How do you get your vocals to sit in the mix?
This is a question that I am often asked. The simple answer is that there isn't just one simple answer that will solve all of your troubles with vocals when it comes to mixing. If someone asked why doesn't their car start I would not answer because it needs gas. It very well may need gas, but it may need a battery or it may be a number of other things that are the cause for the car not starting. A mechanic is going to use a process of elimination to determine the cause based on symptoms. Sounds logical right? Well this would also be the best way to approach the problem when it comes to handling a vocal that just will not sit in the mix properly.
WHY ARE VOCALS SO TOUGH TO MIX?
Usually you can hear the difference between a professionally done mix and one that was done by an amateur. In most cases the easiest way to tell is to take a listen to how the vocals were handled. If the vocals sound too far away, too close or just flat out lost in the mix, this is a tell-tale sign that the mix was done by an amateur. Now a professionally done mix does not only mean mixes done in a professional studio no more than an amateur mix can only be done in a home studio. There are good and bad mixes done in both environments. The only difference is that the professional mixer looks at the symptoms, just like our mechanic and finds the best fix based on his or her's knowledge. So that means with a little knowledge and experience under your belt sitting vocals in the mix can become something you enjoy instead of avoiding.
Vocals are tough for beginners and pros alike because the human voice is so dynamic and also because no two sound exactly alike. Also keep in mind that this is a sound that each of us hear everyday. We hear the human voice in our interactions with people, on the television, computers, radio, just about everywhere we are. This means we know right away if it does not sound right even if we don't know exactly why it does not sound right to our ears.
THE POWER OF THREE
Most vocal mix issues fall into one of three categories; EQ, levels or space.
EQ – This should be the first place you go when you have the problem of a vocal not sitting well with the rest of the track. Usually when you notice something not sitting right in the mix, it's more often than not an EQ issue. There is a clashing or masking of frequencies that happens when two things are trying to fight for the same space in your song. This fight for space will push one of the sounds more into the background.
LEVELS – Volume levels that are not balanced properly can cause your vocals to not sit correctly. If there is a lead sound (synth, piano, etc.) for example that is playing along with your vocal that is too loud, it will appear that your vocals sound pushed back or in the background. Sometimes volume levels appear to be EQ issues and vise versa so it is always best to listen carefully to hear what the real problem is.
SPACE – Sonic space is all about giving each sound it's own little corner of the universe. Imagine you are listening to your favorite band playing in a room. Each musician is standing somewhere in that room. The drummer is placed here, the guitar player is standing over there, each instrument has it's own space. Our brains determine the distance and placement of these sounds in this imaginary room by reflections or the lack there of. A sound with no reflections appears to our ears to be closer than a sound that is bounced off a wall for example. Sonic space in your song is controlled by panning (left, center, right) and by reverbs and delays (reflections and echos from front to back).
HOW DO I FIX THIS PROBLEM?
The first thing you want to do is start off with a clean vocal recording. This is very important because a bad recording can be difficult to next to impossible to sit properly depending on the track. If you are mixing your own recording then a good practice is to record your room empty. Meaning just record your room through your mic to hear what your actual room sounds like. You may be surprised at what you hear. If you hear computer fans, neighbors, home appliances or other unwanted sounds, it is best to address these problems first before looking at the mix itself. Cleaner recordings equal cleaner mixes.
EQ - So assuming that we have a clean vocal to start with more often then not a vocal is not able to cut through the mix due to frequencies clashing. There are different ways to handle this problem but one of the easiest is to buss out your vocals separately from the rest of your track. Then you will want to use a boost & cut method to fix the issue. This requires you to boost your vocal signal and then cut that same frequency out in the rest of the mix to create space for your vocal.
It is tough to give out specific numbers because as I said earlier each vocal is different. Then there is the issue of how it was recorded, mic used, room, etc., it is impossible to give a blanket answer that will resolve every vocal issue. But I start off with two numbers in mind....1 and 5. I have found that with most vocals boosting in the area of 1 kHz to 5 kHz seems to allow most vocals to cut through the mix better. A boost of 1 to 4 db or so is all that it takes in most cases. Now keep in mind that your vocal sweet spot could be lower or higher than this range but it is a good starting point. You of course will want to sweep the frequencies and use your ears for your particular situation. Then you will want to do the exact opposite to the rest of the track. So whatever frequency you boosted on the vox you will want to cut that same frequency on the rest of the mix to create some space. If for example your vocal boost was 2 db at 1 kHz, then you will go back to your buss (containing all the other tracks of your song) and carve out 1 kHz for your vocal to come through.
In part two we will cover using levels and space to help with a vocal that will not sit in the mix. Stay tuned for part two next week.
Article written by Alex Butler
Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.