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Mixing Vocals: How to Make Vocals Sound Professional
Vocals are typically the focal point of most songs, so getting them balanced is a crucial skill to develop when learning how to mix music. While every vocal is unique and has different needs based on genre, this outline provides a step-by-step guide on mixing professional vocals you can apply in any situation.
Pro Tip: We'll be demonstrating vocal mixing concepts using iZotope plug-ins. If you don’t already have them, you can get access to every plug-in below by getting your copy of Music Production Suite.
8 Steps to Mixing Vocals
Professional sounding vocals need to be clearly heard, have a consistent level, be in tune, and have effects that enhance their presence in the mix. In general, there are eight common steps to consider when mixing vocals and this is the best order in which to take them:
1. Choose the best vocal takes
I start by comping my various takes into just a few vocal tracks. Comping means that you take only the best parts of each vocal take and merge them together to create one final take. Typically, you’ll end up with a few tracks since you’ll have one for your main vocal and a couple for your harmonies, doubles, and adlibs. This is also a good time to fix any timing issues that may be present. You want to make sure your doubles and harmonies are lined up with your main vocal as closely as possible. Comping your vocals before you start applying any processing will save tons of time in the long run because you won’t be wasting your energy processing vocals you aren’t planning on using.
2. Remove unwanted noise
Mouth clicks, de-noise, and breath control
After I’ve comped my vocals into just a few tracks, it’s time to perform any necessary audio repairs. I typically apply RX’s Mouth De-click to remove mouth sounds like clicks and lip smacking and Voice De-noise to remove any unwanted background noise from the recording. During the repair phase, it’s also beneficial to cut out any distracting breath sounds between phrases to leave you with a good, clean vocal to work with, particularly with RX’s Breath Control feature. Typically at this point in the process, I export each vocal track to a new WAV file to save on my CPU later.
3. Apply Pitch Correction
Now it’s time to fix pitch errors in the vocal performacne. For this, I like to use Nectar’s Pitch Module because it automatically detects the pitch register and key when using the Vocal Assistant. Plus, you can adjust the strength and speed of Nectar's pitch correction to get the right amount for your vocal. For a more surgical approach to pitch correction, I’ll throw Melodyne 5 essential (also included in the Music Production Suite) on the vocal track in order to fine-tune specific notes and get everything locked in place.
4. Use EQ to create clarity
One thing that separates a professional-sounding vocal from a lesser one is how the frequencies of the vocal are treated. Professional vocals are often both warm and present at the same time, and the majority of this tonal quality is created by sculpting the sound using an equalizer. Sometimes, a bit of saturation is added to fill out the frequency spectrum of the vocal and help it shine through in the mix. While every vocal is unique, there are a few common steps you can take with vocal EQ to get your vocals to sit well in the mix.
Use a high-pass filter to roll off unecessary low end
One of the first EQ moves you can do to improve how your vocals sit in the mix is to apply a high-pass filter to remove low end rumble that may have gotten picked up by the mic during recording. These low frequencies aren’t a part of the human voice and, when left uncut, can muddy up your mix by masking low-end instruments like kick and bass.
The low to mid frequencies give a vocal it’s body and substance. Unless you have resonant frequencies present here, this range of the spectrum should remain relatively untouched by your EQ. If your vocal sounds too thin, consider making a slight boost to this range in order to add some extra warmth. But, too much of a frequency buildup in this area can leave your vocal sounding boxy, boomy, or muffled.
Pro Tip: Having trouble with EQing? Get to a great starting point with Nectar’s Vocal Assistant.
Use a high-shelf filter to boost the high end
Finally, since we want the vocal to be intelligible, the higher frequencies (5,000 Hz and above) may need a little boost with a high-shelf filter. This will make sure the vocal is clear and bright to help it punch through the mix.
5. Add saturation
If, after EQing the vocal, it’s still not punching through the mix how you want, it can help to add some saturation. For this, I like to use the Saturation module in Nectar. This will add harmonics to your audio and really fill up the frequency spectrum, making your vocal warm, rich, and bright. With this module, you have several types of saturation to choose from so you can dial in the right sound for your track.
6. Use level automation and compression to control vocal dynamics
Since the vocal is typically the focal point in most songs, it needs to be at a level that allows the listener to make out the lyrics for the entirety of the performance. More often than not, however, a vocal performance can have a wide dynamic range—where some notes are louder than others— restuling in some words getting burried in the song. To even out the vocal's level, it helps to apply level automation and compression when mixing vocals.
