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How to mix vocals (and record)

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Every few weeks I see a new tool released that will make your vocal mixing easy or some other wild statement to draw people in. I cannot help but feel all of these tools that are supposedly going to do your job better are actually not going to do your job better. Before being a mastering engineer I was an employed sound engineer in London. I have recorded 100’s if not thousands of voices, singers, rappers and for voice over and have plenty of real world experience to share.

The time you take emptying your wallet and learning a new tool may well have been better placed trying to understand why your vocal would not mix well in the first place.

A good vocal balance can only ever be as good as its initial recording.

I will start with recording because you may not know it but mixing starts with recording. It is going to be very difficult to make a vocal sound good without a good initial recording. The following points are the basics of ensuring a good vocal recording.


Recording vocals


1) Never distort a vocal recording. It is one of the very first things to avoid as it is almost impossible to resolve well. So ensure your mic preamps, mixer channels and any compression in line is not close to running out of headroom. Record at 24 bit depth and do a test recording on the loudest part of the song. Adjust your gain structure so the peaks of the vocal hit -12dBFS this will leave ample digital headroom. Expect the actual performance to be louder by some 4dB or so.

Pre-empt louder vocal peaks. Know your vocal signal path intimately from mic to audio interface input. Don’t ignore red lights, it usually means your signal is too hot. An on-the-edge of distorting vocal might cause you trouble further down the production line.

I am going to be very open on my views here. I often wonder why I am hearing distorted vocals in mixes in 2023/24 ? There is very little excuse for this, it sounds amateurish and as if sufficient care in vocal channel gain structure was not taken. I strongly suggest any such vocal saturation is applied in post/mixing stages as once the distortion is there (and it can sound very ugly) it is unremoveable. Think twice before using tube/valve mics and preamps and distorting vocals (even using a plug in during mixing), make sure you have plenty of headroom through the entire vocal chain.

2) It makes most sense to record vocals in as acoustically dead environment as possible where simultaneous instrumental performance is not desired. (no reflections or reverb) This gives maximum control over the reverb after the recording has been made. Use a load of quilts and pillows if you have nothing else. No one will see those on the recording.

3) Use a good microphone that suits the voice, it could be dynamic or a large diaphragm condenser mic or a small diaphragm condenser mic. Make a few short test recordings and find what mic suits the vocal best. If not go for a large diaphragm condenser mic. If using a dynamic mic ensure you have enough clean (hiss free) gain,

Unless you are fairly experienced and sure of the break up characteristics (if any) and at what gain levels, be cautious using valve microphones and valve preamps. Once distortion is present that character is baked into the peaks of the recording and will not be easy to change if it does not subsequently suit the vocal in the mix.


4) Use as many pop shields as is necessary to ensure no pops get through. Use nylon mesh pops shields and use 2 if you need to. These are more effective than the metal mesh pop shields. Pops are often difficult to remove so ensure they do not get through in the first place. True 1 inch diaphragms pick up up pops more easily than something like an AudioTechnica AT4033 which has a 0.75 inch diaphragm but still sounds very good. If you also need a foam one as well then use it, it is better pops are not on the recording even if a tiny bit of transparency is lost on the high frequencies.

5) You can also angle the mic slightly off axis from the mouth to reduce popping, it is a compromise as the off axis frequency response will change a little and may not be desireable. If in doubt make test recordings.


6) Try and compress only as much as needed when recording as this cannot be undone and an overcompressed vocal does not sound good. I would say no more than 3 – 6dB of gain reduction on the peaks unless you have a particularly dynamic vocalist.There will be a sweet spot where the gain staging is set to allow a compressor to work nicely without being too much. Whilst also not overloading any stage of the signal path and distorting.

Be very aware that you cannot undo this from the recording so be very careful. Make a judgement call on engaging pads and high pass filters depending on what you hear. The same with adjustable patterns, cardioid is likely a good choice to start with.

7) Always double check the microphone stand is securely tightened up and that mic cradles are also tightly in position. You do not want to ruin a take because of stand droop. Make sure the red light or equivalent is on during recording and of course all mobile phones and devices are off.

8) Consider proximity to the mic, in most cases a moderate distance of 5-6 inches is going to create the best tonaility for most voices. Of course closer in will give a more intimate sound for effect but with greater risk of mouth sounds and pops being recorded.



Vocal mixing knowledge


When you have a vocal these are the intitial technical faults you should listen out for. These need addressing before you start to balance a vocal in a mix.

1) Pops and removing them if you can, there are various techniques. A dedicated de-pop tool or automating a high pass filter.

