How To Sit Vocals - Part TwoNovember 30, 2011
If you missed the first part to this tutorial you can click on the following link to view PART ONE.
Hey guys...welcome back for the second part to our tutorial How To Sit Vocals.
In part one of our vocal tutorial we discussed the three main areas that cause your vocals to sit improperly in the mix. Now before you say to yourself, “wait there is only three?” No there are lots of other reasons beyond these three but I believe those fall into the recording category and not the mixing category. Honestly bad microphone technique, bad mic placement and simply awful recordings account for most of the troubles when it comes to vocals not playing well with the rest of the mix. But for this tutorial we are assuming that we had a great recording session with our vocalist. The vocals were tracked well but for some reason once we try to mix them in our fictional song, they do not to sit very well.
RETURN OF THE POWER OF THREE
When fixing a troubled vocal the main three areas to address are; EQ, LEVEL and SPACE. In my experience I have found that almost all mixing issues related to vocals (starting with a well recorded vocal of course) fall under one of these three categories. If there's an issue with frequencies this would fall into the EQ category. An issue with volume would involve compression, automation and fader riding. Troubles with song space could be addressed with panning and song arrangement
ON THE LEVEL
Levels as it relates to vocals is a very large topic. In part one we said that volume levels that are not balanced properly can cause your vocals to not sit in the mix. This is very true, but levels are so much more than this simple statement. When we talk about mixing levels we could be talking about vocal levels and/or the volume levels of the other tracks in the mix. A vocal can appear to be too upfront in the mix and sound overpowering along with the rest of the song. Or it can be too low in volume to compete once the other instruments join in. When volume levels are the problem for a vocal not sitting properly you have a few options to correct this issue. You could use fader riding, automation or compression or any combination to help control your vocal levels. I personally do not favor one technique over another as they are all useful depending on the vocal and situation. You will need to take a close listen to your vocals and decide which technique is best for your song.
Everyone has a different way of doing things so this method is not the only way, but it is how I address vocal volume levels most of the time. I think of my vocals in three parts; the low end, the middle and the high parts or peaks. Remember you want to start with EQ (we covered this in part one) because more often than not you can fix a stubborn vocal with the use of a good EQ. But if that did not solve your problem then level adjustment would be the next logical step. I like to address the low end of the vocal first. I almost always use automation for this task because I prefer precise control in this area. Once I have the bottom of the vocals sounding good then I work on the peaks of the vocal wav. This can be handled by compression or automation, it really depends on the vocal and your comfort level with each. If I cut at the EQ stage for example chances are I will use compression somewhere along the lines. Don't think of these three things separately but instead that they all can work together to fix your vocal. Sometimes you may only use one technique and sometimes you may need to use them all. It really just depends on the material that you are working on.
PANNING FOR GOLD
You can also have a vocal that is fighting for space with other instruments and sound detached because of it. We talked about frequencies and space when we talked about EQ but that is because an EQ can affect the space as well as the volume in a song. Space can also be controlled by panning and arranging. If you have a vocal that is not sitting well you could resolve this problem by panning some instruments out of the way to make room for the vocal. For example some people like to mix using an LCR (left,center,right) technique. This means everything is either far left or far right or in the center of the track. I once worked with an engineer that used this method to sure up his mix. After all of the instruments were either far left or right, he slowly brought each instrument closer to the center where the vocal was sitting until he got the song panned where he wanted. Using space and placing each sound where you want it to be is a great way to keep your mixes open and to ensure that you vocal has a place of it's own.
I THOUGHT WE HAD AN ARRANGEMENT?
Arrangement plays a big part in getting your vocals to sit properly but is often missed by most mixers. When we run across a vocal issue we immediately reach in the toolbox for a eq or compressor when track arrangement is really the problem. This tends to happen a lot in hip hop and urban music as most beats are created without any particular vocal in mind. This means that space needs to be carved out for the vocal instead of the song being arranged around a vocal. This is not always the case but I see it in this genre more than others.
All of these techniques are great tools to use when dealing with a vocal mix sitting issue, but the two main tools you need are your ears and a plan. I guess that would be three tools since we have two ears, but trust your ears and always try to mix with a plan of what you want to do ahead of time. Proper planning before you get behind the board will always net better results.
Another great little tip to aid in setting sounds in your mix is to start with vocals. Most of us were taught to start with the drums when mixing a song but you can also bring up the vocals first and almost like a musical flag pole build your track around it to avoid vocal sitting issues. If you can't get the vocals to sit then sit everything else around it.
Stay tuned for more weekly tips and tutorials every Wednesday.
Article written by Alex Butler
Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.