To achieve balanced vocal level, apply compression to tame any high volume peaks. This allows you to increase the overall volume of your vocal without it clipping. For this, I like to add Nectar’s optical compressor and set the threshold to where I am seeing about 3-7 dB of gain reduction. Some genres call for a bit more compression and some a bit less. The goal, though, is to create a consistent level without destroying the vocal's dynamics with over-compression.
If your vocal is dynamic in volume, the compressor may have to work hard to level things out. When a compressor is working too hard, it can cause your vocal to sound “squashed.” If this is the case, you may need to ride the volume of your vocal to reduce the amount of hard peaks in volume. This can be done with volume automation in your DAW, but I find the best solution is to click the Auto Level Mode (ALM) button in Nectar’s interface. When you set your target level, Nectar will recognize dips in the level and will adjust the volume to be more consistent throughout the performance.
7. Use a de-esser to reduce sibilance
After using additive EQ and compressing your vocal, you may notice you're also raising the level of harsh frequencies. If your sibilants (“s” and “sh” sounds) become too loud after adding a high-shelf filter and compression, use Nectar’s De-esser module to tame these harsh frequencies. A de-esser works like a compressor that applies gain reduction to sibilant frequencies whenever they cross a specified threshold.
8. Add depth and character with vocal effects
Depending on the genre and vibe you’re going for, you may want to apply some vocal effects. Effects like doubling and reverb can add depth and dimension to your vocal, whereas distortion and vocoders help you craft a signature sound that’s all your own.
Vocal doubling is the process of layering the main vocal with other takes of the same section in order to give more width to your vocal. This can be done manually if you have enough good takes of your vocal, but there are a couple plug-ins that can help you achieve this sound automatically. The first is iZotope’s free Vocal Doubler plug-in. It’s simple to use and will create thickness and a sense of space in the stereo field.
The second plug-in I like using for doubling vocals is the Harmony module included in Nectar. This is much more robust than the free Vocal Doubler because it allows you to add up to eight separate voices and control their stereo placement within a visual mixer. You can also change the tuning of each double, affect the time variation to achieve more or less width, and add a high-pass and low-pass filter to your doubles to make sure they stay out of the way of your main vocal.
Reverb can add a sense of natural space to your vocal and help it sit nicely in your mix. I prefer to start with the built-in Reverb module in Nectar because it helps vocals breathe, while still keeping the original clarity and punch in the mix. But, if I’m going for a more creative sound, I like to use Neoverb. Neoverb is designed to help you mix faster, and easily find the right blend of reverbs for your mix. The Blend Pad lets you intuitively mix three reverbs in one plug-in to place your instruments and vocals in their own unique environments. And the Reverb Assistant helps you blend reverbs based on your creative intent, adjusting Advanced parameters for you via a streamlined, real-time workflow.
When it comes to adding a bit of original flavor to vocals, I love playing around with creative effects like VocalSynth. With five different processing engines to choose from, and the ability to blend them all together, you can achieve some truly interesting sounds no one has ever heard before. My personal favorite is the Biovox engine because you can use it to change the amount of breathiness in your voice to create some really airy textures. I also love using the Shred effect in the signal chain at the bottom of the window to totally glitch up vocals and create unique sounds to work in throughout the track.
Vocal Assistant creates a professional vocal sound for you
Up to this point, we’ve developed a good understanding of how to think about mixing vocals. Vocal mixing has a lot of steps and can be highly time intensive. Fortunately, there’s a feature of Nectar that does most of this work for you. Introducing Vocal Assistant, one of the assistive audio technologies found in iZotope plug-ins, similar to Neutron’s Track Assistant and Ozone’s Master Assistant. Vocal Assistant is able to analyze a vocal and identify what processing is needed based on a few broad characteristics set before analysis.
Once you activate Vocal Assistant, you’ll have the choice between Enhance and Unmask. Enhance will listen to your audio and create a custom preset to fit your vocal in the mix. This includes key and range detection for the Pitch module, creating a custom EQ curve based on the tonal quality of your vocal, applying the right amount of compression and vocal riding to achieve the optimal volume, and adding a bit of extra processing depending on which Vibe and Intensity you select from the Enhance menu. The Unmask feature helps carve out space for your vocal in the mix by correcting frequency masking in other tracks. You can learn more about unmasking in Nectar in this article.
Using Vocal Assistant is a massive time-saver and will give your vocal a great professional starting point for the sound you’re looking for in a few clicks.
Getting a professional sounding vocal can be a pretty time intensive process. But, with the right tools, you can speed up your workflow and have a lot of fun in the process. And remember, every vocal is going to have different needs. But, if you follow the tips and tricks above, your vocal mixes are sure to get that professional sound you’ve been looking for.
You can get access to all the plug-ins mentioned in this article by getting your copy of iZotope Music Production Suite. Happy mixing!