8 Simple Steps to Mixing Vocals Like a Pro
So you’ve been making tracks in your home studio and one of them finally popped off on Soundcloud. Singers are reaching out left and right to feature on your tracks and you have to work with vocals recorded in closets with budget microphones. If vocals are going to be the focal point of your track, they need to be properly heard in the mix and sound natural.
Follow this guide to give your vocal tracks the professional polish needed to compete with commercially produced music.
1. Corrective EQ—Fixing problems first
Reference some of your favourite vocal tracks to get an idea of where you want to go with the recordings you have. It's best practice to mix vocals at the beginning of a session, while your ears and mind are well rested. Start by cutting out the sub frequencies you don’t need.
For female or upper register vocals put a high pass up to 90Hz (fine tune to the vocalist)
For male or lower register vocals place a high pass up to 70Hz (fine tune to the vocalist)
Use the following table to help pinpoint some problem areas:
Next, find and remove resonant frequencies that are still poking through and bothering you. Subtractive EQ is always a better choice. When adding frequencies (Additive EQ), especially in the top end, you also add a number of surrounding harmonics that can remove clarity and force your compressor to work harder than it needs to.
For the article, I'll be using vocals from Montreal singer-songwriter Nova. First, I cut the low end, removed 2.6db at 3.2kHz and then found a lower midrange boominess around 350Hz that I removed as well. The vocal feels like it has more top end, even though I only subtracted in the low midrange.
2. Sweet Transparent Compression
Set a fairly quick release time and a slower, more relaxed attack time. This keeps transients, the attack portion of a sound, intact while evening out dynamics. A lot of vocals recorded in home setups are often over-compressed already (unnatural or squashed), so listen to make sure the vocal needs compression before you dive in and start turning knobs.
Find a dynamic section in the vocal that needs to be levelled out and loop it. Set your threshold on the compressor to 0db, then slowly bring it down until you find the sweet spot. Once you've tested the boundaries, return to the sweet spot that feels natural and transparent.
Reference the rest of the vocal, while making sure you’re not introducing any unwanted artefacts or over-compressing. Don’t be afraid to spend some time here, it’s important to get it right before you hit the next couple chains.
In this case I used the Rcomp with a low ratio of 2.5. It allows me to set a lower threshold and catch more global dynamics, without the compression being too coloured.
3. Cosmetic EQ—Sparkle, excitement and unique tone
The next step is to reference the vocal recording with your track. Now that you have a clean vocal, it’s important to create a contextual balance with your instrumental. Set goals and make sure you know what you’re looking for. Is your vocal supposed to sit on top and dominate? Is the vocal supposed to sit in with the music? Or do you want a healthy balance of the two? Here are some examples of each:
Vocal on top: Cranes in the Sky - Solange
Vocal in the music: Midnight - Heartfelt
Vocals balanced: Location - Khalid
Here, use broad strokes instead of pinpointing tight frequency ranges—it’ll help keep the vocal natural sounding while still bringing the excitement you’re looking for. Use an EQ with a lot of flare and character to capture something unique. Ask the vocalist what they’re looking for so you have a clearer idea of how to approach the mix at this stage.
Listen to your track for open pockets, taking note of where the vocal can fit. Pay close attention to track elements like percussion, lead synths, aggressive full range snares, guitars and synth plucks because they can often conflict with the vocal.
I usually find Waves V-EQ4 to be a little harsh with female vocals, but in this case, just adding a hint (1.5db) of air at the 15kHz EQ notch did the trick. It introduced a little bit of extra sibilance, that we’ll address in the next step.
De-essing is the process of removing sibilant (or hissing) consonants like 's' 'z' and 'sh' from vocals. A lot of mixing engineers like to de-ess before they EQ, but getting a feel for where the vocal is going before cleaning up sibilance also works.
It’s important to put your de-esser at the beginning of the chain, not after the first few plugins. Cut the frequencies before they hit compression and EQ.
I approach de-essing almost the exact opposite way you would compression. Slam the threshold down and move the de-essing frequency until it sounds like the vocalist has a bad lisp. Once you find that spot, bring the threshold back to 0db, then move it down slowly until you’ve levelled out the frequencies that were giving you trouble. Make sure you’re not killing too much of the high frequencies as you de-ess—go back to your reference to get some perspective.
NOTE: Not every vocalist has issues with sibilance, don’t de-ess because you think you have to! Only do it when you hear a problem.
Finding the lisp, then dropping it to the sweet spot:
5. Global Volume Balance
Now take your references into consideration. Bring the vocal into the rest of your track slowly. Move the fader around until the vocal sits just right. You’ll need to automate the volume in certain sections, like a soft bridge or a drop. Make sure automation is happening on the fader post FX so you’re not affecting compression as you ride the volume.
6. Adding FX—Creating a setting and mood
Adding FX should happen in the context of a track, not (or rarely) when the vocal is soloed. Use these four sends as a starting point for your vocal mixing sessions:
Bring elements in one at a time. The trick with FX is to feel them, not hear them. If you can pinpoint the FX clearly they're probably a bit too loud, so tone them down. For more elaborate, one-time FX moments (i.e. 'throws'), see the next step.
Since Nova has a fairly small and bright voice, I wanted to use FX to bring a little bit more width and depth. I’m using a short reverb to create the spatial context, automating a longer hall reverb to create depth, using a dotted eighth ping pong delay with a lowpass to create excitement in the sides (without overpowering the main vocal), and then adding in a subtle chorus to create a little bit more fullness.
7. Automated FX throws and "magic moments"
Create exciting moments in your track by adding a unique delay or reverb to an important lyric or melody. Get more creative control by setting up additional audio channels with these moments, which should only occur a few times throughout the entire track. Find what works for you, and makes you feel confident in your decisions.
Nova loves vocal FX…so I found a couple lines to create magic moment delays that almost feel like backup vocals. Notice the line repeats on "Rolling off your tongue", "Before it’s done" and "Scream it out". I’m using Little Alterboy to pitch down the vocal, then using a half note delay into a reverb splash to create a distant yet very unique vocal effect. I used a massive reverb splash on the last line to help the transition into what will be an instrumental pre-chorus. I made it a little brighter and have an obnoxious 20 second reverb decay. Remember to cut the low end in the reverb so your track doesn’t get muddy!
8. Prepping the mix for your mastering engineer
Building a relationship with a mastering engineer is super important. Once you’ve worked on a few tracks together, they get to know what you like in terms of tone, loudness and compression. Talk to your mastering engineer and see if they’re open to a split master—where you provide them with both an instrumental and a cappella. Not all mastering engineers will do it, but if they accept, see if they will help you nail the placement of your vocal.
Try these techniques out with vocals from ESA, available for free on Outro.