Mixing Vocals is An Art, But There is A Formula

Mixing Vocals is An Art, But There is A Formula

Mixing Vocals

It starts with having a high-quality vocal recording, followed by careful attention to detail in the editing process. Read on to see our audio engineer approved vocal mixing formula.

Your vocal track is at the forefront of every song. You can sometimes get away with no-so-ideal mixing of the other elements of your track. But With the vocal performance, the listeners will notice it immediately if it’s missing a few components.

With abundant resources available, figuring out what kind of workflow is appropriate for vocal mixing can be challenging. What effects do you need for your vocals to sit well in the mix?

From vocal recordings and selecting the right take to the full vocal mixing process, here are some go-to settings to get you started.

Before you start mixing vocals…

Begin with a good recording with little to no background noise.

Consider your genre. Vocal mixing decisions will vary from one style to another.

Gain stage your tracks.

And lastly…

Mix vocals while using the solo button sparingly.

Step 1: Find the Right Vocal Takes

This process is known as vocal comping. To craft studio quality vocals, you start by listening to multiple recordings of the vocals and combining them. You’re going to select the best takes, ensuring that the vocal’s performance is consistent.

I listen closely to different recorded vocal performances and determine if they are expressive, in-time, in-tune, and with no clicks and pops. 

Finding the best vocal takes for main vocals, ad-libs, and backing vocals is pretty straightforward. What makes it difficult is the amount of retakes you have to deal with.

The fastest workflow and the best vocal takes happen in recordings done in one go instead of phrase by phrase. It captures the performance and momentum of a vocal recording quite well. For challenging phrases, we go back and do a retake.

Thus, it makes the comping vocals much easier to manage the day you edit and mix.

Step 2: Clean up your vocals

Sometimes, even with the best takes, some extra work in the vocal recording still needs to be addressed. In this process, you’ll focus more on editing variables that don’t belong in the recording.

Apply a High-Pass Filter around 20-30Hz

This is going to be your first EQ chain. We want to eliminate any problematic frequencies like rumble or subfrequencies that may have happened during the recording. We don’t need that frequency because the vocals occupy a higher range.

Insert an EQ plugin into the vocal track and cut around 20-30Hz. Sometimes, you can push it up to about 40Hz. Going above 50Hz will begin to thin out the sound.

Delete the Gaps

Go through each recording of “dead spots” where nothing is happening. In my DAW, I would highlight, delete, and then apply fade at the beginning and end of each clip.

Some DAWs like Pro Tools and Logic Pro have a strip/remove silence feature that instantly lets you remove them. Using a noise gate will have the same effect as well.

Reduce any Unwanted Noise

You can skip this part if your track doesn’t have noise. Keep unwanted background noise to a minimum using plugins like Izotope RX-Denoise or X-Noise by Waves. What it does is it reduces the noise happening within the vocal take. You feed it a noise profile, and the plugin analyzes it and applies a noise-canceling algorithm to eliminate it.

The key to using a noise reduction plugin is using it conservatively. Bringing the threshold down and applying gain reduction too much will cause your vocals to develop odd-sounding, robotic artifacts.

Step 3: Gain Automation

The human ears gravitate towards intelligibility. With the raw track you have, the dynamics of your vocals will sound soft in some parts and loud in others. In gain automation, you go through each phrase of the vocals, reducing or boosting them manually.

You can indeed use a compressor to achieve the same effect. With a compressor, you can’t manually select the too-loud or soft parts. At worst, if the dynamic range of your tracks is too wide, it could lead to overcompression. Gain automation is more surgical in this aspect.

Vocal Riding

Another way to achieve vocal consistency is by using a vocal rider plugin, like the Waves vocal rider. It’s like gain automation but without the manual adjustments. You determine the range it covers from the softest to the loudest sound, and the vocal rider does the heavy lifting for you. However, the level curves it produces can sometimes be a hit or miss.

Step 4: Add a Compressor

The purpose of vocal compression here is to tighten up the dynamics. The goal of vocal compression is not to even it out completely, but to catch the phrases that are hard to boost manually.

Here are some general steps you can follow:

  1. Bring all the settings down to 0 or default. We want to see changes when we move the knobs around for later.

  2. Set the ratio to around 2:1-3:1. This gain reduction range is standard.

  3. Bring the threshold down until you hear changes. It’s okay if it sounds over-compressed. We want to listen to its effects for now.

