Tips for Mixing Vocals to an Instrumental

➥ Take your hip-hop beats and rap vocal mixes to the next level

Mixing vocals to pre-mixed instrumental is an issue that just about every engineer will encounter. The idea of recording vocals to a mixed down instrumental has been around for decades. On rare occasion that vocal and instrumental would be released as the actual song. In Hip Hop, this is fairly common, and comes with the intention of the combined vocal and instrumental being the final release. Because Hip Hop producers mix their tracks with this intention, there’s a unique set of skills that comes into play for throwing vocals into the mix.

The Instrumental

A pre-mixed instrumental is probably somewhat compressed (or, sometimes highly compressed). It’s been “maximized” to play loudly. The challenge here is that loudness isn’t as simple as turning the level up. After a certain point, loudness can only be achieved by increasing the density of the record, rather than the volume. The issue is that if the track is exceedingly dense, there is no room for the vocal.

In fact, the first thing one has to do is turn the instrumental down in volume significantly in order to make anything work. By this token – the louder the instrumental – the quieter the end mix. Ironic, no?

Variables

We need to approach this mix with the forethought of compensating for whatever quality the instrumental is coming in as – highly compressed, mp3, possibly in mono, the list goes on.

But first thing’s first. Get the vocals sounding the best you can on their own. There are some great tutorials for this right here on the site. I’d start with Mixing Rap Vocals Part 1.

Since the information on vocal treatment is covered elsewhere, I’m going to focus on working the vocals with the instrumental, and treating the instrumental.

The goal is to get the vocals to sound like they belong with the instrumental as much as possible. So we need a two pronged approach:

  1. Open up the instrumental to allow for the vocals to fit in, and;
  2. Match the vocal to the instrumental.

And we need to do this as non-destructively as possible.

Opening up the Instrumental

To open up the instrumental, try to do as little EQ as possible. EQ is the method most people seem to recommend, but EQ is used to correct tonality issues. If the instrumental is too dense, that’s really more of a dynamics issue. Turn the instrumental down, and use an expander or transient designer to rebuild the peaks of the drums. It can take a while to get used to using an expander. 3 to 6db of dynamic range adjustment is usually a good start. If the record is clipped, you may need to use something like iZotope RX to get your peaks back.

Layering

Sometimes an instrumental is so compressed, there’s no transient at all for an expander/transient designer to grab. In this case, you may need to get inventive. Often times, I’ll find drums that match or compliment the drums in the record. I’ll lay my own drums into the track. If you can’t make it, fake it.

Mid-Side

Another place you can get a little dynamic is in the “side” information. M-S processing can allow you to separate the sound that lives in the center from the sound that lives on the sides. Pulling the center down but keeping the sides up a bit can help in creating a sense of dynamics, and a “pocket” for the vocal to live in.

Equalization

If there’s anything that really steps on the vocals, notch it out a hair. Subtlety is the goal here. It’s impossible not to make compromises when you are EQ’ing the entire instrumental.

Vocal Processing

Once the vocal is in a good place on it’s own, there comes the game of “matching” it to the instrumental. The idea is to make the vocal sound like it belongs with the instrumental.

Compression

For example, the instrumental may be highly compressed, and your vocal may be very dynamic. The result here is that the vocal will always either sound like it is buried by the instrumental, or so loud that it feels like it’s hanging over the mix. Neither of these are great, but if I were to err, I’d lean toward the side of the vocal being over the mix. You can minimize this effect by compressing the vocal until it starts to compete with the density of the instrumental. This takes a lot of tact, and often requires a number of compressors working in tandem in order to reduce the negative artifacts of over compressing a voice. If you are careful in your approach you can get the vocals pretty darn compressed without them sounding “bad”. But it’s a negotiation.

Tonal Quality

The instrumental may be very bright or very dark. You may want to lean your vocal EQ to compliment this. A bright vocal on a dark track will sound a little unglued. This goes for the rest of the frequency spectrum, and overall tonal qualities like distortion. If the track has a distorted or saturated quality to it, you may want to purposefully distort the vocals. Obviously don’t do it if it’s too detrimental, but it’s something to consider.

Reverb

Lastly, match the space. If you have a mid-side processor, solo the side signal, or turn the center signal way down. This will expose the quality of the reverbs used in the instrumental. Finding a similar reverb/delay, and EQ’ing the reverb to match the tonality of ambience in the instrumental will help bond the vocal and instrumental in the most transparent way. This takes a while to get a feel for, and is somewhat subject, but it’s highly effective.

So those are my tips on mixing vocals to an instrumental track. Hopefully that helps, and feel free to leave questions or your own tips in the comment section below!

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. Credits include Snoop Dogg, Gorilla Zoe, Arrested Development, Dizzee Rascal, Gift of Gab, J-Son and many others. Get in touch at Weiss-Sound.com.
  • LL Cool Jason Alexander

    Great tutorial. One question, though: when doing intensive “serial” compression on the vocal (or anything, really) how to you determine which compressors to use, in what order, and to what degree?

  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matt Weiss

    Your user name is AWESOME.

