Your job in mixing will go a lot more smoothly, and a lot more quickly, if you have some idea of how to achieve your intentions. With that in mind, it’s good to have a frame of reference for popular styles of treating a given instrument, and furthermore, how to achieve those timbres in your own mixing practice. This article will go over common vocal mixing stylings.
1. The classic hip-hop vocal
Hip hop has gone through many phases of vocal treatment through the years. Listen to the evolution in mixing of famous, time-tested rappers to hear just how processes have changed over the years: early Snoop Dogg tends to be centered, whereas later Snoop receives more stereophonic treatment, with distortions, echoes, and frequent doubling. Eminem is also frequently doubled these days—compare the verses of “My Name Is” to the verses in “Venom.”
However, one constant remains: you must always understand the words in hip hop. Or, you must at least recognize the phonetics and the syllables, even if they’re slurred (mumble-rap is coming to mind here). This intelligibility can be secured with a few basic tools:
Equalization here often, as a general rule, tends to emphasize the trebles and higher midrange, to give the vocal immediacy and an up-front quality. Don’t be surprised if 1 kHz, 5 kHz, and shelves at 8 kHz (or thereabouts) are deployed. Similarly, you might see cuts lower in the midrange—500–700 Hz or so, depending on the vocalist. You might not. You may see a boost in the low mids to accentuate closeness, so long as it doesn’t add an unflattering bloom into the proceedings.
After clip-gaining regions if need be, compression can be deployed to even out dynamics, so you can hear every word. (PS—Nectar 3's Auto Level Mode can help mitigate any clip-gaining that needs to happen to a vocal.)
Severe yet smooth compression on an optical style—Nectar 3 has a mode for this—or, for something more aggressive, FET into opto style—might be the right way to go. A bit of gating can also be useful for two reasons: one, it helps create that sense of immediacy by clamping down between phrases, changing the “air” around the vocal; and two, it can eliminate headphone bleed—always useful!
Also, hip hop vocals—spoken, not sung—can hammer home a specific timbre throughout the entire track. If that timbre contains a harsh resonance in the upper midrange, this can become problematic and harsh over time. So a dynamic EQ can be deployed to tame this troublesome band.
Effects change on a day-to-day basis for hip hop; many years ago, they were supremely dry. Around 2014 or so, vocals grew wetter. Vocal doubling—real and artificial—is now commonly used. The Nectar 3 Harmony module can come in handy for vocal doubles in this respect, either as in insert or in parallel. Add some detuning, a bit of delay, pan hard, solo the harmonies (if you’re putting Nectar on an aux), and add some harmonic distortion with a subsequent module thereafter, like so.
2. The buried lead
This kind of vocal mixing is found often in atmospheric rock, progressive rock, and progressive metal genres. Think Tool, Sigur Ros (if you can understand Hopelandic), Porcupine Tree, and Radiohead (sometimes). The hallmark is that you have to strain, a little bit, to hear the words of any given phrase. However, this unintelligibility doesn’t feel like a detriment to the song. It feels instead like an accentuation of its inherent mystery.
So how do we achieve this in a mix? First, we constantly pay attention to the vocal level against the harmonic instruments, such as guitar, bass, pianos, and anything else generating chords. Insight 2’s Intelligibility Meter, paired with Relay, can come in handy here. The vocals must be audible over the music, but not overly so. Expect to do a bit of level automation for this kind of effect.
When it comes to tonality, there are some attributes we could more-or-less classify as constants. A roll-off in the high end is often helpful, as is some sort of accentuation in the low-mid to midrange, either through EQ or through harmonic saturation. But there’s another hallmark you should pay attention to: a bump in a register that brings the presence of the vocal just over the instruments without giving away too much intelligibility. This could be a little boost at 800 Hz, or it could even be in the kilohertz range (probably below 5 kHz or so). A little accentuation here can give you the appearance of an understood vocal, while still fostering that mysterious quality which draws you in.
3. The harmonically-distorted rock vocal
There is a type of rock vocal that seems to distort, but not overtly so, giving you a feeling of warmth, harmonic richness, and a pleasing strain that denotes emotion. Even though the grunge wave crashed over twenty years ago, I harken back to the vocals of Chris Cornell in Soundgarden—particularly on Superunknown—when conceptualizing how to go about getting this kind of vocal.
Tonally, much depends on the individual vocalist, although we can say that the vocal will not be overly bright. The kind of distortion that will be added would commute a harshness if the top were emphasized in the manner of a traditional pop tune. However, sometimes the singer’s expression goes from quietude to all out screaming, and ideally you’d find a way to make it work on one track, especially if it were occurring within one section of a song.
Given these considerations, there are useful tools to employ. You could, if you wanted, EQ some high end into the signal, but then add a dynamic EQ or multiband compressor focusing on the trebles. Next, you’d set up the compressor so that the louder the vocal becomes, the more this high shelf is triggered. You may need to sidechain the high shelf to a lower-band EQ node to achieve the proper balance, and this is possible in Neutron 3. This, in a way, can emulate a pleasing characteristic of driving tape.
Harmonic distortion is also useful, though try blending it parallel so as not to overwhelm. This distortion might emphasize the low mid and midrange, and tube or tape settings could be used. If you’re feeling extra fancy, you could put an expander before the parallel distortion, so that it grows in volume the louder the tune gets. Use caution, but it could be effective.
The third process is a bit of slapback delay, itself distorted. You’d be surprised how much that goes to adding mojo to the harmonically distorted rock vocal. Before the delay, you can give the effect the expander treatment too, so that you hear less of it on quieter passages and more of it on louder ones. It might look a bit like this with Nectar 3.
