Today I want to show you 5 powerful, little-known vocal mixing tricks that are gonna help you take your vocals from good to great.
So this first one I call kick up the consonants.
Now, the consonants in a vocal—the “k” and “p” and those initial transient sounds—are what give the vocal its impact and energy. So you can actually manipulate these in the mixing process to add more impact and clarity and intelligibility and emotion to a vocal performance. Let me show you how it’s done.
So this is a track that one of my clients, Megan Cavallari, wrote for a children’s TV show called Pinky Malinky. Let me play you the track before any of the special magic that I’m about to show you.
So everything’s sounding pretty good, but given the aggressive nature of this sound, I really want the vocal performance to feel a little bit more aggressive. I want to feel like she’s kind of spitting out the words a little bit more. I just want more energy out of the performance.
So what I did was I went through the song, and whenever there was a consonant—a “k” or “p” or “b” or one of those sounds—I separated it out with clip gain and just bumped the volume up as much as I could without it sounding too crazy. I mean, we’re not talking subtle here. We’re talking like 10-12 dB.
So I went through the song, and you can see I’ve separated these consonants out here. All I did was just bump them up like crazy.
So I just went ahead and did this on a separate playlist, so I could compare them for you. So let me play you the adjustment that I made with these consonants up in the mix.
You can hear on those p’s and k’s—it just sound so much more aggressive, right? For comparison, let me just play the original again.
And here’s with my adjustment.
You can really hear it right here. Listen to this “k” on “kind.”
Here’s the original.
And here’s the adjustment.
It just sounds like she’s spitting out the words so much more aggressively, right? For a genre and a sound like this, this was the perfect choice. It really brings out the emotion in the performance. But, this can also work for other genres. You don’t have to be as obvious and aggressive as this. Just bringing out some of those consonants a little bit can really add clarity and presence to the vocal, and just kick it up to a whole new level.
The second trick is called the Bob Power balance hack. Now this is a trick that I learned from Grammy-winning mixer, Bob Power. Essentially, it helps you determine the perfect level for any vocal in any mix.
The way that it works is, if your vocals are sitting properly, they should sound like they’re a little bit too quiet when you turn the speakers up really loud. They should almost sink into the track and you should feel like you want to push the fader up a dB or two.
But when you turn the speakers down really quietly, they should almost sound like they’re a little bit too loud. You should want to turn them down. They should sound like they poke out of the track just a little bit.
So you can use this framework to figure out if your vocals are sitting at the perfect level in your mix. All it takes is a little tweak of the volume knob.
The third trick is called ultra-low-level listening. When you’re doing the final rides on your vocal, and really locking in that final mix towards the end of the mixing process, you want to turn your speakers down really quiet. Like, so quiet that almost the sound of your fingers on the keyboard is distracting. And do all of your automation and rides at that ultra-low level.
There’s a couple of reasons why this is gonna give you much better results.
#1—when you turn the speakers down, your ears actually become much more sensitive to the midrange frequencies. These frequencies are exactly where your vocal sits. So, by turning down the speakers, it’s almost like taking a magnifying glass to that area of your mix. It’s gonna allow you to make much more critical decisions in that area of the frequency spectrum, right where your vocals lie.
The second reason for this is that you’re actually gonna have to work a lot harder at ultra-low levels to create clarity in the vocal. Certain words are gonna get lost, and that’s gonna force you to move the faders more and really be more aggressive with your automation to make the vocal cut through. This is actually gonna result in a vocal that sounds great at low levels, but also sounds fantastic when you turn the speakers up.
The 4th trick is called the breakdown effect. If you’re trying to create impact at the beginning of a chorus or new song section, for example, a lot of people do this by adding things. They’ll add vocal doubles, add reverb…build the vocals up in some way—they’ll add more tracks. But often times, you can create a greater sense of impact by taking things away just before that moment hits.
The way I like to do this is actually with vocal effects. You can mute the reverb and delay and all of those effects just for a bar or two right before that downbeat of that section that you really want to hit hard. So what happens is the vocal gets really small right before that section hits, and then when that section comes in, then you have the full kitchen sink and all of those effects and doubles and the reverb and delay comes in. You have this picture that goes like this for a second, and then blows up in that final chorus, or wherever you want that impact to take place.
Let me play you an example of this. This is a track that I recently did for a band called GIVERS. I want to play you a section of the song. This is right before the final chorus, and this is exactly what I did. I just muted the reverb and delay in that section right before the final chorus. Take a listen.
So you can hear in this track the arrangement actually does a really good job at creating that smallness right before the final chorus. We’re already getting a lot of help from that because everything cuts out. But I actually enhanced this even further by muting all of my reverb and delays in that little section. Suddenly we have a bone-dry vocal, just for a second. And then, when that chorus comes in at the end, we have even more impact when we hear all of the effects and reverb and delays and all of those tracks come in and that section really feels like it hits in a way that’s just larger than life.
The 5th and final trick is called the emotion enhancer. Now, a lot of the emotion in a vocal performance lies in the tail ends of words and phrases and breaths and things that often get lost in a busy mix. So you can actually use automation to ride these moments up manually and actually bring out and enhance the emotion of a vocal performance. Let me show you how this is done.
Okay, so we’re here in Pro Tools. This is a track by artist Leah Capelle called Out Now.
She has these really nice, exposed vocal phrases right at the beginning of the song. I’m noticing that some of the detail, right at the ends of those phrases, is getting lost a little bit. I want to see if we can bring out some of that emotion and energy in the performance by riding up some of those breaths and tail ends of the phrases.
There was one in particular I heard here. Let’s just listen to this one line.
So that kind of breath, right at the end of that “no,” is a really great moment. Let’s see if we can bring out some of that emotion and energy by just drawing in some automation to kick that up a little bit. So, I’m gonna do this not in grid mode. And I’m just gonna draw up the tail end of that word just a couple of dB. So 3 dB there. Let’s take a listen.
Cool. So let’s take a listen to that one more time. I’m gonna bypass the clip gain first, and then I’m gonna kick it back in. This is without any of our automation.
And this is with the automation.
So we can even go a little bit further.
Cool. So now we’re hearing that low-level detail on that breath. And it sounds like she’s a little bit more emotional. We feel like she’s really coming off that word a little bit harder.
Now if you really go through a song like this and look for these moments to just bring out a little bit of that low-level detail and those moments of energy, you can really take the emotion in a vocal and elevate it and really take it to a whole new level.
So I hope you found these 5 vocal mixing tricks helpful, and I hope you use them in your next mix to help take your vocals from good to great.
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