    For doing very heavy serial compression I suspect everyone does things a bit differently. But this is usually how I do it. The first thing I want to do is minimize the largest peaks. This is the stuff that is going to trigger a compressor the hardest, so if I want to do gentle compression down the line I need to get the aggressive peaks out of the way first. For this I basically want to do “soft limiting”. A very quick attack and release with a fairly heavy ratio (6:1 or higher, depends on the compressor though). And I want to set it to catch peaks, but not really touch the body of the vocal. I A/B against the uncompressed signal and listen for distortion and such, and try to manipulate the attack and release to make things as clean as possible. Distressors are really good for this, or a basic digital compressor like the Waves C1/RComp. I tend to use a DBX160sl (160a is decent too, and it’s a lot more affordable). 1176 style comps are also a good choice here.

    Then I move on to my fatter compression. This is a slower compression that grabs more of the vocal and really pulls up the sustain. medium attack, medium release, easy threshold (2:1, 3:1). The Kramer PIE is good for this. I use the UBK-1 in “smooth” mode a lot for this. An LA-2A can be really good for this. I like the UBK-1 because you can get a little extra compression from the saturation stage, and a little more cut from the “density” stage, and if it’s too much you can easily move the parallel-mix knobs.

    My last compression stage tends to be RVox. I kind of use it like a limiter. I just throw it on at the end doing 2-5db gain reduction and adjusting the output accordingly. A nice transparent way to get an extra inch of push.

    • Denzel Jefferson

      this is great info… what gain reduction would you recommend per stage? just a few dbs during the peak-catcher and more during the fatter grab? maybe the opposite? would you push the output gain of the first compressor INTO the second or just bring the volume up AFTER both compressors?

    • Matthew Weiss

      It’s not about the amount of gain reduction. It’s more about when you start hearing too much compression. The advantage to serial compression is that neither compressor works quite as hard, so you can minimize the amount of pump or modulation. How much in total is largely dependent on the vocal, and the rest of the track. If the track is SQUASHED, then you’re going to want as much compression as possible before the vocal just falls to shit.

      I’d usually do my makeup gain at the end. But it doesn’t really make so much of a difference unless you are using finicky hardware.

    • Denzel Jefferson

      yeah that’s what I was starting to think when I was trying this out… shooting for a GR number never really works especially when you have 4 different rappers on a beat with different voices & flows and their spikes hit differently. thanks so much for your expertise!

  • http://hiphopmixing.entelleckt.com Mike Wyatt II (@entelleckt)

    That makes a lot of sense!

    Always wondered when an expander would come in handy. Definitely will try some M/S processing on my next 2-track mix.

    Thanks Matthew!

    • http://hiphopmixing.entelleckt.com Mike Wyatt II (@entelleckt)

      Sidechained Multi-Band Compression on the instrumental with the key input as the vocals has worked for me at times.

    • Matthew Weiss

      For sure! It can be a little subtler than just hard EQ’ing the instrumental, which I find usually leaves something to be desired.

    • http://www.questmusicstore.com I love Gear

      +1 on Side-chaining a multi-band compressor. It definitely takes some tweaking to get it right, but once you do, it makes a world of difference!

    • Matthew Weiss

      You’re welcome! Expanders can also come in handy when you want to “open up” a sound that has too much sustain, or sharpen the attack on a drum sound. There’s some other cool stuff you can do with expanders as well.

  • http://www.nardandbnation.com/beats/ NardandB

    Great artical.. I always struggle a little when it comes to adding the right amount of reverb to vocals

    • Matthew Weiss

      I find that especially difficult in rap. Tough to find that perfect sweet spot.

  • http://fragilemusicgroup.com Music Production

    Thank you Matt. I’ve been following some of your post on Gearslutz and as usual you are very insightful and diligent in your writing. Even though I’ve been doing this for over a decade it still cool to read and remind myself of some of the techniques and ideas that others like yourself are using. Nice job

    • Matthew Weiss

      Thanks! Sometimes revisiting information can be just as helpful as learning something new. I feel.

  • http://www.littlefishaudio.com Compressing Vox for 2 track Instrumentals

    Great! Great post. A few great tips that I have never considered. I usually lightly limit for a few db with faster attack release, then add a 2:1, 3:1 slower attack/ medium release for a bit more. I will usually lower the threshold quite a bit on the second one to better time the attack/release to make sure that it works musically….then back off of it a little.

  • http://www.dahtrump.com DAH Trump

    Just got a job to mix/master an album for an artist. These tips will definitely come in handy. Thanks a lot.

    • one-producer

      Hey ummm.. You just got a job to mix and master a full album and u just find these things very handy?? wow… well, if ur gona mix and master an album you shoulg have known these very well already!

    • http://DanComerchero.com/ Dan Comerchero

      No need to condescend. You started somewhere too, right?

    • Matthew Weiss

      Yeah, I have to agree. Sometimes basic information can help us focus on the task at hand. Even things that you might already know can be very handy. That aside, everyone’s at a different place in terms of experience.

    • Tyrell Horton

      Right on

    • Audiophile TPC

      Yeah its not like he said he was mixing Jay Z he could be mixing in the basement.

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  • skoolafish

    great article, thanks

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