Mixing vocals in your home studio can be one of the more exciting stages in the recording process. It can also be a complex challenge. Work to construct the instruments around the vocal so that everything gets to shine.
Mixing vocals in your home studio can be one of the more exciting stages in the recording process as you’re finally hearing your song nearing completion. Mixing vocals can also be a complex challenge. Often, by the time you get to mixing vocals, you’ve already spent hours tweaking, adjusting, and re-thinking your choices about the rest of the mix and how to blend the instruments and arrangement. You’re approaching the final piece of the puzzle, and it can be easy to lose focus or just be ready to get to the end.
Even though you’re in the final stretch, do not rush to get to the finish line. The vocal is the element that most of your audience will listen for and connect with, so it deserves at least as much attention as the other pieces in your arrangement – and arguably even more than the others. The vocal track in rock or pop music is typically the most important element – and the most prominent – so you should work to construct the instruments around the vocal so that everything gets to shine.
Mixing lead vocals
A well-recorded, quality vocal performance may need just a little processing. On the other hand, a vocal with performance issues or that was recorded poorly may require the audio equivalent of open-heart surgery. There are a variety of processors you might use, and you can construct complex vocal chains within your mixing software, with each processor doing a distinct bit of work to shape or correct the sound. Here are a few you’ll be likely to put into service.
- A high-pass filter let’s you remove any unwanted low end signal by effectively blocking out the lower frequencies on the track.
- A de-esser removes sibilance that might be emphasized through EQ.
- A limiter is usually set to hit the highest peaks of a vocal performance at 2-3db of gain reduction.
- “Surgical” EQ is a term for an EQ that’s used to precisely attenuate unwanted frequencies to “clean up” the overall tone. For example, between 400–800Hz there is often a frequency that causes a singer to sound like she was singing into a cheap microphone. A surgical EQ in the specific offending band will let you alter that problem spot.
- A shaping EQ is used to emphasize and complement the best qualities of a singer’s voice. You can also use a shelving EQ on the top end to add “air” to the voice.
- A compressor shapes the overall dynamic range of the voice. This can go from subtle to extreme, depending on the genre of music, vocal performance, or sections within a song. As a starting point, a medium attack and fast release works well, and you can adjust the threshold setting to help smooth out an uneven performance.
- You can top your vocal processing with a light form of tape saturation to add character to the voice.
- Reverb and delay are the keys to making a vocal really stand out and shine. Whether it be a nice plate reverb, some dirty analog-style delay, or some clean digital echoes, judicious use of these time-based effects can fill out a vocal performance.
Mixing background vocals
Background vocals vary wildly depending on the genre and production choices of a song, but two common background vocals include those that harmonize and share lyrical content with the lead vocal line, and those that act as pads, such as “oohs” and “ahhs.”
For harmony lines, there are subjective and stylistic choices you need to make as you mix. Harmony vocals can be prominent in the mix and act as almost a dual lead, or they can be much lower in the mix as a subtler support for the lead. This is a choice that will affect the power of the vocals, the blend of the track, and the sound of the act. If you place the background vocals high in the mix, pay attention to the levels of the supporting instrumentation and adjust as necessary. As a general rule, let everything sit in service of the vocals.
For pad vocals, try compressing them slightly more than you would a more prominent vocal track and experiment with a more extreme high-pass filter, or drenching the pad vocals in reverb for added dramatic effect. These types of vocals can vary in how widely they are panned, and if they are double tracked, panning them hard left and right can be very effective. In recent years, a trend is to treat these types of vocals with much tighter panning to leave room for guitars and keyboard pads to be panned wider.
Make a connection
The voice is a huge part of what connects your listener with your songs, and in most popular music, it delivers the main message, the thing you want your audience to think about and feel. Learn how to use your home studio equipment, and pay close attention to what works when you’re mixing vocals. If you put in the time and the effort to get your vocals sounding and sitting properly in your mix, you’re on your way to making that connection.
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