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Mixing Vocals: What Makes a Professional Vocal Sound?

by Arthur Kody, iZotope Contributor August 4, 2021
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When learning how to mix music, beginner engineers can often become discouraged when comparing their work to professional mixes. They know the tools (EQ, compressor, etc.) and how to use them, but for some reason they don’t get the same results. However, knowing what’s actually happening in the sound of a professional mix can help clear things up. Vocals are typically the focal point of most songs, so getting them balanced in your mix is a crucial skill to learn.

As a topline producer and vocalist, I’m often responsible for handling the vocal mix whenever I’m collaborating with other artists. I’ve learned several key tips and tricks along the way, and in this article I’ll be sharing my typical vocal mixing process. Obviously, every vocal is unique and will have different needs based on the type of vocal and the genre of your track, but this outline should give you a great jumping off place to give your vocal mixes that professional polish.

In this article you’ll learn:

Pro Tip: In this article, I’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 I mention below by signing up for a Music Production Suite Pro subscription. It currently comes with a 7-day free trial and includes over 30 plug-ins to help tackle every step of the audio workflow. I’ve been using most of these plug-ins on my vocals for years and I can truly say they’ve really brought my mixes to the next level. See what I mean by signing up for your free trial.

Preparing your vocals

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. 

Repairing your vocals

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 Pro’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.

Pitch

Now it’s time to fix any issues with the vocals’ pitch. For this, I like to use Nectar Pro’s Pitch Module because it automatically detects the pitch register and key when you use the Vocal Assistant feature (more on this later). Plus, you can adjust the strength and speed of the pitch correction to get just the right amount for your vocal. If there are a few notes still not quite right, I’ll throw Melodyne 5 essential (also included in the Music Production Suite Pro subscription) on the vocal track in order to make surgical adjustments to specific notes and get everything locked in place. 

Treating the frequencies of the vocal

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.

EQing vocals

Each vocal is going to be unique, but there are some rules of thumb to follow if you want to get a professional vocal sound. For example, using a high-pass filter with a plug-in like Nectar Pro around 150 Hz on your vocal will roll off any low rumble that may have gotten picked up by the mic during recording. These low frequencies aren’t typically part of the human voice and, when left uncut, can really muddy up your vocal.

nectar pro high-pass filter screenshot
Using a high-pass filter removes unwanted rumble

The low to mid frequencies are what gives a vocal it’s body and substance. Unless you have some really 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

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. But, be careful of boosting this too much as this can cause the vocal to be too hissy and harsh on the ears. If your sibilants (“s” and “sh” sounds) become too loud when adding the high-shelf filter, add Nectar Pro’s De-esser module to help tame these harsh frequencies.

nectar pro high-shelf screenshot
Adding a high-shelf boost helps bring clarity to your vocal

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 Pro. 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. 

Loudness

Since the vocal is typically the focal point in most songs, it often needs to be one of the loudest elements. To get vocals up to industry-standard volume, I’ll apply a compressor plug-in to help level out the dynamics and use some vocal riding to ease the workload of the compressor if necessary.

Compression

In order to achieve a vocal that’s balanced in level, it helps to apply a compressor to your vocal in order to tame any high peaks in volume. This then allows you to increase the overall volume of your vocal without it clipping. For this, I like to add Nectar Pro’s optical compressor and set the threshold to where I am seeing about 3-7 dB of compression being applied. Some genres call for a bit more compression and some a bit less. The goal, though, is to not over-compress your vocal or it will completely squash all of its dynamics.

nectar pro optical compressor screenshot
Apply Nectar’s optical compressor to help you achieve your desired loudness

Vocal Riding

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 Pro’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. 

Vocal Assistant: The starting point for a great vocal sound

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 Pro 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.

nectar pro vocal assistant screenshot
Activate Vocal Assistant from the top of the Nectar window

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.

nectar pro vocal assistant screenshot
Use Nectar’s Vocal Assistant to automatically apply processing to your vocal

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. 

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.

Doubling

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.

vocal doubler screenshot
Add width to your vocals with the free Vocal Doubler plug-in

The second plug-in I like using for doubling vocals is the Harmony module included in Nectar Pro. 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.

nectar pro harmony module screenshot
Nectar’s Harmony module gives you more control over your vocal doubles

Reverb

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 Pro 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 Pro. 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. 

neoverb pro screenshot
Neoverb allows you to create your own vocal reverb sound

Creative Effects

When it comes to adding a bit of original flavor to vocals, I love playing around with creative effects like VocalSynth Pro. 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.

Conclusion

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 subscribing to Music Production Suite Pro. Start your 7-day free trial and give ‘em a whirl. Happy mixing!

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