  4. Dial the attack. A fast attack on vocals has the effect of squashing the transients immediately. A slow attack will give your vocals more punch.

  5. Dial the release time. Vocal release time usually hovers in the fast range.

  6. Adjust the threshold again and find the appropriate one for the context.

  7. Increase or reduce the ratio to find the sweet spot.

  8. Dial up the makeup gain to the desired level.

In some genres, like jazz and classical music, you don’t want to dull out your dynamic range too much. You want to preserve the performance aspect of the vocal track. In pop, EDM, and rock, you use a more processed setting, like a ratio of 3:1, with a higher makeup gain to make it sound more forward.

Serial compression

Serial compression is placing two compressors together to get that in-your-face sound. It’s also a great way to free up resources from your other compressor, distributing them into two.

I do it by copying the same setting and placing it after the first compressor or after any effects in the vocal mixing chain. Both compressors have a ratio and makeup gain divided by two.

For instance, my first compressor is set to a ratio of 2:1 and a makeup gain of 1.5 dB. I make a copy of that, apply it to any part of my vocal chain, and adjust their ratio and makeup gain to their appropriate levels.

Step 5: Apply Pitch Correction

Some would take a purist approach, while others prefer pitch correction tools to fix certain takes. A better approach would be to combine both practices. The goal of pitch correction isn’t to make the vocals sound lifeless. The end goal is to make it sound more human but polished.

Your vocals also don’t need to be pitch-corrected down the last note for a professional sound. Radio-ready vocals are a balance of expression and accurate tuning. Start with subtle settings first, then determine how much you want to add. Dial it down if you lose some “soul” in the vocal mix.

Various pitch correction tools are in the market, notably Autotune and Melodyne. Autotune is more of an all-at-once pitch correction tool, while Melodyne functions like a piano roll but for vocals.

Step 6: EQ For Clarity 

Studio-quality vocals are about dynamics and tonal balance. Within the context of the mix, the vocals occupy the mid and high ranges of the frequency spectrum. To better understand the full extent of the vocal sound, we need to represent it in a diagram.

Each frequency will determine how warm, bright, or nasal you want your vocal sound to be.

  • 0-30Hz: Subfrequencies/Rumble. Rolled off or filtered out.

  • 100Hz-300Hz: Fundamental frequencies and mud/or muffled sound are within this range.

  • 350Hz-600Hz: Full body/Boxiness of vocals

  • 1kHz-4kHz: Nasality/honkiness resides here

  • 5kHz-8kHz: Sibilance and presence

  • 10kHz-20kHz: Air and upper fundamental frequencies

On Cutting the Low and Mid Frequencies

Generally speaking, you would do many cuts around the low and mid-range. Around 100-300Hz is where much muddiness from the human voice and instruments reside. However, cutting frequencies can also produce a thinned-out sound if done haphazardly.

If you find it’s lacking in body, you can go within the 350-600Hz range and boost it around 1dB. If the vocals are either muffled or lacking, bring them up or down by 1.5 dB.

On Boosting the High Frequencies

A high shelf around the 5-8kHz mark will make your vocals brighter–that professional vocal sound. Too much boost, of course, will lead to harsh frequencies.

At around 1-4kHz, this range is typically attenuated because the nasal tone is present here. Boosting this can also give you more vocal energy.

At 10-20kHz, you’ll find that a gain increase will pull up the upper fundamentals, giving the sound more brightness and air. It’s reminiscent of that hi-fi presence or sheen you hear in the top 40.

These ranges are best seen as a guide for shaping the vocal’s sound. Specific prescriptions of what to cut or what to boost often result in amateur mixes because they’re too inflexible. You need low and mid frequencies. Get to know what each of these ranges sounds like. This way, you’ll know immediately what sound you’re looking for.

Step 7: Use A De-Esser

After adding compression and a high-shelf filter to your track, you may notice that the plosive sounds, such as t, s, and share, are much harsher. We will tame their sibilance with a tool called a de-esser.

A de-esser works similarly to a compressor. The difference is that it only applies the gain reduction to the plosive sounds.

