The Lead Vocal Mixing Trick You Need To Know

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In this video, you’ll learn a simple mixing trick that will make your lead vocals sound more professional today.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers. And before we dive in, make sure you grab my free vocal mixing cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below.

Now a big part of what makes vocals sound professional is that we need to hear every word of the vocal performance – all the subtle nuances and details in the vocal performance. When we can hear all of those intricate details, that’s one of the main things that makes a vocal sound professional. Now most people try to achieve this level of detail and clarity by using compression, because compression will allow us to bring up a lot of the low level stuff that often gets lost in a busy mix. So if we add some compression to a vocal and we adjust the settings, we can bring up a lot of that detail. And so compression is definitely a big part of getting that professional-sounding vocal where you can really hear all those details clearly.

But here’s the thing. Compression alone often isn’t enough. And if we’re just relying on compression to get that level of clarity, oftentimes we end up going overboard. We end up doing too much, and we have to apply so much compression in order to get all those low-level details up that the vocal ends up sounding really flat and one-dimensional and over-compressed.

So just to demonstrate this, I have this vocal here. This is a song called “Mourn” by Dylan Owen. And let’s pull up a compressor here. Now I’ve already set this up in a way that I think is sounding really good, but let’s kind of go overboard. And if we were just using compression alone to try to get clarity out of this vocal, this is probably what I’d end up doing.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I just can’t ♪

That doesn’t sound terrible, but I’m noticing some artifacts that I really don’t like. For example, the beginning of some of these notes and words, the consonants are really coming out and starting to sound very aggressive. So take a listen right here.

♪ – it’s always pouring rain – ♪

See the puh on pour. So applying this much compression, especially on a ballad like this, is just overboard. It’s way too much, and it’s not really giving me that natural sound that I’m looking for. So in order to solve this problem, what we often end up doing is combining compression with automation. So we use compression to even out the volume of the voice so we get ourselves maybe 80% of the way there with compression, and then we go through and we use automation to manually ride up the parts of the performance that often get lost, that maybe the compressor missed.

Now chances are you’re probably doing this already. And if you’re not doing this already, I recommend you start, because it really does make a difference. And if you’re trying to get to that radio-ready vocal sound where you can hear all the intricate details, oftentimes this is essential.

But here’s the thing. Even if you’re already automating the vocals, chances are you’re probably not taking full advantage of the potential of automation. And so this trick I’m about to show you is basically a way to hack your automation process so you can get even more out of your vocal automation, and get those vocals that sound clear and radio-ready so that you can hear every subtle nuance of that in the mix.

So there are two parts to this vocal mixing trick. And the first actually has nothing to do with a hack that you do in your DAW, it’s more about the way that you listen to your mix while you’re automating your vocals. Now what most people do when they’re automating vocals is they’ll listen to the mix fairly loud. So they’ll have their speakers at a fairly normal volume, and they’ll go through and they’ll start automating and doing their automation listening at a high level. I recommend that you listen when you’re automating vocals at an extremely low volume level. And when I say extremely low, I mean I want you to turn your speakers down to the point where if somebody was typing on a keyboard in the background, it would be totally distracting, you’d have to tell them to stop.

There are a couple of reasons why this will lead to drastically better results. The first is that when you turn the speakers down, all of the low-level detail and all those quieter parts in the vocal performance are a lot harder to hear. They often just disappear completely. And so what happens is because you’re not hearing all of that low-level detail, you have to dig in a lot more with your automation. You have to be much more aggressive.

Whereas if your speakers are turned up fairly loud or even at normal volume, you’re hearing all low-level stuff. It might not be as loud as the rest of the vocal performance, but it’s not disappearing. You’re still able to hear it and so you end up not really doing as much to bring out a lot of those low-level details. So by listening at lower volume levels, it’s going to force you to be much more aggressive when it comes to automating vocals. And the result is that your vocal is going to sound better at lower volumes, but also at higher volumes.