4. The corrected vocal
This is an interesting one to pin down, because it may not be recognizable upon first listen; the designation of the vocal as “corrected” is an act of detection.
Here are the clues you might be dealing with a corrected vocal when listening to a mix: does the vocal mixing have heaps of distortion? Has its reverberation been amplified to give it the feeling of a live show—a professionally “unpolished” ambience? Or, has the vocal been blended with otherworldly elements (affected pitch correction, synth doubles) for a unique timbre that isn’t inherent in the genre? Is it the by-now cliché of the “telephone vocal?”
Clues may abound in the mix as well: the arrangement might be unconventionally EQ'd, compressed, or affected in ways that seem counterintuitive to the song. If, at any rate, you happen to come across these tell-tale signs, you may be listening to a successfully corrected vocal—corrected in that the voice wasn’t recorded pristinely, catching too many room reflections, clipping here or there, and over-compressed on the way in.
Why are we talking about this as a style? Because you will come across vocals that deserve to be corrected—takes that feel amazing, but sound terrible. It should be within your wheelhouse to deal with them, and here are some tips:
You can implement harmonic distortion to fill out the frequencies cancelled out by unwanted room reflection. This can be down with the Exciter in Neutron 3, or the Saturation module in Nectar 3, shown below.
Add a little high and low pass filtering, some well-placed midrange bumps for presence, a little slap-back, and you’re good to go.
If you can’t get away with distortion, other tools are available, depending on the issue. Over-compression can be mitigated, to some extent, by a combination of de-essing (for compression can make things feel more sibilated) followed by expansion (to restore the appearance of dynamic range).
Clip distortion can be fixed to one degree or another by judicious use of RX 7’s De-clip and De-crackle modules. De-crackle, I find, can often take out that harsh buzzing distorting sound, even when the microphone hasn’t actually clipped. If room reflections are an issue in the vocal, you can use Neutron 3’s Transient Shaper in multiband mode, and use the middle band to tamp down the midrange, where those annoying reflections often occur.
After all of this, you can create a reverb that fills in the ambience in these frequency ranges, should the song call for it.
5. The ever-present pop vocal
As others have noted, pop is the only genre that isn’t really a genre: whatever is in vogue, that is de-facto pop. But certain characteristics in pop music vocals have become established over time.
The first would be a sense of lyrical, flowing dynamics. You’ll want to have a naturalistic vocal that’s allowed to grow from loud to soft organically, even within short phrases, moving free from the obvious hand of compression and limiting—psych!
Just kidding! Compression of all sorts—the SSL spank, the optical cream, the FET aggression—is par for the course in the Ever Present Pop Vocal (depending on how it was recorded, of course). It is not uncommon, when trying to get that in-your-face, sparkly pop sound, to run a vocal through two compressors, each with different objectives. This is how you see the classic chain of the 1176 into the LA2A. In the context of Nectar 3, you can run two compressors in series, set one to Vintage Mode, and the other to Optical. Set up the vintage compressor with a quick attack and release to catch peaks, and then be gentler with the subsequent compressor in opto mode.
In terms of EQ, a top-end boost is often employed to give you that immediacy, closeness, and feeling of “expensiveness.” The top-end boost is frequently tied to a de-esser, to control harsh frequencies that might otherwise tear your ears off. You’ll often note more cuts and attenuated-shelves in the low and low-midrange.
High-pass filters, low-mid curtailment—you’ll frequently see more of this in a pop vocal than in, say, an alt-country vocal, where low-mids are more cherished. Frequently the low-midrange is re-introduced, once dispensed with, by means of effects, such as harmonic distortion, a compressor emulation, or parallel compression.
Moving onto effects: pop vocals often employ multitudes of effects busses, frequently weaved together and automated differently depending on the song’s sections (verse vs chorus, chorus vs bridge, etc).
On effects busses, you’ll see parallel compression—either for stolidity or for warmth; mono reverbs (often spring) with stereo delays; tape delays extended into distortion and blended into the mix; octave processing (say an octave below blended just into the signal for some thickness on a female pop vocal); heavily effected distortion with a pronounced high midrange and position subtly into the mix; multiple delays sidechained to the vocal (both short, one shorter than the other); smaller, tighter verbs on the verse and more expansive verbs in the chorus; the harmonizer as a subtle chorusing effect; and more.
Many of these can be achieved with Nectar 3, thanks to its Dimension, Delay, Pitch, and aforementioned Saturation modules.
6. The country-influenced rock vocal
Call it Americana, call it indie-rock, call it alt-country—it doesn’t matter. You know it when you hear it. It’s a grimy rock-n-roll sound harkening back to country and blues, and it comprises a sizable chunk of the indie market. For a good reference of this sound, check out Sturgill Simpson’s “Life of Sin,” which I myself had to check out because three different clients asked me to use it as a reference.
Notice some hallmarks to this kind of vocal include a warmer sound, where the high end is not emphasized so much. However, it’s not distorted like the rock example provided above. So how do we get here? Some harmonic distortion in parallel at low blends can be of use, for sure, but there may be another way involving carefully EQ'd reverb, one that becomes part of the sonic signature.
This is only a smattering of common vocal stylings you’ll see—and this is only within the confines of rock and pop. You can also expect to come across super-effected EDM vocals, jazz vocals, classical, and many many more. Furthermore, other instruments benefit from this analysis, and in turn, you benefit from knowing what sounds there are to pick up off the menu, and how to go about cooking them into a good mixing gumbo.
So, if you like this distillation of timbre by genre and category, and wish to see more articles of this nature, let us know on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms, and we’ll keep this style of article going.