Today’s post is a guest post from Dustin at Musician on a Mission. They’ve written for me before and I’m happy to have them here again! Enjoy!
When it comes to recording and mixing a song, the vocals are one of the most important elements to get right.
Think about it.
The vocals are the only part of a song that actually tells someone what the song is about. In addition to that, the vocal performance contains so much of the human soul and feel of your track.
Seems pretty important to mix your vocals correctly, right?
I’ve put together four common mistakes to avoid while mixing your vocals. Avoid these common missteps and your listeners will be singing along in no time!
Avoid These Vocal Mixing Mistakes!
Vocal Mixing Mistake #1: Not Editing the Timing of Your Vocals
Like I said, the vocals in your song are one of the most important parts of creating that human connection.
What if the vocal performance is out of time, though? Then creating that emotional connection will be an uphill battle.
Oftentimes, the problem isn’t even that the vocals are out of time. It’s that they don’t sit in the “pocket.”
What is the pocket?
The pocket is a term used to talk about time. But it’s focused more on the feel and how the vocals are gelling with the other instruments in the track.
So while you might be singing “in time,” beginnings and endings of words or phrases aren’t lining up with the instruments surrounding the vocal.
This may seem like a very subtle problem, but cleaning it up will make a huge difference in your track.
Isn’t Editing Inauthentic?
For some people, editing your vocal seems like blasphemy! Why would I alter the pure and untouched emotion of my performance?!
I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to and you should! Editing doesn’t have to be a soulless process that sucks the life out of your performance.
A small nudge here, a quick cut there will often be enough to tighten up your performance and take it to the next level.
How to Edit Vocals
First and foremost, you should only edit your vocal in places where it needs it.
To get the best results, you’ll want to make all of your edits by hand. If you use the automated tools in your DAW, you’ll likely end up with an edit you’re not all that happy with.
First, focus on large phrases or verses.
How does it feel? Did the singer rush or drag a section of the song?
What if you find a large section or phrase that’s not gelling with the rest of the track? Slice that portion of the vocal and drag it back or forward just a little to sit better in the groove.
You can use your DAW’s slicing or cutting tool to split your audio track up to move. Then once you’ve split the section you want to move, look (and listen) to where the other instruments are landing.
Scoot your vocal track to line up with the instruments, and all of a sudden, your vocal will sound much more locked in.
It’s an easy way to tighten things without massively altering your vocal performance!
Next, listen through the entire song and take note of any issues you hear. This could be a late or early entrance, a breath that’s a bit distracting, or a weird mouth noise.
You can fix those specific problem spots. Either cut them and move them forward or backward or, in the case of unwanted noises, simply cut and delete them.
With all these editing techniques, add a crossfade at the beginning and end of each adjustment you make. This will help you avoid any random pops in your mix.
As you can see, with just a bit of time and effort, you can massively improve your vocals.
Vocal Mixing Mistake #2: Using Too Much EQ
What Is EQ?
EQ is a very valuable tool for your vocals.
It can help make your vocal more aggressive or bright and upfront in the mix. It can also clean up and hide some of the more unpleasant frequencies you don’t want in your vocal.
If you’re not sure what EQ is, don’t worry! You’ve more than likely used an EQ in your car stereo system, home stereo, or TV.
An EQ allows you to boost or cut the volume of certain frequencies in a track. Basically, it lets you change the tone of your voice.
Just like an EQ on your car stereo, you can add or cut low end, mids, top end, etc.
The EQs we use for mixing are a bit more capable. They allow you to make very precise cuts and boosts depending on what you need in a track.
Imagine, you’re in the thick of the mix and you start EQing.
You bump up some of the high mids to get some clarity. You take out some of the low mids to get rid of muddiness. Maybe you even add a little bump in the lower frequencies to add some body.
Your vocal sounds totally different now! More clear, in your face, standing tall in the track!
That’s awesome, right?!
Not so fast!
Watch Your EQ Levels
Oftentimes, when we first EQ a vocal, we go a little overboard.
You may have found all the right frequencies to boost and cut, but it might just be a bit much.
