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3 Vocal Mixing Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

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Are you making these three vocal mixing mistakes? Keep watching to find out.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and in this video you’ll discover the three vocal mixing mistakes you don’t know you’re making. Avoid these mistakes, and the sound of your vocals will take a massive leap forward.

But before we dive in, I also put together a free vocal mixing cheatsheet packed with tips and tricks that will make your vocals sound more professional. So if you want to learn how to mix vocals like the pros, click the link in the description below, or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Mistake number one is you’re not moving the faders. Now a lot of people think if they just apply enough compression to their vocals then they’ll get that consistent radio-ready polished sound where the vocal just cuts through the mix and you can hear every word clearly. But the truth is, in most circumstances compression will only get you about eighty to ninety percent of the way there. So you have to use compression most times in conjunction with automation. So actually moving the fader and bringing up the parts where the compressor missed and bringing up the low, quieter parts and the words and phrases that get lost, and all the subtle nuances on the vocal, and that’s the key to achieving a vocal that sounds consistent, and even, and radio-ready without just crushing the life out of it with compression. So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I approach this in a recent mix.

Okay, so I have a song here called “One More Day” by Leah Capelle. And I want to show you how I rode the faders in this track to give the vocal clarity and presence and just give it that radio-ready sound that we’re all looking for in our mixes. So let’s take a listen to verse one first.

♪ We are the ones who said we’d never change ♪

♪ We are the ones who wished we would ♪

♪ When every day runs together and feels the same ♪

Now the key to making this vocal work was I actually rode the faders in multiple different locations on this vocal, and this will make a little bit more sense in a second. But for now I just want to show you the first layer of this automation, which is actually using a feature called clip gain in Pro Tools. Now different DAWs call this something different – Pro Tools again it’s called clip gain. But the basic idea is that there’s a place in most DAWs where you can ride the volume of a track before any inserts – so before any compression, before any EQ, before any of your plug-ins. So this is basically the first slot in the line so to speak. And so what I’ve done – if you take a look here – is I’ve gone through the track and basically chopped it up into different, what are called clips in Pro Tools, and I’ve turned up or down different words or phrases and I’ve just added some cross-fades between these here so there are no clicks or pops. But you can see here, like in this location if we zoom in, so I’ve actually chopped things up fairly aggressively, and you know sometimes on a syllable-by-syllable basis I’ll go through and just make sure the vocal is sitting more consistently.

Now you might be wondering “well why don’t you just let the compressor do this, Jason?” “Why do you go through all this work to even out the volume of the vocal when you can just slap a compressor on it and call it a day?” Well as I discussed earlier, compression really only gets eighty percent or ninety percent of the job done. So even if you have the best compressor in the world with the perfect settings, you’re still going to have to go through and even out the volume of the vocal, catch the spots where the compressor missed, bring up – you know – words and phrases that get lost, and just kind of fine tune things where the compressor didn’t get it right.

So basically, again I’ve gone through this track, and this is usually after I’ve already applied the compression. So I’m going through and I’m listening for words and phrases that get lost, that you know maybe dip in volume so they’re a little bit too quiet, they just disappear in the track, and I’m turning those up so that I can hear them a little bit more clearly. I might also turn down breaths, because oftentimes if you apply too much compression or just heavy amounts of compression in general, some of those breaths are going to get turned up in a way that just starts to sound unnatural, so I’m going through and making sure that each part of the vocal performance is just consistent and even and sitting the way that I want it to. So that’s one layer of quote-on-quote riding the faders. It’s not really a fader, but it’s kind of the same general approach. But this isn’t actually all I did on this track.

So the next thing that I did was, if I switch over to the volume view here, you’ll see that I’ve actually applied some volume automation on different parts of this track too. Now the difference is this is actually riding the fader so to speak. And it actually comes post-inserts. So any automation we apply here is going to be after all of our plug-ins, after our compressor, EQ, et cetera.

So this is another layer of automation that I’ve applied, and you can see here I’ve gone through and I have a control surface that I’ve used in some cases, but in other cases I might’ve just drawn in some automation. And again, same general approach here. So I’m trying to make the vocals sit consistent and even in the track, just making sure that all those nuances come through clearly, and this is another layer of automation that I use to get the job done. But this isn’t actually where the journey ends so to speak either. So I have all of my vocals actually being sent into a subgroup. And so these are all of the vocal tracks in combinations – so the background vocals, harmonies, everything. And on this subgroup, I’ve actually applied a little bit of automation as well. So this is where all the vocals come together and, you know, towards the end of the mix I might say hey I kind of just want a little bit more of the vocals as a group in this one specific section. Or maybe things are poking out a little bit too much, and I’ll you know, draw that automation in or ride it in on my control surface. So I have multiple stages of quote-on-quote riding the faders going on. And this is really the key to getting a vocal that sounds consistent, that sounds professional, where you can really hear all the nuances and the performance.

So go through your vocal tracks, take the time to do this phrase by phrase. I know it seems like it’s a lot of work, but I promise you if you take the time to ride your faders and really make sure that you can hear all of those nuances of the vocal performance, your vocals are going to sound a whole lot better.

Mistake number two is your attack time is too fast. Now when you’re compressing vocals, it’s very important to pay attention to the attack time parameter on your compressor. I like to think of this control as a consonant control knob. So with a fast attack, the compressor’s going to clamp down on the consonants and the punch and impact on the front end of the words and phrases and the performance, and this is going to result in a vocal that sounds kind of flat and one-dimensional. It’s not going to have that punch and impact. Whereas a slower attack time is going to let more of that energy through, and so you’re going to get a lot more of those consonants and the exciting kind of punch and impact right on the front end of the words and phrases. So in most circumstances, slowing down the attack time is going to result in a better vocal sound. So let’s jump into my DAW and take a listen to a fast attack time versus a slow attack time on vocals.

