help with getting a modern sounding vocal in today’s mixing climate.  It gives the vocals a lot of stability while still sounding open so the vocalist can high those high notes and not sound restricted.

This step is almost always last and is that final assessment on whether I need it or not.

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12. Effects

Now I put this one near the end because I don’t usually add effects until I’m well into processing the vocals, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I leave it until the end.  It just means that it is probably one of the last thoughts that come to mind as I’m listening to the performance.  Not to say this step isn’t important, it just seems to come more naturally when all the other steps have been sorted out.

So with the effects I’m looking to accomplish two things:

1. Environment

I’m always trying to find a nice environment for the vocals.  Now this doesn’t always have to be reverb; it could be some delays and to be honest, it could be nothing at all.  But it’s just a decision (or client request) that comes as the mix is taking shape.

2. Enhance Performance

These type of effects are things that add just that extra bit of mojo to the performance.  It could be a Delay Throw or it could be some modulation on the backup vocals.  I’ve even automated modulation on a chorus lead vocal so that it would engage on the vocal as every line would finish.  Adding modulation on certain parts of the vocal can add some interesting movement and emphasize the emotion.

This video below talks about using delay throws which is part of enhancing the performance of a vocal.

[youtube id=”YX_l2xrEomc”  autoplay=”no” ]

To get a better understanding of how I use effects check out the premium tutorials here.

13. Automation

Automation is always the final step for me in the entire vocal mixing process.  I wouldn’t just view this as being used on just the vocals alone.  I would use this on ANYTHING that will enhance the performance, here are a couple of examples:

  • Bringing up the level of reverb after a phrase then turning it back down when the vocal starts again
  • Making verse 1 vocals slightly quieter than verse 2.  Makes the record feel like its growing.
  • Turning on delays for specific words in a mix and then turning off right after.

There’s an endless amount of possibilities for the automation, but I would only use it if I thought it was enhancing the performance.

Final Thoughts

So if you have been searching long and hard on how to mix vocals than hopefully I was able to alleviate some of your questions or concerns.

Again this not meant to be followed religiously but hopefully it gives you some insight into my thoughts and what I’m thinking as I approach mixing vocals.

I’m usually not this rigid when mixing vocals, and I don’t normally have a step-by-step that I follow.  But when I sat down to try and articulate it to an audience, I felt like this made the most sense to me in the way I ordered it.  Again feel free to break the rules, I do it all the time.

Leave a Comment below and let me know your thoughts!

  • Devon McGuig

    Whats up mix master,

    After studying your Mixing for beginners article, of course I had to hop right onto this one. The only issue i’m having is that there are no videos posted where it seems they should be. The article reads this statement in those specific sections:

    “ARVE Error: Mode: lazyload is invalid or not supported. Note that you will need the Pro Addon for lazyload modes.”

    Are the corresponding videos posted on youtube? If so which ones would they be? I’m looking forward to learning more. Thank you once again man.
    -Devon

  • kirby

    Hi again, another question… do you sometimes have to compress the verse and chorus differently, since the levels can be much different? Thanks.

    • Justin Smith

      The Verse and the Chorus are almost always treated independently unless its a very similar vocal. But like 99% of the time I always treat them differently. So far both of the tutorials I posted in the Premium Section show me doing exactly that – Treating the chorus and verses differently, using compression.

  • kirby

    Hi Justin, one question… do you ever use Waves Vocal Rider? Why or why not? Thanks.

    • Justin Smith

      I have but I don’t like it. I find my ear and the clip gain works better though I have heard a few engineers who really love it. Sorry Waves.

  • Alex

    Great article! Thank you so much for sharing this! I somehow knew that parallel compression could be used for vocals but I never got to experiment with that since I read somewhere that it shoul only be used for drums. I appreciate a lot what you offer us technically and also encouraging us towards adopting an open mind frame while mixing. Keep up the good Work!

  • kirby

    Great article! I agree 100% with your insights into how to improve vocals subtly and transparently using Clip Gain to smooth levels or enhance emotion, compression mostly for tone, using Waves dynamic EQ to gently correct frequency issues, and parallel compression to increase the stability of quieter sections. I’ve ruined more than one vocal track by over-processing. I’ve been learning some of these techniques the hard way recently, but it’s nice to see them laid out in a step-by-step manner. I like how you keep your articles simple and straightforward, so that the important points don’t get buried in too many words. Thanks!