Our ears are SUPER sensitive to how human voices sound. With that said, we need to be careful that we don’t overdo it with EQ.
Find those sweet spots for your vocal. Then, in very small increments, start boosting or cutting frequencies.
Fine-tune this so that you highlight or hide what you want, but the vocal still sounds like a human!
This improves your vocal while maintaining that natural sound listeners expect.
Still having trouble getting your vocal to pop out with subtle EQ? Try being more aggressive with EQ on your instrument tracks.
You can often adjust instruments more aggressively to make space for your vocal without things sounding strange.
Vocal Mixing Mistake #3: Using Only One Compressor
Vocals are oftentimes very, very dynamic. Meaning that there are usually a ton of loud and quiet parts all in one performance.
Typically compression is the tool used to level out some of those dynamics. A compressor can turn down the louder parts of the performance and raise the volume of the quieter parts.
What happens if you have an extremely dynamic performance?
You can slap a compressor on and crank the settings to flatten out the recording. But you probably won’t be happy with the result.
The ratio setting determines how aggressively the compressor turns down your track. The higher it is the more intense and audible the sound.
This is a very basic description of compression, and there is still a whole lot to learn about it. Be sure to check out this article to learn all about how to use compression.
In the second example, you can hear that the vocal is much more even in its volume. Unfortunately, it’s starting to sound very sterile and lifeless, almost fake sounding.
When you push a compressor too hard, it can just sound boring and unmusical.
What can we do to avoid this?
Use Two Compressors
We can avoid these issues by spreading out the workload onto multiple compressors.
So we have a single compressor working at an 8:1 ratio.
It may be clamping down on the peaks of your track and lowering it how you want. It might also sound very obvious and overdone.
Instead, try duplicating that compressor and running each at 4:1.
This takes 50% of the workload off the first compressor and shares it with the second one.
This will give you similar volume control. But the resulting sound will be much smoother, more natural and musical!
In the last example (Ex.3), you can hear that we’re getting similar dynamic control as Ex.2. But it sounds much more transparent and retains the natural energy of the performance.
Vocal Mixing Mistake #4: Ignoring Automation
What Is Automation?
Automation is an often overlooked aspect of mixing. While it’s helpful on pretty much any aspect of a mix, it’s importance to vocals cannot be overstated.
Never used automation before? It is a feature in your DAW that allows “writing” changes to a certain parameter of your DAW.
In this case, we want to adjust the volume of our track in certain places. We can go through our track and tell our DAW to turn a particular part up or down.
Once we’ve written that info in, the DAW will control that section every time we listen back.
Remember, the vocal is the soul and human connection to your song.
If you can’t hear every important detail, or noises are distracting your listener, you’re missing out on connecting with your audience.
Editing, EQ, and compression can only take you so far. Once those are dialed in, automation will allow you to achieve the perfectly mixed vocal.
What to Automate when vocal mixing
The most frequent use of automation is to lower or raise the volume of your vocal in different spots of your track.
For example, say your verse is quieter than your chorus. You may need to bump up the volume of the vocal in the chorus so that it continues to be the centerpiece of your song.
You can take this a step further and listen to your vocal line by line and word by word.
We can use automation to pinpoint certain phrases or lyrics that are a bit too loud or a bit too quiet.
Going through by hand and adjusting these discrepancies ensures your vocal is consistent at any point in the song.
In addition to this, we can use automation to turn down distracting breaths.
We usually don’t want to eliminate breaths entirely if we’re going for a natural sound. But turning them down can help control them and not distract your listener.
Lastly, try using automation to bring out details in your vocal. You’ll often find a lot of emotive sounds at the beginning or end of words and phrases.
Try bumping up the tail of a word and see what it does to your vocal!
Wrapping Up: Vocal Mixing Mistakes
These four changes to your workflow can lead to huge gains in not just your vocals, but how your entire mix sounds.
It’s easy to overlook these tips when you’re in the thick of a mix. Just taking a bit of time to slow down and implement them can be the difference between a good and great mix.
Then you’ll be well on your way to professional and unforgettable vocals.