Learn about the most common tools and strategies for mixing both lead and background vocals.
Mixing vocals can be both an exciting stage of getting to hear your song finally nearing completion and a complex mixing challenge. By the time you get to the vocals, you’ve already spent many hours tweaking, finessing, adjusting, and re-thinking all of your choices about the music bed and how best to blend the instrumentation. Finally, it’s the finishing piece of the puzzle, and it can be easy to lose focus or feel over-eager to get to the end.
Even though the finish line is in sight, though, don’t rush down that final stretch. The voice is the element that most of your audience will connect with first, so it deserves as much respect and attention as you’ve given each of the other individual pieces in your mix. As long as you understand that a vocal track in rock or pop music is typically the most important—and therefore should be the loudest—you’ll find it easy to maintain the instruments around it in a way where everything gets to shine.
Mixing the Lead Vocal
Unless you’re mixing the next great instrumental jazz record, the lead vocal is usually what everybody will focus on when they hear the song. A well-tracked and well-performed vocal may need little processing. On the other hand, a vocal that’s poorly performed or recorded may require the audio equivalent of serious open-heart surgery.
There could be many processors used to construct the complex vocal chains you build within your mixing software, each doing a distinct bit of work to shape or correct the sound. Here are a few of the most common that you’re likely to call into service:
High-pass Filter: Let’s you remove any unwanted low end signal by rolling off the lower frequencies.
De-Esser: Remove any sibilance that could get emphasized later through EQ.
Limiter: Usually set to hit the highest peaks of a vocal performance at 2– 3db of gain reduction.
“Surgical” EQ: This is term for an EQ that can be used to precisely target unwanted frequencies and attenuate to “clean up” the overall tone. For example, between 400–800Hz there may be a frequency that causes the singer to sound like they are singing into a cheap microphone, and a surgical EQ will let you notch at that problem spot.
Shaping EQ: Use this EQ to emphasize and compliment the best qualities of the singers voice. If needed, use a shelving EQ on the top end to add “air” to the voice.
Compression: Shape the overall dynamic range of the voice. This can go from subtle to extreme depending on the genre of music or the sections within a song. For compression, a medium attack and fast release would be a good starting point, and then adjust threshold for an uneven performance and deal with other issues with automation.
Saturation: Top your vocal processing with a light form of tape saturation to add a nice character to the voice.
Reverb or Delay: Whether it be a nice plate reverb, some dirty analog-style delay, or some clean digital echoes, reverb and delay are the keys to making a vocal really stand out and shine.
Mixing Background Vocals
Background vocals vary wildly depending on the genre and production choices of a song, but there are usually two types: vocals that harmonize and share lyrical content with the lead vocal line, and vocals that act as pads, such as “oohs” and “ahhs.”
For harmony lines, there are some subjective and stylistic choices to be made as you mix. Harmony vocals could be high in the mix and acting almost as a dual lead vocal. Or, they could they be lower in the mix as a support for the lead. This is a choice that can affect the power of the vocals and the overall blend of the track. If you push the backing vocals high in the mix, you may have to adjust the levels of some of the supporting instrumentation to accommodate. Try not to become too precious with the choices you made earlier in the mixing process, and instead let everything sit in service of the vocals. Your listeners will thank you later.
For pad vocals, try compressing them slightly more, using a more extreme high-pass filter, and drenching them in reverb for added dramatic effect. These types of vocals can vary in how widely they are panned. Sometimes if they are double tracked, panning them hard left and right will be very effective. In recent years, though, these types of vocals have had a much tighter panning in mixes to leave more room for guitars and keyboard pads to be panned wider.
Connect with your audience
The voice is a huge part of what connects us with other human beings, and in most music it delivers the main message, the thing you want your audience to think about and feel as a result of spending their time listening to your song. Learn how to use your tools, and pay close attention to what works for your voice and the other voices you get to mix.
If you put in the time and the effort to get your vocals sounding and sitting properly in your mix, you won’t lose anything in the translation.