Mixing vocals can be both an exciting stage of getting to hear your song finally nearing completion and a complex mixing challenge. By the time you get to the vocals, you’ve already spent many hours tweaking, finessing, adjusting, and re-thinking all of your choices about the music bed and how best to blend the instrumentation. Finally, it’s the finishing piece of the puzzle, and it can be easy to lose focus or feel over-eager to get to the end.
Even though the finish line is in sight, though, don’t rush down that final stretch. The voice is the element that most of your audience will connect with first, so it deserves as much respect and attention as you’ve given each of the other individual pieces in your mix. As long as you understand that a vocal track in rock or pop music is typically the most important—and therefore should be the loudest—you’ll find it easy to maintain the instruments around it in a way where everything gets to shine.
Unless you’re mixing the next great instrumental jazz record, the lead vocal is usually what everybody will focus on when they hear the song. A well-tracked and well-performed vocal may need little processing. On the other hand, a vocal that’s poorly performed or recorded may require the audio equivalent of serious open-heart surgery.
There could be many processors used to construct the complex vocal chains you build within your mixing software, each doing a distinct bit of work to shape or correct the sound. Here are a few of the most common that you’re likely to call into service:
Background vocals vary wildly depending on the genre and production choices of a song, but there are usually two types: vocals that harmonize and share lyrical content with the lead vocal line, and vocals that act as pads, such as “oohs” and “ahhs.”
For harmony lines, there are some subjective and stylistic choices to be made as you mix. Harmony vocals could be high in the mix and acting almost as a dual lead vocal. Or, they could they be lower in the mix as a support for the lead. This is a choice that can affect the power of the vocals and the overall blend of the track. If you push the backing vocals high in the mix, you may have to adjust the levels of some of the supporting instrumentation to accommodate. Try not to become too precious with the choices you made earlier in the mixing process, and instead let everything sit in service of the vocals. Your listeners will thank you later.
For pad vocals, try compressing them slightly more, using a more extreme high-pass filter, and drenching them in reverb for added dramatic effect. These types of vocals can vary in how widely they are panned. Sometimes if they are double tracked, panning them hard left and right will be very effective. In recent years, though, these types of vocals have had a much tighter panning in mixes to leave more room for guitars and keyboard pads to be panned wider.
The voice is a huge part of what connects us with other human beings, and in most music it delivers the main message, the thing you want your audience to think about and feel as a result of spending their time listening to your song. Learn how to use your tools, and pay close attention to what works for your voice and the other voices you get to mix.
If you put in the time and the effort to get your vocals sounding and sitting properly in your mix, you won’t lose anything in the translation.
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