De-essers (also called deessers) are much simpler to use than regular compressors. With de-essers, you determine the frequency range of the plosive sounds and apply the compression. It’s better to apply subtle de-essing than going all out. Too much de-essing makes your plosive sounds lispy.

Stronger de-essing isn’t a bad thing all the time though. You can use it to tamp down the plosives of backup vocals so it doesn’t clash with the lead vocal.

Step 8: Add Delay or Reverb

Now that you’ve fined-tuned the vocal mix, it’s time to add some creative effects. EQ manipulates the frequency spectrum, and compressors manage the dynamic ranges of each track. With reverb, this part of your vocal signal chain puts tracks in their designated spaces. Take time to listen and select the appropriate effect.

Reverbs are best used with an aux track set as a prefader instead of dragging it over to the vocal track. Your reverb and vocal tracks will give you individual control of their levels.

You must also ask yourself what environment to put your vocals in. It could be a small room, a hall, or a cathedral.

Next would be how long you want the reverb to last, how big, and how reflective you want the surface to be. This is determined by the decay, size, and diffusion, respectively.

How to further or how near the vocals are will be determined by your predelay. A higher predelay means you’ll hear the reverb further from the back, while a lower one will allow the reverb to kick in immediately.

Trends in music production regarding reverb have varied so much throughout the decades. Depending on the current trend, it’s always good to use a reference track to emulate it.

Step 9: Fine Tune The Background Vocals

As a last step in the vocal mixing stage, you want to adjust your background vocals to ensure they work well with the lead.

You must ensure the background vocal doesn’t distract from the lead vocal.

Typically, it is a good idea to compress the backgrounds more with a fast time below 2ms. This should push them neatly behind the lead vocal.

Generally, you don’t need to go through the same volume automation and gain reduction process as with the lead because they sit in the background of your tune.

Step 10: Apply Vocal Sidechain

While sidechain is heavily used in kick and bass, sidechain effects on vocal tracks can be a game-changer. One of those vocal mixing techniques will allow your vocal track to cut through the mix no matter how many tracks are playing simultaneously.

To apply a vocal sidechain, you can either apply it to your premix or create a separate vocal sidechain track, one where all the tracks are routed into it. Insert a compressor, then route the vocal sidechain track to the lead vocal. Dial the parameters to their appropriate settings.

A vocal sidechain is best used if it’s subtle. Too much of it will cause the levels of your other tracks to act out. The objective is to let it cut through the mix. I like applying it to the reverb if I want a balance of washed-out reverb and forward-sounding vocals.

Tips on making your vocals sound unique

Now that we’ve gone through the basics, the following vocal mixing techniques can supplement your process.

Add Saturation

Saturation is an effect that adds harmonics to your vocals or instruments. It will add extra tone to the track, making it sound warm, velvety, or aggressive.

Saturator plugins like the Softube saturation plugin are free to use. Tube saturation adds character to the track and makes it sound louder. It’s one of those effects that can boost your signal without a compressor.

Vocal Doubling 

This technique happens in the recording. Vocal doubling is a popular technique to fatten up your vocals. You layer your original vocal with additional takes of the same track section.

This gives your vocal sound more significant depth. It also creates a sense of space for the audience in the stereo field. I do two additional takes and pan it left and right while the lead vocal is in the center.

If you don’t have multiple takes and still want to try it out, copy the track one or two times. Offset the other track around 2-10ms, and you get a phasing effect.

Reverse Vocals

With this technique, you’re not reversing the entire track. This technique is a transitional element to add a sense of progression. It’s a common effect in electronic music, but it’s also present in different styles.

For instance, you have the intro and verse. Try cutting the first word of the verse, creating a new track, and inserting a reverb plugin with a relatively long tail. Bounce the track, then reverse it. Place the reverse vocal snippet right before the intro transitions to the verse.

Final Thoughts

Mixing vocals may sound complex, but exploring and utilizing basic music mixing steps make the process surprisingly easy.

Although every sound engineer has techniques to get a great vocal sound and a perfect vocal mix, many steps are continually repeated, no matter your vocals or music genre.

As long as you start with high-quality vocal recordings and pay attention to the details in the editing process, you are set to get some radio-ready vocals in the end.


  • Raphael Pulgar – Editor
  • Jerry Borillo – Illustrator

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