The other reason why extremely low-level monitoring really helps when you’re automating vocals is that our ears actually don’t hear the same thing at different volumes. So there are these things called the Fletcher-Munson curves – basically these two guys in the 40’s I think it was did all these tests, and they figured out that our ears don’t hear at different volumes the same way. So when we’re turning the speakers up when we listen at higher volumes, we hear a lot more low end and high end. But when our speakers are turned down and when we’re listening very quietly, we hear mostly midrange frequencies.

Now the vocal is mostly midrange, and the heart of the vocal is actually in the midrange area of our mix. So by turning down the speakers, it’s almost like taking a magnifying glass and zooming in on that specific area of our mix where the vocal lies, so it allows us to be much more discriminating about the vocals and much more exacting. And I find by listening at lower volumes, the combination of this magnifying glass approach of really zooming in on the midrange and also being able to dig in a bit more and be more aggressive leads to much better results.

Now the second part of this trick is oftentimes when people automate vocals, they’ll just press play and they’ll kind of go through the song and go from start to finish and they won’t stop at all. Or they’ll just kind of draw things in manually using their mouse. Now I find that this drawing things in is a bit too cumbersome, and takes way too long.

So what I like to do is I like to basically take small sections of the vocal performance, let’s say maybe ten seconds at a time, and instead of drawing things in, I’ll use the fader in my DAW, and I’ll turn my fader on touch mode. Now in your DAW it might be called something different, but most DAWs have an automation control that will typically be called touch or something like that. And that will allow me to use my mouse to basically ride this fader in real time, almost as if I have a console in front of me and I’m just pushing that fader up and down with my finger. So this is a much more musical way to approach this process, and it can often lead to much more musical results.

Okay, so let’s take a listen here. I’m going to press play, and again I’m listening at extremely low volumes, extremely low. And I recommend you turn down your speakers too or headphones if you’re listening. And I’m going to go through and just turn up all of the low-level details that we’re not hearing enough of.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

Let’s cut a bit closer.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring – ♪

This needs a little more here.

♪ Where it’s always – ♪

♪ Where it’s always – ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against – ♪

Same thing here. So the tail ends of the words and phrases are often where you’re going to find you need to bring things up a little bit. A lot of these ends of the words are where we’re just feeling like we’re not getting enough. And again this is stuff that would probably sound fine at higher volume levels, but a lot of this detail is what makes the difference between a vocal performance that sounds good and one that really sounds exceptional.

♪ – pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

♪ – pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

Same thing here.

♪ – hardly talk ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

Okay so that sounds pretty good to me. Now I’m going to loop this section a couple of times and just kind of refine things.

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Let’s mourn all the time we’ve killed ♪

♪ In an old cafe ♪

♪ Where it’s always pouring rain against the window ♪

♪ I can hardly talk ♪

Okay so now we’re hearing a lot more of that low-level detail – the breaths, the tail ends of the words and phrases – but the vocal doesn’t sound over-compressed because we’re applying some compression, but we’re just adding a little bit and then we’re using automation to take us home. So now let’s move on, and we’ll do the next section.

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I just get ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I just get over it ♪

♪ And follow the bread crumbs – ♪

♪ – the bread crumbs – ♪

♪ – the bread crumbs home – ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I – ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I – ♪

♪ The way we always used to ♪

♪ So I just get over it and ♪

♪ – over it ♪

♪ And follow the bread crumbs home again ♪

So you get the idea. We’re using automation to bring up the details that the compressor has missed, but we’re doing it at extremely low volume levels. And again, the combination of the detail and nuance that we get from the low volume plus this approach of just going through section by section and looping things until we get a section right really is going to make your vocals sound much more professional and radio-ready.

Now if there are details and things that I can’t get right with the fader – maybe there’s just a single word that moves by very quickly – I might go in and draw that up manually. So there are maybe one or two words I might go back here and fix, but for the most part I find that this approach works extremely well.

Now if you want to discover more vocal mixing tricks that will make your vocal tracks sound more professional, I recommend you download my free vocal mixing cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below.

And before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – do you currently use automation when you mix vocals? I’d love to hear from you, so leave your answer in the comments section below.

Thanks so much for watching. And for more mixing tips like this one, check out my channel right here on YouTube, or go to BehindTheSpeakers.com.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.