Okay so I have a song here by Clean Green Music Machine called “Better Way,” and I want to show you how different attack times on a vocal compressor can affect the way that vocal sits in a mix. So let’s take a listen to the mix first with the final settings that I used in the mix.

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

So let’s pull up the vocal compressor on that lead vocal, and you can see here the attack time is set fairly slow. Now this is the 1176 compressor, which is a fairly common vocal compressor, and the attack knob actually is backwards from the way that most compressors work. So the slowest setting is all the way to the left, and the fastest setting is all the way to the right, so something that’s worth noting.

So what I did is I went ahead and duplicated this compressor, and all I did was turn the attack time all the way to its fastest setting, and I also adjusted the output gains so that there was no difference in level between these two versions of the compression. And this way we can compare the same compression, just with a fast attack and a fairly slow attack, and you can hear the difference within the mix.

So first let’s listen again to the slow attack compression, and I want you to listen to how the vocal is sitting in the mix. Does it feel like it’s close to you? Does it feel kind of far away? And so we’ll do that first, and then I’m going to flip back and forth between the fast attack and the slow attack, and just kind of compare the two.

So first, this is the vocal with the slow attack compression.

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

So to my ears, with the fast attack compression the vocal sounds like it takes a step or two back in the mix. It doesn’t sound as punchy, it doesn’t have as much impact. It feels like it’s kind of sitting behind the other instruments in the track. The fast attack compression is kind of shaving off those transients, that kind of punchy beginning of the notes that this vocalist is singing. And so that’s causing the vocal to kind of sound like it’s a little bit muted, it just sounds like it’s further back in the mix. Whereas when we listen to the slow attack compression, those punchy transients poke through a lot more, and this brings the vocal forward and so it feels like it’s up front and close in the track. Take a listen one more time. This is the original with slow attack compression.

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

♪ The sun that shines for me ♪

♪ The wind that blows the trees ♪

♪ The waves that move the sea ♪

♪ Have so much energy ♪

To my ears, I really prefer the sound of that slow attack compression. The vocal feels like it’s much more up front in the mix. We can hear it and understand it much more clearly, and again a slower attack time is usually going to give you better results on vocals.

Mistake number three is you abuse the solo button. Now the solo button is the most dangerous button in your DAW, because it removes tracks from the context of the rest of the mix.

So when you solo a vocal track and start tweaking your EQ or adding compression or changing plug-ins, your decisions may actually make that sound – that vocal – sound better on its own, so in isolation. But when you put it back in the context with the rest of the tracks in your mix, oftentimes your decisions will actually make that track sound worse when it’s played with everything else. So you can end up taking your vocal in the exact opposite direction of the place that you really want to go. So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you why avoiding the solo button can help you make better vocal mixing decisions.

Okay so I have a song here by Megan Cavallari called “Pinky Malinky,” and I want to show you how the solo button can lead you in the wrong direction when it comes to making the right vocal mixing decisions. So first, let’s take a listen to the entire mix together.

♪ Pinky Pinky ♪

♪ Clap your hands and step your feet ♪

♪ Pinky Malinky, Pinky Malinky ♪

♪ Come with us and you will meet ♪

♪ Pinky Malinky, Pinky Malinky ♪

♪ Full of joy and processed meat ♪

So I’m really happy with the way the vocal sits in this mix. It sounds like it’s got the perfect amount of energy and aggression for the genre, it feels like it’s sitting spacially in a really good spot, it’s not too close to us, it’s not too far away, so I’m really happy with the processing and the way the vocal sounds in this mix. But I want to solo the vocal now, and I want you to listen to it on it’s own. And I want you to ask yourself – what do you think of how this vocal sounds? Do you like the way it sounds on its own? Does it sound maybe not so great to you? So take a listen to this vocal in solo.

♪ Pinky Pinky ♪

♪ Clap your hands and step your feet ♪

♪ Pinky Malinky, Pinky Malinky ♪

♪ Come with us and you will meet ♪

♪ Pinky Malinky, Pinky Malinky ♪

♪ Full of joy and processed meat ♪

So to me, that vocal sounds pretty terrible on its own. It sounds distorted and thin, the delays sound like they’re way too loud and aggressive. I would never choose to process the vocal like this on its own. And so the point I want to make is that even if the vocal doesn’t sound that great on its own, that’s not really what matters. And so when I was going through this mix, instead of soloing the vocal and adding EQ and delay and distortion and all the processing, instead I was making decisions based on how that vocal sounded with the rest of the tracks in the mix. And so even if the decisions that you’re making on their own don’t sound that great when you solo the vocal, maybe you feel like the vocal is too bright or distorted or compressed, all that really matters is how that vocal sits in with the rest of the tracks in your mix. And so if you can avoid the solo button and make decisions in context, the sound of your vocals is going to take a massive leap forward.

Now if you want to dive deeper, again I’ve put together that free vocal mixing cheatsheet packed with additional tips and tricks that will make your vocals sound more professional. So if you want to learn how to mix vocals like a pro, click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know what are your go-to plug-ins for mixing vocals? I love to hear from you, and I read every comment, so please leave your answer in the comments section below.

Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips right here on my YouTube channel or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.