Whether you're a beginning songwriter recording a simple demo, or a seasoned music producer working on your next hit, sooner or later you're bound to encounter the same problem we all do—"I can't hear the vocal."
In this article, I'll shed some light on how to work with a lead vocal and how to make sure that you can clearly hear all the lyrics. I’ll also share tips that will help you write better song arrangements that let your lead vocal shine.
Why you can't hear the lead vocal in your song
You began working on an awesome song. You recorded the lead vocal, and it sounds wonderful. You started adding various instruments. Bit by bit, as you were adding more elements to your song, your lead vocal started to lose its clarity. With time you're finding yourself cranking up the volume on the vocal track just to hear it better.
So why is this happening?
Consider this: If I told you to follow the movements of a single fish in an otherwise empty pond you'd probably easily focus and track its movements as it swam through the water. Now try tracking a single fish in a pond filled with identically looking fish. That same task suddenly becomes exponentially more difficult.
So how does that relate to you losing the clarity in your lead vocal? It boils down to the same concept: there's probably too much happening in a single space.
In my experience working on projects for Josh Groban, Michael Bublé and Barbra Streisand, I learned that nine out of 10 times, the problem lies in the arrangement, meaning the choice of instruments/sounds and what those instruments are playing.
As they say in the film industry, "you can always fix it in post" and try to correct the issue during mixing. But what if I told you that you could prevent the problem altogether during the arranging process? Let's take a look at some of the ways you can make sure that your vocal remains clear and crisp.
Do what the pros do
One of the best ways of learning, in my opinion, is by listening and analyzing what the pros do. And in the case of writing a good arrangement that features the vocal, a great place to begin is by learning more about smart instrument placement. To start, download and print the Arrangement Analysis sheet.
Next, choose a song that you want to analyze. You can pick any song you’d like. For the purpose of this exercise, I chose P!nk's "What About Us."
Here's what you'll want to do: Play the first couple bars of the song and listen carefully to what you hear. Try your best to figure out what instruments are playing in the intro. Where in the general frequency range (or pitch) are these instruments playing? Lows? Mids? Highs? How loud is each one of those instruments compared to the other elements? Try to place each accordingly on the Arrangement Analysis sheet.
iZotope Musical Frequency Chart
My method is to write out the name of the instrument and surround it with an outline that shows the frequency range that the instrument takes up sonically. The louder an element, the higher it should be on this map.
Once you do that for all the elements that you hear in the intro, move onto the next section, continuously listening, identifying and visually adding instruments/parts as you hear them.
In the case of "What About Us," the intro primarily consists of a single part, which sounds like a muffled piano. I'd say it sits in the mids and a little low-mids. Volume-wise, it's pretty prominent, but definitely not as loud as the lead vocal, which comes in after a couple bars. The lead vocal takes up a wider range of frequencies, covering the mids and mid-highs. I place all of that information on the paper.
As the song progresses, more instruments will start playing. By the end of the song, you should end up with something that looks similar to this:
"What About Us" P!nk - Arrangement Analysis
I encourage you to do this type of instrument placement analysis on multiple songs to compare the various outcomes. You may start seeing certain patterns emerge.
What do you see? Does anything catch your eye about the placement of the elements? Notice how nothing really is as loud as the lead vocal. The vocal is certainly the most featured element of the song, so it makes sense that it should be the loudest.
But the more interesting thing happens when you look at the frequency placement of all the other elements. Do you see that all the instruments are playing parts that stay away from the area dominated by the vocal? Notice that not a single instrument takes up the same frequency spectrum range as the vocal. Some of them play lower, while others play higher. And although there may be some overlap with the lead vocal, no one is ever in the way of truly competing with the vocal.
Which brings me to:
Rule 1: Leave space
One of the best lessons I ever learned is from one of the greatest music producers of all time, David Foster (Chaka Khan, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Andrea Bocelli, Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Chicago). Foster once said, "Do you know what the three most important elements of a song are? The vocal, the vocal, and the vocal." Writing a good arrangement is all about making sure that nothing takes the attention away from the lead vocal.
Think of it this way: for each element that you add to your song, you have a series of decisions to make. The basic questions you will most likely be answering include:
What type of instrument am I choosing to add?
Where in the frequency range will this instrument be playing (low, somewhere near the middle, or high pitched sounds)?
How loud or soft will this instrument be playing?
How busy will I make this part? Will it have long sustaining chords or will it be busy with many short notes?
Making deliberate decisions on just those four parameters alone will help you write better song arrangements that allow your lead vocal to remain center stage.