2) Sibilance is one of the most irritating and disturbing vocal traits so make sure that your esses and other susceptible letters and phrases are not sticking out too much. They tend to naturally sit a little above other consonants, to the ear, but should not be excessively drawing attention or triggering reverb tails. Use a de-esser and maybe a dynamic EQ as required to ensure they are under control. You can use a spectrum analyzer to help focus on the offending frequencies. Be cautious to not over do it and make the vocalist sound as if they have a lisp. Many de-essers (or dynamic EQ) have a frequency spectrum but you can also use the free Voxengo SPAN to hone in on the problem frequencies in the esses and other “sticky out-y” consonants. It helps identify them for softening.

3) Mouth and tongue clicks need to be removed, either edit them out or use a de-clicking tool. They often appear just before and after a phrase but also within. Be vigilent and remove them. Some vocalists are more susceptible to this than others. Avoid drinking tea before vocal takes, keep with room temperature water.

4) Excessively loud breaths. I have heard breaths in vocals almost as loud as the vocal, this is typically not desireable so ensure that breaths are much lower in level than the vocal. Sharp intakes of air often attract the ears in a disturbing way. You may even edit some out completely if they do not sound acceptable.

5) Tonality is very important, it is a fine line between character and a tonal problem. Listen and consider if there are annoying frequencies in the vocal that are disturbing to the overall presentation. Excessive upper mid frequencies, too much mud in the lower mid range (especially affecting some notes ?) too much high frequency “air” can be fatigung and sound very unnatural, harshness, bloated bass or lower mids. Use high quality EQ to ensure the vocal balance is pleasant on the ear and allows the vocal to shine and be consistently intelligable.

Also consider the use of a high pass filter to cut rumble and or excessive low frequencies. These need to be set up with great care with the correct dB/Oct roll off and cut off (turnover) frequency selection.

6) Dynamics – these are very much genre dependent. Consider if you can understand every word being sung or not ? Does it need to be understood or is the vocal more textural than communicative ? Of course good quality compression is required.

7) Mix balance – the dynamics of a vocal need to be controlled with the right amount of compression with the correct time constants. I suggest starting with an attack of 10ms and a release of 180ms, with a 6:1 ratio, this is a generalization as a starting point. Adjust these for the specific compressor you are using so it both controls and sounds good. The vast majority of vocals will require some compression to the tune of 4-6 dB gain reduction to help it sit in the mix, possibly more. Klanghelm DC8C is a flexible compressor of low price that will do a good job on a vocal when set up correctly. Sometimes having 2 compressors one after the other can help spread the gain reduction and make things sound smoother.

8) Fader ride the vocal post compression using DAW automation. A vocal does not mix itself and you should be mixing a vocal line by line and assessing it for sonic balance against the music, tasteful mix level as each second passes. The vocal should be balanced so you can hear it clearly but it does not sit on top of the mix and feel disconnected from the music.


9) Use tasteful effects that are not overdone unless of course using popular tuning plug ins for effect. Reverb and delay are common, consider how they interact with the vocal. You probably do not want the vocal too dry or too wet. These are creative decisions so I cannot suggest absolutes. Think about good taste and try different reverbs to find the best that suits the track. Try some of the classic big name reverb plug ins, they are classics and go-to’s for good reason. Listen for that “expensive sound”. High quality reverb often adds a wonderful sheen and depth to a vocal that sounds expensive.


10) Use saturation with care, there is huge focus on valve and tube sound these days, but this has to be done with extreme care and good taste. Distorted vocals sound like a technical fault, like an amateur sound engineer has been at work. So be highly vigilent with such vocal effects. It can easily sound like an audio engineer has no clue what they are doing.


11) Last but not least keep the vocalist relaxed and happy as they are most likely to give their best performance in such a state. Try and accomodate their headphone mix requests as much as possible. Ensure that you have the basic studio preparation done so when they arrive there is a minimum of complications to make the session run smoothly.


Always remember a high end signal path is desireable but you should be able to have a good quality signal path for recording vocals for around £800.00 or even less (including mic, mixer or pre-amp, compressor and audio interface and good quality eq, compressor, reverb and delay plug ins) I would say that a semi pro signal path can certainly sound better in capable hands using the above techniques than a £8,000.00 signal path with someone who does not know what they are doing. Follow the above successfully and you can have stunning sounding vocals.

I master music for a living at superb rates, please check here for my biog and rates. I include a free mix appraisal if you wish for some feedback if you are uncertain or would like a personal, professional second opinion.

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Copyright 2023 Barry Gardner – direct from my brain. Please feel free to like and share.