Vocals are the most important part of nearly every mix. They’re also one of the hardest things to get right. If you’re struggling to craft radio-ready, larger-than-life vocals, you might be making one of these mistakes…
Mistake #1 is waiting until the end of your mix to bring in the vocal.
If you wait until the end of your mix, what happens is that all the space in your mix has already been taken up by all the other elements. You end up having to make the vocal really small to fit it into the mix, or it ends up competing with other elements in your mix (maybe guitars or keys or whatever).
My suggestion is to bring the vocal in as early as possible in the mixing process. I like to start with my drums, and then once I have the drums in a rough place, I’ll bring the vocal in and leave it in from there on.
By bringing the vocal in early on in the mix process, everything else that you add after that is going to be shaped around the vocal. You’ll end up with a vocal that sounds like it’s front and center in the middle of the track, because everything else is working around it.
Mistake #2 is skimping on automation.
I see a lot of mixers who think if they just add enough compression to a vocal, it’ll sit perfectly on top of the track and they won’t have to do anything else. The truth is that a great vocal sound is a combination of compression and automation. You’re manually riding the fader, bringing up phrases and lines that get lost…bringing up the tail end of the phrase, where all the emotion and energy is.
This is what’s going to create a vocal that sounds larger than life. It’s not going to sound small and over-compressed and lifeless like it would if you relied on compression alone.
The way I like to do this is I start with compression. Compression will get me 80 – 90% of the way there. Towards the end of the mix, I’ll kick on the automation, listen at really low levels, and ride the vocal. I go through the song 10 seconds at a time and I’ll listen back and ride the vocal to make sure I can hear every word. This is one of the key parts to creating vocals that sound great.
Mixing mistake #3 is using too many plugins.
The truth is, you don’t need a hundred plugins to get a great vocal sound. If you’re filling up all of your insert slots, chances are you’re using too much. A great vocal – sometimes it only takes 3 or 4 plugins. You can do it with one EQ, one compressor…maybe a de-esser. If you’re using a ton of plugins and not getting results, check out what you’re doing. Strip back. Start from square one and focus on making the right choices with the few plugins that you have.
Mistake #4 is compressing with an attack time that’s too fast.
People like fast attack times because they’re easy. They make a vocal sound smooth and consistent. They’ll give you a lot more control, but they’ll also remove all the punch, energy, and depth of the vocal. They’ll create a vocal that sounds really flat and one-dimensional. And they’ll actually push it back in a mix by removing the transients. The transients of a vocal…the consonants…the “k” and “p” and those transient sounds are actually what bring a vocal forward in a mix.
So make sure that when you’re setting your attack time, it’s not too fast that you’re removing those transients and creating a vocal that sounds flat and lifeless.
Mistake #5 is improper use of reverb.
There are a lot of ways to tank a great vocal sound, but this is probably the easiest way to do it. There are a couple of problems that I hear that are pretty common.
Number one is using too much reverb. The truth is, most of the time you’re looking for reverb to add a sense of space and depth to a vocal, rather than draw attention to itself and say “Hey, look at me! I’m reverb!” You want it to be something that you feel rather than something that you hear.
So when you’re setting your vocal reverb, a good rule of thumb is to bring up the fader until you start to hear the vocal reverb. Then bring it back a bit. From there, you can create a sense of depth and space without drawing attention to the reverb, drowning your vocal, and creating something that sounds muddy and indistinct.
Another common problem is that your decay time is too long. What happens when you set a decay time that’s too long is that the vocal phrases will start to run into each other. You’ll end up with a mushy, indistinct sound that sounds muddy…it’s not what you want.
When you’re setting your decay time, make sure that it’s long enough to cover the spaces in between the vocal phrases, but not long enough that the phrases start to run into each other and create this muddy, indistinct sound.
The last problem I want to talk about is not taking advantage of vocal reverb pre-delay. Pre-delay is a parameter that you can find on most reverb plugins. If it’s not on yours, you can throw a delay plugin in front of the reverb – it’s the same thing. In effect, what it does is separate the vocal from the reverb.
A lot of the time, when you put reverb on something, it will actually pull that sound back into the mix (further back in the soundstage). This can be great on things like pianos or guitars, but on vocals, often times you want the vocal to be front and center, right in front of the mix.
So reverb can actually be counterproductive, because it can pull the vocal back and make it sound like it’s sitting behind other things in your mix.
By adding a little bit of pre-delay to your reverb, the vocal will separate from the reverb. So the vocal will sit like a beacon right in front of the mix, and then you’ll hear a little bit of reverb that will give you that space and depth without pulling the vocal back in the mix.
Thank you guys so much for listening! I hope you found these tips helpful.
The last thing I want to mention is that in a couple of weeks, I’m going to be running a vocal mixing workshop. It’s going to be a deep dive into my vocal mixing workflow. I’m going to show you everything I know about crafting radio-ready, larger-than-life vocals.
If you want more information, just put your email into the box below. I’ll let you know when registration opens.
Take care. Happy mixing! Talk to you soon.