So what does it mean to leave space for the vocal? It means being conscious of what each instrument is playing. Think of the lead vocal as a no-fly zone. Other instruments can sit close by, but none of them should be in the same space as the lead vocal.
As a general rule of thumb, try to make sure that the majority of your instruments are playing in ranges that stay away from the vocals. Piano and guitars, for example, have very wide ranges, which means they can play very low notes and very high notes. Since the vocal will probably sit in the mids and high-mids, make sure that your piano and guitars don't play in the same register.
Consider, for example, making your guitar play higher notes while having the piano play lower. That way you're creating a virtual empty space in the frequency spectrum for the vocal to shine.
Rule 2: Choose wisely
Our brain has an incredible way of focusing our hearing to isolate only the most important elements. Imagine this scenario: You're meeting a friend for dinner at a busy restaurant. You walk in and instantly hear your favorite song playing from the speakers above. The place is full of people. You get seated and take it all in. There are various conversations happening at the tables next to you, the noise of a dozen meals being prepped in the kitchen behind you, and lots of plates and glasses clinking as the waiters run around the room. This is a busy place.
But have you ever noticed how the moment you start a conversation with your friend you're still able to focus on what they're saying despite all the distractions? The human brain is kind of awesome that way. It puts everything it hears into two categories through selective filtering:
Important (the conversation with your friend)
Noise (the kitchen, the bustling waiters, the background music, etc.)
Put differently, your brain categorizes everything as either being Foreground or Background. Remember how when you entered the venue you noticed the music, but during your conversation, the music shifted to being part of the background? That's because your brain is constantly re-evaluating what's important. During the conversation, your focus is on your friend, but that focus can be pulled away if something new appears that attracts more attention. For example, when a fire truck passes by you'll notice it. If a table nearby starts singing "Happy Birthday," you'll notice it as well.
So how does your brain determine what is important? In music your ear naturally prioritizes what's:
Highest in pitch
This breakdown is very important to keep in mind as you're deciding what each one of your instruments should be playing. It's a bit of a contest for your attention, so whichever element checks more of those boxes will be the one that your listeners will focus on most. This means you have to choose wisely what you're having your instruments do.
For example, if you are adding strings to your song, be careful that they don't take the attention away from the lead vocal. If those strings are playing very high, they're loud and you give them a very busy part, your listeners will probably focus on the strings rather than the vocal. So instead, consider giving those soaring high strings a slow-moving melody consisting primarily of long notes. That way your listeners may notice the strings, but the focus will always remain on the vocal, which will be louder and more active of the two.
Take a listen to “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman soundtrack. Notice how the strings throughout the entire first verse, pre-chorus, and chorus primarily only play long held half notes. They provide a nice orchestral bed underneath the vocal without ever distracting from the singer.
Does that mean that you can't have nice active melodies in the strings (or any other instrument for that matter)? Of course you can! Just be conscious of when you're having your strings, guitar, or other element take that center spotlight. For example, do you want that string line to pop for a second? Great! Try doing it when the lead vocal is not singing. That way you know you’re not getting in the way of the vocal, and you're also filling the silent moment with something interesting.
Going back to “A Million Dreams,” listen to the second verse. Can you hear that nice run up that the strings are doing at the end of the verse (2:03–2:06)? It’s the best place to do it—it highlights the buildup to the next section and it’s done when the lead vocal is holding a long note. Adding an actively moving melody to the strings definitely makes that moment intriguing. The second pre-chorus (2:07–2:32) is the perfect embodiment of the “get busy only when the lead vocal isn’t busy” rule. The staccato strings don’t distract our attention away from the vocal because they’re repetitive. But notice how the arranger still managed to let the strings shine every single time that the vocal isn’t singing: 2:12, 2:17, and 2:24. He allowed the strings to take the lead for a second or two with a pretty melody that pops out for an instant and then disappears again when the vocal is back.
Try doing the same in your songs. Your lead vocal is taking center stage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally give that spotlight away to other instruments. It’s all about finding the right balance that makes your song continuously interesting and guides your listener’s focus to the important elements that you want them to pay attention to.
Next time you're working on a song, whether you’re adding tracks in a session or rehearsing for a live show, you'll be better equipped to make sure that your lead vocal remains the focus of your listeners. Keep these tips in mind as you're making decisions on what instruments you're adding and what they’re going to play.
And as always, experiment. Try things out, see what sounds best to you. On occasion you’ll want to add more, other times you may need to strip things down. And don’t be afraid of that. After all: simplicity is the key that opens the doors to everything.