Getting a professional sounding vocal mix isn’t as difficult as it sounds. In this article, I’ll walk you through 10 easy tips for how to get your vocals to sit nicely in any mix. We’ll start with some best practices for treating main vocals, move into how to mix background vocals, touch on some creative mixing tricks, and wrap up with my favorite tip of all to get a sound like this:
Spire App Vocal Recording Example (Mixed)
Though these concepts are applicable to all platforms that include vocal mixing, I’ll be demonstrating these concepts using the Visual Mixer in the free Spire app for iOS as well as some of the added vocal effect features included in the Spire Pro subscription. If you want to follow along, make sure you download the free Spire app for iOS. And, you can start your free trial of Spire Pro.
New to the free Spire app for iOS? Here are some quick steps to get you up and running with the app to follow along.
How to mix your main vocal
Tip 1: Keep your main vocal front and center
If you want your main vocal to be clear and understandable, it’s best practice to keep your main vocal take in the middle of the mix. With the Spire app, that means the middle of the Visual Mixer window in the Mix tab. This will ensure your main vocal can be heard evenly across both speakers in a stereo system, and will sound like it is coming from right in front of the listener if they’re wearing headphones. Depending on the loudness level of your instrumental, you may want to also drag the track icon upward in the Visual Mixer. This will increase its volume so it stays in front of all the other instruments in your song. Check out the image below to see how I typically position my main vocal in my mixes.
Tip 2: Set your main vocal width to Narrow
To the right of the mixer window in the free Spire app, there’s an option to toggle between “Wide” and “Narrow.” This feature uses technology from iZotope's Ozone Imager to add stereo width to a mono audio recording. Unless you want to use the “Wide” option for a creative effect, I find it’s best to set this feature to “Narrow” in order to keep your main vocal fully present in the center of the stereo field.
Tip 3: Use vocal effects sparingly
With a Spire Pro subscription, you get access to a ton of useful vocal effects. However, when treating your main vocal, a little goes a long way. Adding too much reverb, delay, or distortion to a main vocal can muddy up your mix a bit too much, which is why I typically like to keep my vocal effects to a bare minimum when mixing my main vocal. In the audio example below, I’ve kept my main vocal completely dry in order to ensure it stays nice and crisp in the mix.
Dry Main Vocal, Panned, Set to Narrow
How to mix background vocals
Tip 4: Pan vocal doubles and harmonies
Vocal doubles are essentially copies of your main vocal that you can use to bulk up your vocal mix and create a sense of depth. When you record two additional takes of your main vocal and pan them left and right, respectively, it does wonders to widen your overall vocal mix. Use this same technique on your harmonies, and your vocal will really start to fill up the space and create a lush sound.
Tip 5: Set your background vocals’ width to Wide
In order to add a bit more width and interest to your vocal mix, you can use the same Wide/Narrow feature mentioned in Tip 2, but set it to “Wide” for your background vocals. I find it’s best to not use “Wide” on every background vocal take, because this can cause some of the vocals to smear together. In order to keep things crisp and clear, I’ll typically set my vocal doubles to “Wide,” but leave my harmonies set to “Narrow” (or vice versa, depending on the track).
Tip 6: Place background vocals in the background
This should probably go without saying, but if you want a professional sounding pop/rock/rap vocal mix, you’ll want to keep your background vocal tracks lower in volume than your main vocal. Unless you want to create a choir effect, your harmonies and doubles should be subtle in your mix.
Simply drag the track icons for each background vocal down toward the bottom of your screen until you get a good balance between your main vocal and your harmonies/doubles.
Here’s an audio example with the background vocals mixed in using Tips 4-6:
Background Vocals Panned, Widened
Creative vocal mixing tricks
Tip 7: Use formant shifting on vocal doubles
One of my favorite creative tricks for mixing background vocals is to use a formant shift effect on my vocal doubles. Because a formant shifter changes the tonal quality of your vocal, it helps get your doubles out of the way of the frequency space your main vocal is already occupying. This will give you that same sense of width, but will help your main vocal punch through the mix much better.
Spire Pro includes two formant shifting vocal effects: Lo-Shift and Hi-Shift. Experiment by adding them to your vocal doubles and drag the effect slider left and right to adjust the amount. If you want a natural sounding vocal, it’s best to keep the amount of formant shifting pretty low.
Tip 8: Alternate panning
If your vocal mix is sounding a bit drab, one way to liven it up is to alternate the panning of different background vocal elements. This works especially well to add emphasis to vocal throws in pop and rap music.
To do this, simply record every other vocal throw on one track and pan it a bit to the left. Then, record the rest of your vocal throws on a new track and pan this one a little to the right. Check out this audio example of alternate panning to hear how it can bring more dynamics to your vocal mix.
Spire App Vocal Recording Example
Vocal Effects and Alternate Panning
Tip 9: Switch up your vocal effects
Spire Pro comes with some amazing vocal effects, and you’re sure to find your favorites quickly. But, don’t just use the same vocal effects over and over again on each vocal in your mix. Switch it up!
For example, put the Acoustic Shaper effect on your panned harmony tracks, but crank up the effect on one side and leave it subtle on the other. Or, use Hi-Shift on one vocal double and Lo-Shift on the other. Get creative with the “Inspire Me” feature (which adds random vocal effect chains) and use a different effect on each background vocal. This will build a sense of space in your vocal mix and keep things interesting for the listener.
Listen to a few examples of these effects available in Spire Pro using tech from popular iZotope plugins:
Acoustic Shaper Effect, Spire Pro
Lo-Fi Effect, Spire Pro
My favorite tip for mixing vocals
Tip 10: Sculpt your own sound
Each track is unique, so each vocal mix you do is going to have different needs. There’s no tried and true method that’s going to work on every song. So, listen to your mix to hear what it needs. Your goal should be to get your vocal to fit the vibe and space of the rest of your track, but mixing is just as much an art as it is a science. And, you’re an artist after all...so play around, get creative, and dial in your own unique blend of effects and panning until it sounds good to you!
Start mixing your vocals on your phone
Now that you have all of the easy tips to get a great mix, it’s time to try it out. Download the free Spire app for iOS to get started. If you’re looking to play around with a mix, download this Spire Project with vocal leads, double, harmonies and ad libs to experiment with your own sound.