Vocal Mixing Basics: How to Make Vocals Cut Through the Mix

Getting Your Vocals Right with RX 6, Nectar 2 and Elements

Vocals are the focal point of most great songs, which makes producing them a daunting task for a beginner. If you are a producer who has just started to record vocals, this article will show you the basic steps to take them from dry to polished and capable of cutting through the mix.  

Vocal editing and vocal mixing are huge topics. Detailing these processes in their entirety, with full acknowledgement of all genres, styles, and opinions is simply too much to pack into a single article.

So, what I will do is narrow the focus to male vocals in modern pop music, but note that the tips provided can still work in many other vocal scenarios with just a few tweaks.

To stress, I’ll only focus on vocal editing and mixing here; for tips on recording, start with these articles:

Preparing the vocal

Before I mix a vocal recording within the context of a song, the unwanted bits picked up during the recording session, like mouth clicks and pops, need to be edited out. After all, vocalists are giving a live performance whenever they come to the studio, so slip ups are bound to happen.

The fastest and most effective way to resolve common vocal recording issues is with audio repair tool RX 6. While fades and manual edits still have their place in vocal production, they can take hours to complete on a three or four minute vocal.

If I don’t take care of repairs before mixing, they will just come back to haunt me later. Time-based effects like delay and compression exaggerate these issues and restrict creative options making for a frustrating, even anxious studio session. So, let’s take a listen and see what needs attention.

The first thing I hear is sibilance, which is high frequency harshness from words with the letters S, F, X, SH, and a soft C. The brightest orange lines in the spectrogram below are the source of this issue.

1 - Sibilance

With the RX De-ess module, designed specifically to tame sibilance, I’ve selected the problematic letters and dialed in the frequency cutoff where they need to be attenuated. To verify that only the undesired frequencies are being removed, click “Output ess only” and then the Preview button. You should hear intermittent hissing. If the threshold and cutoff frequency values are too high, De-ess will smear articulation and gobble up entire letters.  

Listen below to the before and after De-ess with your attention on the “sa” syllable in “sensation.” The piercing quality of the original (first two repeats) is smoothed out by De-ess (second two repeats).

At every repetition of the word “sensation” there is also some light distortion. Using the time-frequency selection tool, I can isolate the distortion and then remove it with the Attenuate algorithm in the Spectral Repair module.  

2 - Spectral Repair module
Spectral Repair module

The result sounds like a minor EQ sweep. It’s an obvious change, but within the context of a song, listeners will not notice. Listen to the before and after below, once again focusing on the word “sensation.”

Flicking between these small vocal snippets, you may have noticed dry mouth sounds between and even during some words. Keep your vocalists hydrated to avoid this from happening!

These clicks and smacks can distract listeners, especially in quieter instrumental sections where the vocal really dominates. The Mouth De-click module detects and removes unwanted mouth sounds. And like De-ess, you can preview just the module output to better inform the cuts you make.

Here’s an example. It's a quiet clip so grab some headphones or increase your monitor level for a brief moment.

To hear the before and after, listen below. Make note of the disruption after the word “similar” in the original and the lack thereof in the new version. This happens about six or seven times in the full vocal sample.

Now, for the fun stuff—adding effects and mixing.

Vocal mixing made simple

There are many different approaches to vocal mixing and effects processing. Every producer and engineer has a unique set of tricks and philosophies to achieve a vocal that shines.

For someone who is new to vocal production, the most important thing to learn is what a good vocal sounds like, specifically in relation to a full instrumental. Otherwise, you are likely going to spend many hours tweaking knobs and reading forums without knowing what is helpful and what isn’t.

This is why iZotope made Nectar Elements. Using the Vocal Assistant, Nectar Elements analyzes your vocal and—within seconds—offers up a custom preset of EQ, compression, reverb, and pitch correction so you have a starting point for placing your vocal in the mix.

Let’s get to it with my vocal. Since I’m going for a pop sound, I chose modern as a Vibe, and Moderate for Intensity. I can always start over if it’s not to my liking.

3 - Nectar Elements analysis
Nectar Elements analysis
4 - Nectar Elements settings
Nectar Elements customized preset setting after running the Vocal Assistant

Above is the preset that’s been created for me based on the analyzation of my vocal. I boosted Pitch correction for flare and decreased De-ess fully since this step was already completed in RX 6. Dynamics, which scales the amount of compression applied to the vocal, is at its maximum. This helps to smooth out some of the signal peaks where the notes are high in pitch. Both Tonal EQ and Space, the amount of reverb applied to the vocal, were given a bump too.

Listen below to the original vocal from the restoration stage, then the Nectar Elements version, both in a song context. You should always mix a vocal with the instrumental playing beneath it. If you mix a vocal entirely on solo, you may get a great vocal sound, but it could be way off in terms of tone and character from everything else. It’s OK to listen to soloed vocals after making EQ and processing decisions, but that’s about it.

Without any processing, the vocal sounds flat and gets lost in the instrumental. Nectar Elements gives the vocal presence and air, two important qualities needed to stand out in a mix.

After a round of processing, it's often a good idea to re-evaluate your vocal and clean up any wild frequencies. I brought in a low pass filter to attenuate everything below 100 Hz—there’s rarely anything interesting happening that low. Keeping these frequencies in will just add noise to the signal. With a narrow EQ cut around 1 kHz, and again at 3 kHz, I tamed some of the vocal harshness. And for brightness, I applied a gentle boost at 6 kHz.

In order to locate problem frequencies in your vocal, solo it, then boost a narrow band (i.e. a high Q value) by 5–10 dB and sweep it through the spectrum. Once the nasty frequency range is isolated, dip the gain until you can’t hear it.

Here’s the cleaned up vocal with just drums.

Now that we have clarity, let’s add size to the vocal with doubles. Since I don’t have a vocalist with me to sing natural doubles, I will use the Harmony module in Nectar instead.

I’m going to keep things pretty simple here and enable two additional vocal channels, both at the same pitch as the lead vocal, and pan them left and right. This widens the vocal mix and takes a bit of pressure off the lead to be everything at once.

nectar-3-harmony
Nectar 3 Harmony module

The vocal sample I have here is just a small snippet of what could be a longer project. Across the different sections of your song, you may want to experiment with additional processing options, like delay. A tempo-synced delay can emphasize an important word or add a greater sense of space to an entire phrase.

Here’s one approach to delay for breakdowns and quieter song moments. Copy your lead vocal twice, hard pan the copies, and apply your favourite delay liberally. To prevent interference with the lead, low-pass the copies and reduce their signal level. The result is a ambient wash of vocals that fills up the spectrum.

Conclusion

The goal of this article was to show producers who are new to working with vocals how to clean up a recording and place it in the context of a mix. There is a lot of information available online that deals with this topic, and in many cases, the processes explained are made out to be more difficult and labour intensive than they need to be.

With tools like RX 6 and Nectar Elements, decisions for treating vocals can be made quickly and still lead to professional-sounding results. I encourage you to take advantage of the free demos for each plug-in (like all iZotope products) to discover how they can streamline your new journey into vocal editing and mixing.

Become a mixing magician