The mix of your vocals can be a make-or-break aspect of the song you’re working on. If it sounds too grating, too muffled, too quiet to hear, or too over-processed, people will tune out pretty quickly.
Your buddies might just smile and nod, not too sure how to tell you that this mix just isn’t it.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. You want your vocals to shine and sound amazing because they’re one of (if not the) most important parts of your song.
Whether you’re singing, rapping, or delivering dramatic poetry over a smooth lo-fi beat, you can make sure that your vocals sound top-notch with these tips.
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Why are Vocals Important?
Let’s start by addressing why you want clean vocals. Unless you’re making some out there glitch-step or a classical jazz album, you’re more than likely going to have some form of vocals on your song.
The lyrics and vocal melodies catch listeners’ ears the hardest. People love to have something to sing along to. Even if your goal is to use effects to create something obscure or unique, your vocals need to be pleasant to hear.
The most important element of mixing is to start with a clean take. This means you need to cut down on external noises like traffic, electrical appliances, and other people.
Even if you can’t hear them when you’re tracking, later down the line, when you put a compressor on your melodies, those noises will pop up and be difficult to get rid of or deafen.
Whether you use a heavy blanket in the closet or invest in some decent soundproofing techniques, try your best to record as clean as possible. This is going to make a big difference in your end product.
Use the Right Microphone
If you’re building your studio on a budget, you might have a limited amount of microphone options. But even if that’s the case, it’s essential to do your research and find a microphone that will capture your specific voice the best.
Every microphone has a different EQ response–which frequencies it picks up more or less. Some microphones might sound muddier, while others sound more bright.
Listen to your voice and figure out if you’ve got a muffled voice that needs a little extra shine or if you’re belting out some sharpness that needs to be tamed.
Once you have a good idea of what kind of voice you have, do some research on microphones in your price range. Every mic will tell you its frequency response, which will help you pick out one that will best suit you.
Think of the mixing process as the entire start-to-finish of your song. You aren’t going to be able to just jump in with effects at the end to save a washed-out product.
Set Appropriate Levels
A big mistake a lot of beginners make is recording way too hot (loud.) Don’t worry–we’ll turn up the vocals later.
What you want to focus on is getting a good quality take that never clips into distortion because you aren’t going to fix that.
It doesn’t matter what DAW you use as long as you feel comfortable working in it. Plugins are a bit of a different matter because they can range in quality.
Some stock plugins work great–there isn’t anything wrong with using them. But you might notice a difference when you start to use boutique, high-end effects, especially for your vocal chain.
A critical piece of advice before getting into plugins: Always mix your vocals in the context of the rest of the track. You can solo your vocals to do some fine-tuning, but if you spend all day making them sound “good” by themselves, they probably won’t fit with the backing instruments.
When you’re using a slappin’ sample pack like Peter Kuli’s, you want to make sure all lush instruments blend well with your voice.
Make sure everything sounds good together, otherwise what’s the point of spending all this hard work mixing?
A de-esser is a super helpful plugin for cleaning up vocals. Even if you nail your performance with just the right levels, you might notice certain words and consonants popping out of the mix. This is called sibilance.
A de-esser is typically a “set it and forget it” type of plugin. While listening to your track, pull the threshold on the de-esser down until your notice your voice getting dull, then back it up just a touch. Don’t worry if you still sound a little bland; you can boost some good frequencies with EQ later.
Compressors can seem a little difficult to understand, but they aren’t too complicated when you break down what they’re doing.
Your vocal recording as peaks and waves, the waveform of your voice goes up and down, right? The peaks are the highest points in the recording. Sometimes the difference between the bottom of the wave and the top of the peak is too much for your song.
A compressor takes the peaks of your vocals and pushes them down, then through gain brings the overall level back up.
Don’t squash your vocals into a brick wall–get some dynamic vocal range going. Using compression can really help solidify a powerful take and help stop your voice from suddenly jumping out at random sections.
Equalization, or EQ for short, is a compression-like tool that should be used responsibly. Tracks with too much EQ will more than likely end up sounding too thin or fuzzy.
A good rule of thumb is to roll off your low end. Your voice doesn’t have anything under around 150 hertz, so use a low-cut filter to pull back anything in that spectrum. You want to roll the filter up towards your voice until you hear it affecting your vocals, then pull it back a little.
You might also drawback some frequencies in the 4K range–this can be a generally grating zone.
If you have a multi-band EQ plugin, you can use the sweep-and-pull method.
Sharpen the cone of your EQ band until it’s just a thin point and boost it up as much as it goes. Start on the low end and slowly sweep upwards while listening to your vocal track. Anytime you hear the quality of your voice suddenly get noticeably sharp or irritating, leave the EQ band there and pull the gain down on it.
You might not notice it immediately, but this will help reduce irritating frequencies that live in your voice. They might even change depending on your performance, so it’s a good practice to equalize every song you mix.
Reverb and Delay
Reverb and delay is the icing on the cake when it comes to your vocals and should come at the very end of your mix chain.
A small amount of reverb will go a long way to making your vocals blend with the rest of your track. Control the room size and tone to blend well with the other instruments you have playing.
Getting good-sounding vocals can seem difficult. Sometimes you think you nailed it and then a week later realize that they don’t sound anywhere near as good as you thought.
Take your time and use the right tools to shape your vocals into something you’re proud of. Don’t forget–they’re probably what people will be listening to the most when you’re dropping the next major summer banger.