As the band Talking Heads famously put in their album notes, “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily.” Whether you agree with that statement or not, you’ll probably agree that the vocal does play a huge part in a song. In fact, it might be what makes or breaks a song, which is why you’ll almost always find the lead vocal right in the center of the mix. Because of that, there’s a lot of time and effort into getting that perfect sounding and feeling vocal. There are three fundamental elements to understand when mixing any vocal to get it sounding great in a mix, these are: EQ, Compression and Reverb.
EQ (Especially Subtractive EQ)
EQ is your first stop. Use precise EQ cuts and boosts to take out nasal qualities, boxiness or add presence and clarity. The word surgical is used a lot when talking about EQ, and for good reason, knowing where to make those precise frequency cuts and boosts can make a vocal shine or leave it buried in the mix. A huge component is mastering a technique called “Subtractive EQ”. This relies on ear-training to know your frequency spectrum well (something we teach heavily here at our audio engineering school). Instead of boosting frequencies, you reduce offending frequencies that might be covering up the ones you want to hear. This is especially true when using ribbon mics. Due to how they pick up sound, ribbon mics might sound dark and muddy at first. Instead of boosting the highs to compensate, try reducing your low end frequencies to reveal those smooth high frequencies that ribbon mics are known for.
When using subtractive EQ techniques, approach it in the way many sculptures say they approach creating a statue out of a block of stone: the sculpture is already in the stone, you’re just clearing away the extra stone to reveal it. We’re not saying that you will only use subtractive EQ on your vocal, that’s virtually impossible. But it should be your first step when approaching EQ in general and it separates the pros from the amateurs.
For more in-depth information, check out SonicScoop’s: 3 Simple Steps for Using Subtractive EQ
For many, compression is still one of those somewhat mystical parts of mixing. Many famous mix engineers have become recognized for how they use compression, almost like a signature. Like EQ, it’s important for pushing that vocal to the front of the mix. Compression does two things: First, it compresses or “squeezes” the volume range to make the quiet and loud parts become closer to the same volume level. Second, the right amount of compression adds energy and fullness to a vocal. We stress using the right amount of compression. Using too much or improper attack and release times makes your vocal sound smashed with sharp s sounds and consonants (think of all those YouTube tutorials where the speaker’s voice sounds too loud and piercing in your ears and every time they close their mouth your hear that smacking sound).
To learn more basics on how to use compressors with vocals check out Fix Your Mix’s: A Ridiculously Simple Explanation of Compression For Beginners
Reverb (and Delay)
Since the beginning of singing, reverb has been the vocalist’s best friend–think of how beautiful a singer sounds in a large cathedral or concert hall. There’s just something about a voice being reflected off multiple surfaces with each reflection losing more and more high-end frequencies to send chills down your spine…ok, that doesn’t sound that romantic but that’s exactly what reverb is. Due to hearing this effect over thousands of years, we humans just need to hear it in our songs…but in just the right amount. Ironically, as much as a we use compression to get pop vocals “in your face” we use reverb to get it “not too in your face” and blend a little better with the rest of the mix. Reverb adds body and depth to a vocal and depending on song and style of music (big and washy reverb in throwback surf rock music, to verb that’s tight and barely there in rap vocals) Nothing cries amateur like a reverb that doesn’t fit the mix or the style. As a side note, you might be surprised about how many times delay is used on a main vocal that sounds like reverb (or used in conjunction with reverb). It operates on the same basic principal as reverb: quickly repeating the original sound. Delay can give vocals a reverb feel without the muddy build-up you can get with a reverb. It’s often used in dense pop mixes for this reason.
To really get in-depth with reverb, Sound On Sound explains how reverb works and how to use it like a pro.
With the understanding of these elements, you’ll be able to take not only your vocal mixing to next level but all the elements in your mix to the pro level you’ve been reaching after.